Desiring to be monstrous in Clive Barker’s Cabal

Cabal is a book about sex.

Every character in the book thinks about sex. A lot. Lori is concerned about her sex life with Boone. Boone worries he can’t please Lori. Eigerman is comforted by cartoons of sodomy on the toilet wall and comforted that they stay safely cartoons on a wall. Ashbery is terrified that people will find out about his paraphilia for women’s underwear. Decker gets hard when he murders. At the climax of the book, Boone, well, the text can speak for itself here:

"Baphomet's head. It turned to him, vast and white, its symmetry fabulous. His entire body rose to it: gaze, spittle, and prick. His congealed blood liquefied like a saint's relic and began to run. His testicles tightened; sperm ran up his cock. He ejaculated into the flame, pearls of semen carried up past his eyes to touch the Baptizer's face."

So yeah, the climax of the book involves one of our protagonists ejaculating into the face of a god. Cabal is a book about sex. Everybody, at least everybody with a remotely human viewpoint, is thinking about sex all the time, and honestly nobody is very happy about it. Lori and Boone are a good couple but can’t make it work in the bedroom. He usually ends up crying over his inadequacy. Eigerman wants his sodomy carefully abstracted. Ashbery is terrified of his secret being found out, and keeping his secret from being found out is Decker’s whole motivation. Decker’s twin desires for the little death to be reflected in an orgy of vast, grand death, but not to be seen to be a sexual being drives the entire plot of the story.

But Cabal isn’t about sex. Not entirely. Not if you plumb its depths. In 1988, the same year Cabal was published, Clive Barker said, “What I like to write is ‘iceberg’ literature. Most of it is below the surface, and you produce things that don’t explain everything.” And Cabal is, in some ways like an iceberg. I read Cabal when I was in my early twenties. At the time I was still deeply closeted about my bisexuality, and the wild, kaleidoscopic world of Midian was a thrilling and illicit fantasy. I read it then as a book about sex and was satisfied to see it that way.

When I picked up Cabal now, two decades later, I said to a friend of mine that I thought I’d grasped Cabal the first time but what I’d really done was just make a fist in the ocean. This book has depths. But this book is a map. This book wants you to explore its depths, much in the same way Lori explores Midian, a layer at a time, each time being seduced deeper. Each time making the choice to be seduced.

Cabal is a book about infection

I mean it’s not like it’s the first time a horror author wrote about infection. That risk, that the Other could get inside you and make you not who you were is central to horror at least as far back as Lovecraft. And 1988 was right in the heart of the first wave of the AIDS crisis. Back then, heterosexual transmission of HIV was still uncommon in the UK, but gay people had been dying of AIDS for a few years and it was on a few minds.

Cabal is an openly queer book with sex on its mind and particularly with the idea of sex as a source of shame on its mind; it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of infection was bubbling in Cabal. The Nightbreed pass their dark gifts with a bite – the balm. If you are bitten by one of the Nightbreed, you can survive the experience. I mean you may not – the Nightbreed are monsters and, in their hunger, can be terribly savage, but Boone does. He takes a bite and he flees and he lives. Until he’s shot and dies. And upon death the balm awakens the infant monster to their true life. The book is never clear if this is the only way one can become a Nightbreed. We might shudder to consider Rachel and Babette. Rachel, the gentle, vampire-like monster who shows Lori kindness could be somebody who was given the balm, but what do we make of Babette? Was Rachel’s daughter killed with her? Or was she born to her? The book never tells us.

But the balm is not the only way infection is referenced in the book. Because there’s another thing that seems to be catching.

Cabal is a book about madness

Boone is schizophrenic. He hallucinates. He has intrusive thoughts. He suffers shame and guilt about his illness, depression tagging along with his schizophrenia. Boone’ psychologist, Decker, is also somebody with some deep psychological pathologies. Decker is a serial killer, a sociopath and a social chameleon. He’s not actually a doctor; he just stole a name and an expensive suit. He told lies that opened doors and let him exploit vulnerable people. Decker, who cuts out the eyes of his victims because he cannot bear the thought of being seen devoid of his masks (the mask he wears when about the murder is in fact his real face) sees in Boone a valuable victim of a different sort from his usual. And so he plies Boone with drugs, hypnotherapy and shocking images, and persuades the vulnerable, ill, man that he is a killer. That he has psychically blocked his own crimes out of an inability to face his monstrosity. This is, of course, transference. Decker is the one who is uncomfortable being put in the position of his own monstrosity. He is the one who hides behind masks behind masks behind masks in order to stay pure. Boone, in counterpoint, wears his heart on his sleeve. He thinks he’s too broken to be a good boyfriend for Lori.

Boone’s need to be emotionally sincere doesn’t extend just to his presentation; he is awash in very human pain and it leads to his failed suicide attempt. And you know, it’s interesting because at times Cabal tells us Nightbreed are made by infection, by the balm. But Boone throws himself in front of a truck and gets up afterward. He then hitch-hikes and walks from Calgary to the middle of nowhere. (Midian is described as being “North of Athabasca, east of Peace River, near Shere Neck and north of Dwyer.” While some of these places are invented, others are real locations in Alberta and they situate Midian as being somewhere perhaps in the vicinity of the Wabasca lakes, seven hours north and deep in the bush. There are few places in the world more remote.) So perhaps being Nightbreed is more than being bitten.

This fits with the descriptions of Midian provided when Boone first meets Narcisse. And when Narcisse cuts his own face off, Boone thinks he sees the flesh underneath transform. He’s a deeply unreliable perspective so we can’t be sure, but we never see one of the Nightbreed give Narcisse the balm, yet there he is in Midian when the action kicks off.

Perhaps being Nightbreed depends on a certain kind of mimetic infection. Cabal describes Midian first as a talisman of the mad, saying, “some belonged to the collective mind. they were words he would hear more than once: nonsense rhymes whose rhythms kept the pain at bay, names of gods.

Among them Midian.”

Early in the story, Decker describes Boone’s hypnotherapy sessions and says that Boone is confessing to, “something so abhorrent to you even in a trance you couldn’t bring yourself to say it.” It’s easy to treat this as a lie. Decker lies. Decker is a deeply unreliable character in this book, but then no character is reliable. Cabal shows us every one of its perspective characters facing moments where their senses clearly fail them and we, as readers, know that their perceptions cannot be trusted.

So if all our characters are unreliable, is it not possible that the germ of the Nightbreed lies in insanity?

This would certainly fit for Lori’s arc. Lori, the beautiful. Lori, the empathetic. Lori, the unwell.

Lori can’t look at herself in a mirror. Barker deploys an excellent bit of prose to describe her:

Her neck was too thick, her face too thin, her eyes too large, her nose too small. In essence she was one excess upon another and any attempt on her part to undo the damage merely exacerbated it. Her hair, which she grew long to cover the sins of her neck, was so luxuriant and so dark her face looked sickly in its frame. Her mouth, which was her mother's mouth to the last flute, was naturally, even indecently red, but taming its color with a pale lipstick merely made her eyes look vaster and more vulnerable than ever. 

It wasn't that the sum of her features was unattractive. She'd had more than her share of men at her feet. No, the trouble was she didn't look the way that she felt. It was a sweet face. And she wasn't sweet, didn't want to be sweet, or thought of as sweet.

So here we have our lovers, beautiful, Byronic Boone who suffers his demons, his voices and codes, driving him toward Midian. And we have Lori. Boone promises her, “I’ll never leave you,” but he knows he’ll break that promise, and he does. He is, after all a haunted man. He is aware that there is something monstrous within him, something that wants to come out and that tortures him.

And Lori, for her part, is uncomfortable in her own body. She has a sweet face but she doesn’t think she’s sweet. She loves a vulnerable madman, and almost restores him to health before the exploitative void that is Decker sends him crashing down again. And when Boone leaves her, when he vanishes to Midian, she goes chasing after him. This is an irrational choice. She is putting off work to go traipsing into the bush of northern Alberta. It’s almost codependent – Boone was wracked with guilt, and one of the things that he felt guilt about was how dependent he was on Lori; she was the entirety of his fragile support system. He never noticed how dependent she was on him. Lori feels deeply alienated from the world. She needs Boone’s otherness.

When she learns that Boone has been killed in a ghost town, that he’s believed to be a serial killer who terrorized Alberta, murdered people indiscriminately, cutting them to ribbons and ripping out their eyes in their own homes, she goes to the graveyard adjacent where he died and mourns. But she brings a companion who isn’t comfortable in this eerie situation, and leaves, reluctantly. She gets a motel room so she can stay nearby while she decides her next moves, and her friend leaves her alone.

The people in the room next to her are having a party (later Decker will murder them all) and Lori becomes excited at the thinness of the wall, the idea that she is almost in public as she walks around her motel room naked out of the shower. She masturbates and falls asleep, having a sort of semi-prophetic dream.

"In sleep she was at Midian's Necropolis, the wind coming to meet her down its avenues from all directions at once - north, south, east and west - chilling her as it whipped her hair above her head and ran up inside her blouse.

The wind was not invisible. It had a texture as though it carried a weight of dust, the motes steadily gumming up her eyes and sealing her nose, finding its way into her underwear and up into her body by those routes too. 

It was only as the dust blinded her completely that she realized what it was - the remains of the dead, the ancient dead, blown on contrary winds from pyramids and mausoleums, from vaults and dolmen, charnel houses and crematoria. Coffin dust and human ash and bone pounded to bits, all blown to Midian and catching at the crossroads.

She felt the dead inside her. Behind her lids, in her throat, carried up toward her womb. And despite the chill and the fury of the four storms, she had no fear of them, nor desire to expel them. They sought her warmth and her womanliness. She would not reject them."

The dream proceeds on as she demands Boone of the dead, and they refuse to surrender him. The dream becomes a nightmare. Sheryl wakes her. And despite this nightmare, this idea that Midian will bring the dead into her, that it will deny her Boone even so, she does the irrational thing and returns to Midian.

Lori doesn’t appear sane. When she later reappears with Boone, she puts herself in the position of the willing lover of a cannibal and a monster. Over and over again, she returns to sites of mortal peril. She seems driven by an unquenchable death wish.

This madness seems contagious. Decker drives Boone into relapse and Boone’s madness infects Lori. When Decker, Boone and Lori bring the insanity of their situation to Shere Neck, Eigerman rapidly goes off the deep end, emptying out his police precinct, mustering an irregular posse, threatening the local priest along, anything to purge the Nightbreed. It’s insane: tunnel vision taken to an extreme. Eigerman is irrational. The chief symptom seems to be an excited death drive. Boone attempts suicide. Narcisse can’t wait for his afterlife to begin. Decker and Eigerman desire slaughter. And Lori wants to be with the dead.

Death fascinates Lori. Or it does for a while. Because while she may seem to be possessed by a mad death drive, Cabal isn’t precisely a book about madness. It doesn’t matter that people are uncomfortable being sexual, that they lust for what they should not, that their lust bring them shame. And it doesn’t matter that Boone’s bite, after he is transformed, is infectious, nor does it matter that Boone is himself transformed by infection. We don’t know for certain every person who becomes a Nightbreed is bitten by another but one thing we know for certain is that every person who becomes a Nightbreed is compelled to go to Midian for one reason or another. Narcisse is so desperate to go to Midian that he mutilates himself to reveal to the Nightbreed that he is already one of them. Narcisse wants to go to Midian so that he can belong. Boone mostly seemed to crave Midian as a refuge, somewhere to be left alone by a world that was cruel to him. But he still craved Midian and went there. And when he arrived, “he found himself a bed out of sight between two graves and lay his head down. The spring growth of grass smelled sweet.” Lori, too, is drawn to Midian, if only to take Boone away from it. This compulsion is irrational, but it isn’t madness. It’s desire.

Cabal is a book about desiring to be other

Desire exists in so many forms throughout Cabal. Boone desires solace. Lori desires Boone. Decker wants to kill. Eigerman wants notoriety. Narcisse craves community. The Nightbreed want peace. It isn’t unusual for a story to center around a protagonist who announces a desire and pursues it. What separates Nightbreed is the ubiquity with which the omniscient narrator makes it clear that every person in the story moves toward the thing they want. Even in flight, Boone is reaching out for what he desires. Even when she knows it’s self-destructive, Lori seeks out what she desires with single-minded intensity. And Decker has to kill. But for Lori, Boone and Narcisse, the deepest desire is to reconcile the otherness they feel, the sense they have of alienation from the world of people, the cravings and urges that seem unusual with a sense of who they really are.

They need to transform. And the Nightbreed are transformation. Lori falls out of love with death. She barely escapes Decker at a burned out restaurant, and he murders her traveling companion, Sheryl. She goes back. She has some idea that she can find evidence to prove Decker is the murderer. Instead what she finds is a host of flies feasting on the corpse of her friend.

"Both mind and body failed. The cloud of flies came at her, their numbers now so large they were a darkness unto themselves. Dimly she realized that such a multiplicity was impossible and that her mind in its confusion was creating this terror. But the thought was too far from her to keep the madness at bay; her reason reached for it, and reached, but the cloud was upon her now. She felt their feet on her arms and face, leaving trails of whatever they'd been dabbling in: Sheryl's blood, Sheryl's bile, Sheryl's sweat and tears. There were so many of them they could not all find flesh to occupy, so they began to force their way between her lips and crawl up her nostrils and across her eyes.

Once, in a dream of Midian, hadn't the dead come as dust, from all four corners of the world? And hadn't she stood in the middle of the storm - caressed, eroded, and been happy to know that the dead were on the wind? Now came the companion dream: horror to the splendor of the first. A world of flies to match the world of dust, a world of incomprehension and blindness, of the dead without burial, and without a wind to carry them away. Only flies to feast on them, to lie in them and make more flies."

Lori has already encountered the Nightbreed a few times before this; but this moment gives her the desire not just to live at peace with the existence of monsters in the world, but to collaborate with them. Lori is pushed far beyond the limits of her sensation and returns with newfound purpose. It’s a religious experience.

The Nightbreed fascinate Lori. She sees in them an alternative to, “the stench of creeping decay, the inevitability of it all.” She thought she was possessed by a drive to be occupied by the dead, and she is, in fact, occupied by the dead when Babette forms a psychic bond that lets them telepathically communicate across distances, that lets them see through each other’s eyes. Babette is the dead wind within her, filling her up, but Babette isn’t a wind; she’s a child, a young, vital child.

That vitality is what Lori sees in the Nightbreed: “the monsters of Midian – transforming, rearranging, ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh and reminders of yesterday’s – seemed full of possibility.” This is enticing to Lori, who isn’t comfortable in her own skin. At one point, she is taken into Midian and allowed to explore it while Boone seeks the blessing of Baphomet, the god of the Nightbreed. She sees the Nightbreed in all their monstrousness, their horror and beauty. She sees a painter with the head of a dog and a bloated man covered in glowing maggots. She sees creatures with metal parts, and chimera. And what Lori sees in the Nightbreed is something she never before realized how much she wanted.

All that she coveted or envied in others of her species now seemed valueless. Dreams of the perfected anatomy - the soap opera face, the centerfold body - had distracted her with promises of true happiness. Empty promises. Flesh could not keep its glamour, or eyes their sheen. They would go to nothing soon.

But the monsters were forever. Part of her forbidden self. Her dark, transforming midnight self. She longed to be numbered among them.

Lori doesn’t crave extinction; she craves monstrousness. The Nightbreed aren’t sweet. Some of them are beautiful, but it’s the beauty of the angels in the Old Testament, a fury of sensation that overwhelms with its beauty. Most are hideous, deformed, bestial and sometimes broken. When the perspective, shortly thereafter, moves to Boone, this is reinforced, “they were what the species he’d once belonged to could not bear to be.”

Barker wrote Cabal to be a book open to multiple interpretations. In some sense it’s a book about transformation, but it’s a book about desiring transformation specifically. Lori achieves her desire in the end. She pushes herself to the brink of death and an inch beyond to achieve her desire and to repeat Boone’s promise, “I’ll never leave you,” back to him. That Boone has transformed completely is nothing even remotely touching a deal-breaker because Lori, too wants to transform.

But to understand this desire, we also have to understand the manner in which the Nightbreed transform. In the course of the story we witness several sequences of transformation; and what is peculiar is that these moments of transformation are described much more clearly than the way the Nightbreed look in their transformed state.

At one point, we finally get something approaching a clear example of Boone’s transformed state:

"Part the beast he'd inherited from Peloquin, part a shade warrior, like Lylesburg, part Boone the lunatic, content with his visions at last."

This description is nothing approaching an appearance. You can’t paint a picture of Boone. He looks like a beast perhaps, or like a shadow, or like himself only comfortable, at last, in his monstrous skin. And the descriptions of other Nightbreed are, with a few exceptions, either perfunctory, “a painter with the head of a dog” or are vague and impressionistic.

But the moments in which a Nightbreed changes from a human form to something else, when it reveals its nature as one of these, “ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh,” the vision becomes clear, detailed, lovingly crafted and entirely alien.

One of the best examples of this moment of clear and vivid transformation comes during Lori’s first encounter with the Nightbreed. She has come to the cemetery at Midian to feel closer to Boone and she finds an animal in a thicket. It seems sick, dying. There is a woman standing in a tomb who begs Lori to bring her the creature. This woman is described like a vampire, and when her hand touches the sun, it begins to dissolve into dust, much like the dead in Lori’s prophetic dream. Lori, being Lori, helps the woman and the small creature. The creature digs its claw into Lori’s breast, like an anxious kitten, but when she passes the threshold of the tomb and goes to return the creature to the vampiric woman:

The animal was changing before her eyes. In the luxury of slough and spasm it was losing its bestiality, but not by reordering its anatomy, but by liquefying its whole self - through to the bone - until what had been solid was a tumble of matter. Here was the origin of the bittersweet scent she'd met before the tree: the stuff of the beast's dissolution. In the moment it lost coherence, the matter was ready to be out of her grasp, but somehow the essence of the thing - it's will, perhaps, perhaps it's soul - drew it back from the business of remaking. The last part of the beast to melt was its claw, its disintegration sending a throb of pleasure through Lori's body.

This fluid plasticity is the hallmark of the transformation of the Nightbreed. In the moment of their transformations, they dissolve into droplets and liquid flows. They become disorganized, undifferentiated matter. Boone’s substance, when he transforms, is fluid. The Nightbreed, to Lori, seemed full of possibilities.

In 1947, Antonin Artaud put on a radio play called, To Have Done with the Judgment of God. Few figures loom larger in assessment of Barker’s early theatrical work than Artaud through his concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, which sought to use overwhelming sound and light to stun the audience, as well as creating a situation where the mise-en-scène was put before the script. This is iceberg theatre – it’s theatre that deliberately invites multiple interpretations. It is also very much in keeping with the ideas of another avant-garde artist and philosopher widely regarded as influential upon Barker in Georges Bataille. And we can see stark parallels between Lori’s experience, her death-drive in Cabal and Bataille’s description of ecstasy in Inner Experience:

"What is thereby found in deep obscurity is a keen desire to see when, in the face of this desire,
 everything slips away.

 But the desire for existence thus dissipated into night turns to an object of ecstasy. The desired spectacle, the object, in the expectation of which passion goes beyond itself, is the reason why "I could die for not  dying". This object grows dim and night is there: anguish binds me, it sears me, but this night which is  substituted for the object and now alone responds to my anticipation? Suddenly I know, I discover it in a  cry: it is not an object, it is IT I was waiting for."

Barker, like Bataille and Artaud, wants to shock the senses, to inspire ecstasy and to describe for his audience, people in the throes of this ecstasy. And it is via Artaud and Bataille that we must interpret how Barker describes the transformation of the Nightbreed.

In To Have Done with the Judgment of God, Artaud says:

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.

And in their moment of transformation, the Nightbreed become a body without organs. What then is it? Artaud is unclear except to say that a body without organs represents a true freedom. This idea of the body without organs was elaborated upon by two other authors who were deeply influenced by Artaud. In their 1972 treatise, Anti-Oedipus Gilles Deuleuze and Félix Guattari elaborate upon the body without organs in depth, where they position it as the “third term in the linear series.”

A Deuleuzian metaphysics is one defined by difference. Being is composed of a series of machines, “The breast is a machine that produces milk and the mouth a machine coupled to it.” These machines represent flows and breaks. But as these produce, including producing production, including producing the desire to produce, they also tend toward decay. But these philosophers reject that this system of being can ever lead fully to nothingness. Nothing is ever gone completely and the dead become dust in the wind, become flies or even become monsters.

So our body without organs becomes that undifferentiated point which is the barrier at which the breakdown of the old and the arising of the new meet. It could be seen as an ambassador of tomorrow’s flesh and a reminder of yesterday’s. But it is neither. It is an undifferentiated fluid surface. “The desiring-machines attempt to break into the body without organs, and the body without organs repels them.” The body without organs constitutes, “a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed.” But as the body without organs gives rise to the mitochondrial machinery that make something an organic thing, a differentiated thing, it seems in its repulsion of desire as if it miraculates them. The universe becomes this push and pull between being, and desiring to be and ending, desiring to end.

In Cabal, this is the root desire of Lori and of Boone and of all the other misfits whose lives fall into the constantly dying and being reborn cosmology of Midian. This desire to fall back to the undifferentiated and to arise again, phoenix-like in some new form. To blossom and then to fall. As Bataille poetically put it,

 "Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.

 The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form." 

Boone and Lori destroy Midian. This isn’t their intention, Boone wants to be left alone. Lori wants Boone. But Boone and Lori attract the attention of Decker, and Decker, in turn, attracts the attention of Eigerman, who, for his part, cannot tolerate the presence of those who are everything his species could not bear to be. As a consequence of his destruction, Boone is granted the power to restore Midian and the obligation to do so.

There’s a thread running through Deuleuze and Bataille back to Nietzsche, that situates the origin of morality in debt. Deleuze and Guattari describe this as the force that transforms the socius (which we can treat as a special form of the body without organs). They describe it as being the origin of many things, but one of those is, “the pain of the initiations.”

Initiation is like a seduction through the layers of a necropolis. It brings you within by degrees. And it brings with it agony and the limit of the senses. But like seduction, and like becoming a Nightbreed, initiation is something we desire. We move toward our initiations and their agonies, knowing that they will bring us pain and desiring that pain. Boone and Lori seek out their debts. They become indebted to Midian because they desire it. They desire that constant breaking-down to the point of unmaking and reconstitution that is transformation, and in their transformation we see a template for understanding how a person might transform.

Transformation is like a seduction, like and initiation, it is the ecstasy of sensation that pushes us out of the rational and allows us to come back with knowledge, conviction and purpose. In Cabal, sex, death, shame, lust, revulsion, longing, fear and joy all tangle together like a mass of worms beneath the skin of the world or the mycelia of a colony of mushrooms. In order to be transformed we must first be unmade. Cabal teaches us this lesson well as first Narcisse, then Boone, then Lori are unmade and reconstituted transformed. They each, in their way, pursue those desiring machines within them along the path to breakdown, to the undifferentiated matter from which all new growth blooms, and then they arise again different, terrible, monstrous and alien.

The Nightbreed dance along the edge of the indescribable because they are everything that we can not bear to be. Much as Bataille’s ecstasy is like night falling, is a sensation akin to death, so to are the Nightbreed and therein lies their seductive appeal.

Kid’s Stuff: Kipo and the Age of Wonder Beasts and the question of bodies and power

Shocked from our senses when the Earth crashes in
Something's going on underneath your skin
Oh, purple jaguar eye
Open up and be alive
See the world in vivid color
There's no turning back

-     Purple Jaguar Eye, Sterling K. Brown

I think that children’s media can be a very fertile avenue for critique in part because I think the sorts of stories we choose to tell children say a lot about the culture we aspire to create. As such I’m going to be writing a semi-regular series of essays specific to children’s media, and I couldn’t think of a better place to start than with Kipo and the Age of Wonder Beasts.

This three-season series of cartoons was produced by DreamWorks in collaboration with Studio Mir and is based on a webcomic by Radford Sechrist. It tells the story of a 13 year old girl who is separated from her father when their underground settlement is destroyed. This forces her out into a world dominated by giant, sentient, mutant animals where she undergoes an incredible metamorphosis and decides to reconcile humanity to a world of, “Mutes.”

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a post-apocalyptic story, but it is perhaps the most singularly optimistic post-apocalypse I’ve ever seen, as it shows that the only impediment to the birth of the new world are those people too small to let go of the one that has past.

Kipo attracted attention upon release for its carefully crafted diversity, featuring a deliberately multiethnic cast both of animated characters and actors, and a storyline that trafficked heavily in the politics of representation. While principally a show about race, Kipo also provides a queer reading that is, honestly, one of the best executions of the type targeting kids.

But, while I do think that the show’s queer and race related narratives are valuable and important from a pedagogic perspective, I think there’s some interesting things happening here specific to the relationship between the body and systems of power that is somewhat unique within children’s television. Kipo’s transformation, its irreversibility, her fear for how it will impact her identity including the risk she might lose herself in it, and how the show demonstrates the relationships between body autonomy and political power go beyond simple themes of inclusion and into a deeper idea about the connection between embodiment, identity and power. And I think the end result is a remarkably anarchistic text that presents a valuable frame for imagining other ways we could live.

Transformation and adulthood

Of course the simplest reading of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is as a bildungsroman. We have a child at the cusp of adulthood who is pushed out into the world. She goes on an adventure which aids in her moral development. She meets other people who have lived substantially different lives, builds friendships of weight and significance outside the bounds of family. She begins growing hair places where hair didn’t grow before.

This isn’t all that different from the Hobbit except for the place where the puberty metaphors spill over into unambiguous text. But one place where this show differs from a lot of other coming of age stories is by willingly showing just how destructive to the child’s sense of self it can be to become and adult. When Kipo starts to change, she’s convinced her friends will reject her on the basis of her difference. And Wolf, who is bound up in her own trauma, very nearly does until she’s talked down. But beyond the fear of social rejection, beyond simple awkwardness, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts traffics in straight up terror. Kipo is becoming a Mega Mute. As a result of the genetic experimentation of her own parents, she isn’t simply human but instead contains the genetic material of a giant “Mega Jaguar,” a form of mutant animal that goes beyond the human-sized characteristics of most Mutes and into the realm of kaiju.

Only there’s a problem. See, Kipo’s transformation into a “Mega Mute” is not within her control. She grows hair and gains powers based on moments of stress but, at first, has no control over what her body is doing. She gains those purple jaguar eyes, and the ability to see in the dark, in response to the peril her friends are in but not because, in that moment, she makes a choice to transform. It just happens. And she doesn’t know why.

Song Oak, Mega Monkey

As time goes by her transformations become more extreme. And the more she transforms, the less control she has over her transformation. She learns she isn’t the first person to become a Mega Mute. Her mother, Song, previously was transformed into a skyscraper-tall six-armed spider monkey and was unable to revert back to a human form. She’s trapped forever in this vast and horrific, inhuman, body. And if Kipo doesn’t come to understand her body and the changes happening to her, she might face the same fate. Already she can feel the breath of the Jaguar on her neck, the primal urge to hunt and to devour.

She seeks the spiritual advice of three blind goats who practice cheese-based divination (the setting of this show is just about the wildest thing out there) and they tell her she needs to discover an emotional anchor to allow herself the power to control her transformations. She quests to find this, and eventually believes it to be a photo of her family taken when she was an infant, just a few days before her mother’s transformation and her father’s flight with her. Only she’s wrong. The anchor isn’t the memory of the past; the anchor is the relationships Kipo has forged with her peers, outside the safety of family, in the present. Her development into an adult gives her power over her body. And oh but she is powerful. Kipo as the mega-jaguar looms above the over-sized canopy of trees in the Timber Cat village. She is so large that she’s more akin to a geographical feature than a person. In one amusing sequence, Kipo is attempting to persuade a villain to reform and he keeps trying to escape. Each time, a paw many times larger than his body slaps down in front of him, a soft, but impenetrable shield.

Kipo, fully in control of her body, has power. The only thing she cannot do with her body is go back to being a child. There’s no going back. The transformation is irreversible. Her ability to control her power comes directly and textually from her recognition that it is her body, that she is this being who has these capabilities and that the purple jaguar isn’t some other being to be leashed but rather is just… her.

Power from the body

The idea of power as a function of embodiment runs through Kipo at all kinds of levels. Throughout all elements of the show, mutes are invested with strange biological abilities that are consistent across their species-gang. The mod-frogs, aside from their sharp fashion sense, all are able to race through environments like mad parkouristas, tongue-first. Deathstalkers are terrifying eyeless nightmares that hunt by sound and the motion of the air. Mega mutes, both natural ones like the pigeons, crabs, bunnies, beavers and dogs and artificially created ones like Kipo and her mother have vast strength and are nearly impervious to injury. Song Oak gets one of her six hands encased in molten gold at one point and it hurts her, but only momentarily. She goes right back to her urgent work moments later. Some mutes are stranger still.

Fun Gus is a sentient colony of orange mold. It is bound to the place it fruited, but it is a pervasive entity within that space, more akin to a haunting than to an occupancy. Its body is everywhere, it is an amorphous blob of organic matter that takes up its entire nesting space, but it brings its consciousness to a head when it needs to communicate. It’s a being that exists only within itself. It’s a genius loci, tied so thoroughly to its place that it is effectively a prisoner within the bonds of its own body and it is terribly lonely. Fun Gus is like Kipo in a way; it wants to open the door to the oOther. But it is so desperate for the recognition of the Other that it refuses to let anyone who falls into its clutches go.

There are, of course, the cheese-divining goat women, and a host of other bizarre creatures (have I mentioned the k-pop narwhals with perfect pitch?). And of course there is Dave, the serially immortal insect who cycles through a lifecycle of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, strength and decrepitude before reverting once more to infancy. Dave, the last of his species, the only survivor of a genocidal war with humans (over ownership of a battery powered fan) cannot ever die (except for one secret way and he’s not going to make the mistake of telling anyone that secret… again.)

Again and again, the power these creatures have goes hand in hand with the capabilities of their bodies; but there’s an element of nuance wherein these powers are delimited by the autonomy they have over their bodies. Dave is a bit of a joke character because he has so little command over his transformations. The powerful horned beetle molt of Dave’s is fleeting and often emerges not when it is needed. And when it fades, geriatric Dave is physically weak, paranoid and superstitious – a detriment in a crisis rather than a boon. Dave has an amazing power in his immortality but his lack of agency over its use neutralizes him, makes him a good comedic sidekick rather than a protagonist.

But the most powerful creatures in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, aside from Kipo, are those with the ability to take the autonomy away from others: the sentient colony of tardigrades that goes by Mulholland and the two principal series antagonists, the mandrill Scarlamagne and the human Dr. Emilia. I want to examine these entities in greater detail, because a lot of how Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts address the question of embodiment and power lies in a reading of these three.


I am not sure I’ve ever seen a stranger character in a piece of children’s entertainment than Mulholland – who is now officially also the strangest tardigrade character on TV (sorry Ripper). Mulholland is mostly water. Specifically it is any bit of water occupied by part of the Mulholland collective, a hive mind of microscopic tardigrades who are able to create bodies out of water, to go into any fluid environment… and also to pass directly into brains where he can… interact.

When Mulholland originally encounters Kipo and her friends, he traps them each in fantasies designed to be perfect worlds. He does this claiming to help them but really he just wants to keep everybody still long enough to eat them.

He fails because the perfect world he creates for Wolf is just a bit too perfect – there’s themes of embodiment here we’ll explore later when we talk about Wolf – and after Wolf escapes, the other dreamstates become untenable. Benson and Dave are already quite aware that their dreamscape is artificial, they’re having a good time and don’t recognize the danger, but they are easy to persuade to wake up. Kipo has to have a cathartic moment with her parents, who she still hasn’t found at this point in the show, so she’s the last to be freed. But then the show does something strange.

Mulholland is basically unkillable, but they’re at an impasse. With them awoken he can’t do much to Kipo and her friends; he is, after all, a pool of water full of microscopic bugs. So they talk to him and he agrees that maybe using his power to eat people isn’t a good way to live.

This is interesting because we reach a point of equilibrium in power. Kipo and her friends can’t harm Mulholland and he can’t harm them. They could keep trying to fight, but they wouldn’t accomplish anything. Each subject’s power cannot find purchase in the body of the other. And so, at the moment where each recognizes that they have no choice but to accept the autonomy of the other, they talk. This is a pattern that occurs throughout the series, which frequently becomes a process of the protagonists avoiding a dangerous situation on their way to have a conversation with somebody who needs to be talked around.

Mulholland decides to go and find himself and allows his body to disperse, seeing the world through thousands of microscopic eyes. He remains in the show as this diffuse presence that appears in times of need to help. After all, he’s nearly everywhere. Even inside.

But this new Mulholland has learned to respect the sanctity of peoples’ minds. And so, when inside another he doesn’t put them into narcotic dreams; he instead facilitates communication and prohibits compulsion.

This last point is important because the first principal antagonist of the show is all about compulsion.


Scarlamagne is the only artificial mute in the series who is not also a human, and he is one of Kipo’s closest kin. Most of humanity is trapped in underground “burrows” and humans on the surface fare poorly, as demonstrated by the war of attrition between the “Fanatics” and the army of Dave, which concludes with only one human (Benson) surviving in addition to the annihilation of the population of Daves.

The burrows are little safer; the show makes it painfully clear that humanity cannot survive in the burrows. The first burrow is destroyed when it’s cracked like an egg by Song, under Dr. Emilia’s control. The second burrow is raided by Scarlamagne and its population are carried away. The third and final burrow seen in the show is, in the show’s present, the home of Fun Gus. And, while searching for clues to her past in order to help her control her transforming body, Kipo discovers this ruined burrow was where she and Scarlamagne were both born.

Prior to her birth, Kipo’s parents were geneticists who were working to study the causes of the global mutation of plants and animals, and also to find a way to reverse it. They needed to replicate the mutagen that created the Mutes in order to find a method of reversing its effects. They have a very limited pool of non-mutated animals to use as test subjects and so the burrow’s scientific authorities assign Lio and Song a mandril infant as a test subject. After an extended period of time they succeed, and Hugo gains sentience. This is the moment they realize the weight of what a cure would entail – stripping a world of intelligent, inquisitive and entirely inhuman creatures of the self-awareness they seemed to have spontaneously developed. Repulsed by the realization of what they would be doing, Lio and Song decide to hide their success with Hugo from their superior, Dr. Emilia. They instead begin a new project, attempting to splice human and Mute genetic material and to bring the resulting progeny to term, as their child, in-vitro.

Please, do not think too hard about the ethical implications of this. It makes a sort of emotional sense that works to situate them as good people beside Emilia’s obvious villainy.

This remarkable human experiment is successful, but during the gestation period, their suspicious behaviour causes Dr. Emilia to investigate and she discovers Hugo. What’s more, she discovers Hugo produces pheremones in his sweat which allow him to command other primates.

It’s a truly hideous power. See, he doesn’t control minds. He controls bodies. Contact with Hugo’s sweat causes the victim to stand rigidly alert with an unnatural grinning rictus across their faces – it never reaches their eyes, which generally just reflect terror. Once a primate is affected by Hugo’s sweat, they remain his puppet for an extended period of time. They become incapable of refusing him anything. It seems as if they are perfectly aware in the moment that their bodies are not their own to command, but there is nothing they can do but obey.

When Dr. Emilia discovers this capability of Hugo’s, she traps him in a glass box and forces him to walk a treadmill, draining his sweat to make a stock of chemical weapons. Lio and Song conspire to escape as soon as the child is born and to bring Hugo with them. But they are discovered, and in the chaos, Song is transformed, and Lio and Kipo are separated from Hugo.

Alone on the surface, and recently tortured, Hugo rapidly discovers to use the power of his sweat to gain security and control over others. Lio meanwhile flees hopelessly clutching his baby, in desperate hope of finding safe harbour.

They meet, and Lio, in a panic, refuses to trust Hugo, who is acting strangely. He flees with Kipo.

Scarlamagne is born here.

Scarlamagne’s character is as strange as his physicality. He’s obsessed with the fashion and manner of the Baroque period and plays waltzes on an antique pianoforte with monstrous, manic intensity. He sneers and he rages and gestures wildly. He’s honestly one of the best pieces of animation in a show that generally depends more on strangeness and stylization than it does on fully realized character movement. He’s a conqueror. He travels about the surface with an aerial cavalry of collaborator apes, monkeys and tarsiers and of human slaves all adorned in ornate red uniforms and powdered wigs riding two-headed giant Flamingos. His own steed wears the shell of an old convertible as armor, and as a saddle.

He’s also a slaver. His kingdom is built on the coerced labour of captured humans. They fill the ranks of his army – implacable puppets silently advance upon any Mutes who disobey Scarlamagne, with rapiers at the ready. He breaks into a vault and takes all the gold because he realizes humans loved it, and so he wants to rule it. Scarlamagne was subjected to slavery, torture and rejection by humanity and he intends to repay every slight a hundred fold. And as he does it, he unites the warring gangs of Mutes into a nation, ruled by him. Nobody can match his military might, with the ranks of his fighting force filled out by humans he’s happy to let die on the battlefield. In his power he has decided to crown himself king of the Mutes. He will build a golden condominium with stolen Human gold shaped by stolen Human hands but a human child is causing a commotion.

Eventually, Scarlamagne discovers that Kipo is immune to his control. His sweat only affects primates, and with her DNA half that of a Mega Jaguar, Kipo isn’t entirely a primate. He cannot take her autonomy from her. It’s inviolable. And so they talk.

I swear, the most exceptional characteristic Kipo possesses is patience. She talks with Scarlamagne. She listens to his stories about their shared origin. She empathizes with him. She shows appreciation for his music. And she constantly tries to persuade him to free her people. He refuses. Again and again he refuses. But she keeps trying.

When, later, the tables have turned, and Scarlamagne is Kipo’s prisoner, she continues to talk, and to listen. She continues to give him chances to relent, to repent, to prove he can be a member of a community rather than a conqueror. She has assumed a position of dominance, even if hers is the gentle dominance of enclosure rather than the rigid command of the body to betray itself he prefers. But she makes it clear she is uncomfortable as a jailer. All she wants to use her power to do is to hold him still long enough to talk out their problems.

That Scarlamagne would have a heel-face turn shouldn’t surprise anyone. The moment is telegraphed in a thousand ways. He is ultimately a foil to the true villain in Dr. Emilia. But the road back for him is not the sudden one that adventure shows so often give. There’s a gradual integration of Scarlamagne back into the community. He’s slowly extended trust and, in breaking it, is gently rebuked. And when he shows himself worthy of trust, more is extended. But not fully. His power to dominate can’t be taken from him; it can be contained but to do that is to keep Scarlamagne separate, other.

And Kipo’s solution to the Other is an act of radical integration. Whether it’s a colossal rabbit, a six-legged pig, a traumatized human or a gang of giant bipedal housecats, Kipo’s first, and often only, instinct is to attempt to ally herself with them. She presents a world of unconditional solidarity built around friendship that starts off looking naïve. But as time goes by it becomes clear that this impression of childish naivety belies a deep reserve of moral conviction. Kipo wants to bring the Other inside because she believes it is the right and just way to organize the world.

And there is little more other to Kipo than a mind-controlling would-be tyrant. So it isn’t surprising she cuts her teeth in debate with him. He is her foil too, after all. Kipo has the power to compel Scarlamagne, to contain him or to kill him. She chooses not to. She chooses to rescue everybody. Despite being rightfully horrified by Scarlamagne’s ghastly execution before the coronation, she even rescues him, and then begins the laborious and difficult work of bringing him inside. I’m belaboring the direction of the power relationship here because I want to make it very clear that the show is not suggesting aquiescence to power, or compromise to deflect power. Before Kipo is able to work to bring Scarlamagne within the community she has to take every ounce of power he has from him. He must lose his crown, his army, his throne and his aspiration before she can begin the work with him. Kipo is able to bring Scarlamagne back from the edge only by dint of the power she holds over him.

But instead of using it to dominate him, she uses it to put him in the position of his own freedom; she lets him see how his liberation depends on an end to domination. And then he chooses to stop dominating people with his powers, to relinquish his claim to power over others or special right. And he comes into the community, and is made welcome. But carefully. With watchful eyes still on him.

The lesson of Scarlamagne is that sometimes people seek power over others to reclaim the autonomy they feel they have lost. And sometimes the way to show them how to accept the freedom of the Other depends on showing them how to accept their own freedom. Scarlamagne is a name Hugo gives himself because he thinks the world is compelling him to evil. But he is free to stop. And Kipo shows him how.

Dr. Emilia

As I mentioned, Scarlamagne’s principal purpose as a character within the story is to act as a foil to the show’s central dyad between Kipo and Dr. Emilia; and the central text of the show with regard to the relationship between power and body autonomy lies in the conflict between Kipo and the doctor.

As described in Scarlamagne’s back story, Dr. Emilia came from the same burrow as Kipo’s parents and is, like Kipo’s parents, a geneticist. She is the daughter of the burrow’s administrator, and is herself a senior administrator within the scientific and power hierarchy of the bunker.

Her father is depicted as emotionally abusive, demanding and hard. He wants nothing more than a cure for the Mute condition, and when Dr. Emilia’s own brother befriends the delightful rat mutes, Brad and Amy, she murders him and lies, declaring him a martyr of humanity rather than face the risk of her father’s disapproval.

Although Song and Lio Oak create Hugo, the uplifted mandrill, Dr. Emilia is the author of Scarlamagne, as she is not only the hostile force the Oaks hide Hugo from, she is his slaver and his principal rival in contention for power on the surface.

In a lot of ways, Dr. Emilia’s quest to revert mutated creatures back to their subjugated state is shown to be a parallel to Dave’s war for the fan. In both cases, the conflict is unnecessary, and in both cases, perceived sense of difference leads the conflict to escalate to genocidal proportions. Where Kipo’s instinct is to open the door to the Other and incorporate all difference into an expanded sense of self, Dr. Emilia wants to keep humanity pristine and dominant. She wants to create a palingenetic movement to a world 200 years dead; and she is the principal author of the conditions that prevent a new world from being born.

Dr. Emilia is a fascist.

And Dr. Emilia is, for most of the series, a perfectly normal human. An educated one. A ruthless one. A charismatic one. But not a mute. Her power, such as it is, comes from training and from positions of power within social hierarchies. She leads humans because she has a vision that seems bigger than her, and the frightened masses follow her.

The show threads a difficult line here, because it’s critical to the conflict of the show that, at the conclusion of the conflict with Scarlamagne, Dr. Emilia assume control over the now-freed human army. She takes all of Scarlamagne’s victims, and she lies to them. She blames Kipo, and decries the impurity that is hybridization. And she takes humanity with her to a cruise ship lair to keep them under her thumb until she can perfect her cure and return the Wonderbeasts to their subjugated, insentient, modes of being. Dr. Emilia traffics in other subjugations. She weaponizes Hugo’s sweat and uses it to create a control collar with which she’s enslaved Song Oak, using the towering spider monkey as her weapon. She uses the same tactics of emotional abuse her father engaged with in order to keep her lackeys, Zane and Greta, under her thumb. She lies, dissembles, and acts as if she’s some great chess master when the whole time all she is doing is taking agency from everyone, feeding command over others into her own bloated desire for power.

Doag being somewhat less physically expressive than normal

Dr. Emilia discovers that Kipo’s genetic material is the catalyst necessary to complete her cure and so she steals it. And, once she’s perfected the cure, her first target is Kipo. Kipo has become the ideological leader of a “friendship alliance” between humans and Mutes. She has used the image of Benson and Dave’s successful partnership, the kindness of the Timbercats, the model of Ratland, an integrationist amusement park that was razed by Scarlamagne, and a dozen other relationships she built over the course of the first two seasons to instantiate a new political order where humans emerge from their burrows and where Mutes break the species-line gangs they’ve fallen into and form a kind of multi-species nation together with Humanity. Kipo has even succeeded in peeling off followers from Emilia’s human enclave. Her message resonates particularly powerfully with the youth of the burrow, and family lines are broken when the (hilariously extra) daughter of Kipo’s burrow’s leader chooses to join Kipo’s alliance and brings several adolescents along with her.

So Emilia kidnaps Kipo’s friends and threatens to kill them if Kipo doesn’t present herself to be cured.

Her plot fails, but in the process, Kipo’s friend, the leader of the Timbercats, Yumyan Hammerpaw, is struck by a dart containing the cure and is forcefully transformed to a housecat. However Kipo steals the cure and is able to use it to restore her mother to her human form.

Dr. Emilia believes the most expedient way to neutralize Kipo is to take away her body autonomy, to force her to be just one thing. And this is the lens through which she views all the awesome wonders of this post-human age. She immediately attacks, intending to raid the Timbercat village and cure Kipo and her allies, cutting the head off any sort of organized Mute response to human revanchism. The raid is partly successful, and several named minor Mute characters including Bad Billions (a rapping astronomer wolf played wonderfully by Wu Tang Clan’s GZA), Brad the rat, and a few other characters with small speaking roles are, “cured.” They seem to retain a kernel of self, they recognize their former friends and lovers in their reduced forms, but their voices are silenced – their ability to choose how they want to live life, as a person or as a beast, is taken from them. Kipo despairs and decides that she is in a moment where talk has failed; unthinkingly she transforms into her Mega-Mute form and attacks the human force, which is composed mostly of people who she grew up looking up to. Remember the children have already sided with her. The force arrayed against her is nearly every person of authority in her life, excepting her parents, who accidentally authored all this with their reckless experimentation 13 years previous and who immediately and unquestioningly side with her.

And so of course, the humans spend their darts on Kipo, attempting to simultaneously neutralize the Mutes’ most dangerous battlefield asset and the ideological leader of human-mute collaboration in one movement.

And they discover that the cure, which is based upon Kipo’s DNA cannot affect her. Kipo is the one person from whom Emilia can not strip body autonomy. Dr. Emilia cannot force Kipo to be just one thing. Kipo will be what she is becoming and that cannot be undone. Not by anybody. Kipo cannot reverse the changes to her body. Scarlamagne cannot command her body to do the things he wills. And Emilia cannot command her body to be the thing she wills. Kipo, in her war form, is a giant mutant cat who shakes off arrows and darts and who can disperse an army with the stomp of her foot.

Kipo, upon discovering that Emilia cannot cure her, has become like Superman: a being defined entirely by the conscious decision to live life according to an ideology, one who cannot be compelled, only persuaded. Humanity abandons Dr. Emilia’s quest. A few of her hardliners make one final attempt to cure the Mutes, but other humans shield their new friends from harm and the effort is largely the last gasp of a spent force. With nothing else left Dr. Emilia decides to murder Kipo.

To do this, Dr. Emilia must become like Kipo and she uses stolen research notes to duplicate the process which led to Song Oak’s accidental gene therapy. She injects herself with this cocktail and becomes a hideous, two-headed monster, even vaster and more inhuman than Kipo’s war form. They have a climactic battle, but the whole thing is basically an endurance test. Emilia is losing herself in the form of the beast. She cannot do what Kipo did and reconcile the animal within her because it’s alien to her. The beast is terrified OF her, and it will not be reconciled because it only wants to flee from her terrible purpose. Dr. Emilia drowns in her own contradictions, and loses her agency. She flees, goes to ground, crouching and hiding her eyes, defeated by the refusal to be her own body.

Kipo shows mercy and cures Emilia. She thinks that surely, like Scarlamagne, Emilia will talk now. She is fully contained. Her reserves of cure are depleted. Her followers have abandoned her. Kipo offers Emilia her hand just the way she did with with Scarlamagne.

And rather than take her hand, Dr. Emilia tries to stab Kipo with a shard of glass; even in defeat, she refuses to allow that others might live in ways contrary to how she deigns. But Mandu, Kipo’s pet pig, a voiceless Mute and the first friend Kipo ever made, defends her friend, and Dr. Emilia falls backward into the burrow that birthed them all. Kipo tries to catch her, makes one last attempt to take her hand, but misses. And Fun Gus catches her. The prisoner of its own body who is so desperate for recognition of the Other that it will never let someone go once it has them, finds itself become the jailer of a solipsist who refuses to allow that any person might live but according to the way she dictates. Dr. Emilia cannot be persuaded. She is incapable of making that leap of empathy that Scarlamagne does, and so despite her monstrosity taking on a very similar form to his, he can be redeemed. She cannot. In the end, she can only be stripped of power and contained.

Wolf and what a body can do

Wolf as depicted in early episodes.

As I mentioned before, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is first, and foremost a story about race. The story explores a world torn by inter-ethnic strife. The villains are first an escaped slave who discovers power and engages in revenge, setting himself up as a would-be king of a multi-ethnic state with a racialized slave class in humans and then a fascist revanchist who sees most of the people in the world around her as nothing more than beasts, undeserving of a voice or a choice in their own lives. Scarlamagne wants to see himself as better than another race. Dr. Emilia sees all races but hers as inferior. But by using sentient animals as a stand-in for an otherwise nuanced discussion of race, there is a risk of biological essentialism. Hummingbombers, Mod Frogs and Timbercats each have a form of national culture that is framed in the context of what their bodies are. Frogs command insects as slaves. Wolves can’t help but gaze at the moon. Cats like yarn.

But Wolf problematizes these essentialist readings. She is a human child who was raised by a wolf pack. She is trained by them to have the capabilities of a wolf, to run and leap, to balance and to howl as a wolf. She is indoctrinated into the ideology of the wolf nation.

And then she is betrayed. They raised her not to be one of theirs but rather as a training exercise – to teach their cubs how to hunt even the most cunning prey. Wolf fights back and, though we never see how, kills her adoptive mother, using her pelt as a cloak. She retreats into Scorpion territory and learns how to calm her heartbeat so that she can escape their notice. She takes a giant scorpion stinger as her principal weapon and establishes a household in a ruined building somewhere everyone else is afraid to go.

When we meet Wolf, she sees Mutes only as threats or as food, and she sees other humans only as an encumbrance to her continued survival. Kipo slowly befriends her, and helps her to let down her barriers. Eventually she abandons her scorpion stinger and her ghastly cape. Wolf demonstrates the infinite transformative capacity of a human body in a more subtle fashion than Kipo. She moves with the grace and speed of a wolf because she was taught. She can calm her own heart because she learned how. Wolf is a small child but is also a fearsome fighter, easily able to go toe to toe against giant walls of muscle like Greta. In the course of the show she learns how to sing. And she loves it. Wolf is a celebration of the infinite transformative power of the body.

And this is where we dive a bit deeper into the queer text of the show. I’ve been using she/her pronouns for Wolf because that is what the text does and I am trying not to read beyond what is there, but there is definitely a queer subtext to Wolf and that is reflected in how she idealizes her own body and its potentials.

Kipo is pretty obviously bisexual. The bi flag colour scheme is one of the predominant palettes of the show, which repeadly drenches itself in pink, purple and blue. She tries to kiss Benson, who gently rebuffs her because he’s gay and they remain close friends. He eventually gets a boyfriend, and the romance scenes between Benson and Troy are frankly darling. And Kipo? She kind of starts dating Wolf.

The show is coy about this. They have a song that Kipo calls “our song.” During the climax of the series, when Kipo organizes a simultaneous dance party and diplomatic conference at Prahm, Wolf gives Kipo a corsage and comes as her date. Wolf is a very shy person and quite reserved with her emotions, but we get a sense of intense affection from her that is directed only at Kipo. Kipo, of course, shows intense affection for everything and everyone but she has a closeness for Wolf that is more like how she acts with her parents than with all the others she tries to give her love. But they don’t share the sort of explicit romantic coding that gives away Benson’s relationship to Troy.

But to get really into where Wolf’s queerness ties into her sense of her body we need to return to the first encounter with Mulholland. In Wolf’s ideal dreamworld, she and Kipo are together, just the two of them against the world. They’re hunters, capturing the most dangerous game (Mega Bunnies) and they’ve become so adept that the great problem they face is that they have hunted their prey out and need to find new challenges.

Wolf (who has a very diminutive stature) imagines Kipo and herself as giant, muscle bound and masculine. they speak in deep voices and do the Epic Handshake made famous in memes and the Predator film (itself something of a queer work of art). In Wolf’s ideal world it appears she is a man. And so is Kipo. And they are a couple.

But the world collapses when Wolf recognizes that this beautiful dream isn’t one that Kipo shares. They might be in love, but Kipo isn’t a hunter. And Kipo isn’t a man. Wolf breaks free of domination because she refuses to demand that another person’s body be the ideal she wishes it was. And in doing so, she expresses her love.

Love, embodiment and power

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is far more clever than the majority of children’s entertainment, and is a better program for it. It creates a central thesis that diagnoses power as the expression of desire to control what bodies can do. It demonstrates how this power comes both from within the body of the subject and also from their desire to subjugate, to demand that bodies conform to the standards they set.

Despite hints of the mystical with the cheese diviners, Kipo and the Wonderbeasts presents a remarkably materialist sense of the mind. Mulholland’s powers work because he enters, and physically interferes with the working of an organ. Likewise Scarlamagne’s sweat act on the body, it takes agency but not by replacing the self of the victim with a simulation of the dominator. Instead it turns the victim into a puppet, their body turned against them. Imprisonment is a common threat in this show because cages, too, are forms of domination imposed upon the body. Minds cannot be dominated; they can only be persuaded. And the root of persuasion in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is love. Romantic love, familial love, love of an idealized self, love of the Other. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts tells us very clearly that we need to open the doors of the world to everything that is outside and bring it in. We must open the sense of self up to the infinite potential of the body to learn, to grow and to change. Transformation cannot be rolled back. We are forever becoming what we will be. The Mutes who are “cured” remain so. There is no happy reversal where Yumyan and Bad Billions can return to their roles of leadership. Bad Billions is still welcome in his community though, he sits beside the chairs of the Newton Wolves and watches the raps and scientific seminars he can no longer perform every night, still loved. Still inside.

Five years after the defeat of Dr. Emilia, Kipo’s dream is realized. Humans and Mutes are integrated into a wild, urban, cosmopolitan and cashless society. Kipo isn’s a ruler. She’s happy to step back and spend time with Wolf and her other friends. She’s Superman, but in a world of love, there’s no need for her power, and so she doesn’t express it. Harmony arrives when domination ends; the most radical love is opening the door of self to everything that is Other and letting it in. Kipo affirms and celebrates difference. She adores the Timbercats. She loves Ratland. She immediately races to help the Fitness Raccoons when she meets them. She happily listens to Scarlamagne’s maddening waltzes. She wants to bring together an alliance in friendship but starting from the fundamental basis that the inherent differences between people are a source of joy and beauty, not terror.

Kipo’s text isn’t naïve. It recognizes that some people will not make this leap. And they will have to be contained – hard choices will be made, fascists can not have a place in a cosmopolitan world built on love. But Kipo’s text is optimistic. Recognition can be a process of mutual empathy. We don’t need to engage the master and the slave in every interaction. Instead we can engage the lovers, and build a culture of mutual affirmation of difference. We can create a space for everyone.

And I think that’s a pretty good message for children.

I’m back?

So it’s been a minute.

I’m kind of back. At least, I’m writing essays again, if nothing else, and, well, I have a blog, so… I might as well put them here.

Some of you might be wondering what happened to me that I went basically dark for three years. A lot of my readers are close friends, so they know a lot of this. But I have got to the point where I feel ready to talk about it. The wounds are basically closed. I want to make this really clear, I don’t want and am not seeking sympathy. I don’t want or need pity or concern. I’m fine. Really. But to get to how I got to fine I kind of need to walk through when I wasn’t and what that meant to me.

So let’s start in 2016. In 2016 I suffered from a pretty serious bout of depression. It wasn’t politically related – I’m susceptible to depression, I had a young child and was living in a slummy apartment in a city that I felt was chewing me up. On paper life was really good. My daughter. I had the best job I’d ever had to date. My novel had been published a year ago, and I was as successful as an artist as I’d ever been. But I felt kind of trapped and really miserable. I tried to change things up. I went back to school, I did another post-graduate professional certification, studied for and sat an incredibly difficult exam. And then nothing really changed except I experienced extreme burnout.

My depression led to me making some bad choices – I tossed in my job for one that paid more but was doing work I was neither morally comfortable with nor really properly trained for. I got it on the basis of my hard-won professional certification but then found that it wasn’t the work I had studied to do. And the burnout wasn’t getting better. I lost my job.

At the same time I lost my job, we were moving out of the slummy apartment and into a condominium my wife and I had put a lot of money into pre-construction. Only, we couldn’t secure a mortgage with me on EI and were looking at potentially being on the street once the apartment closed. Closing kept getting pushed back by the developer and I was just…


Completely broken. This was spring 2018.

We made the hard decision to leave Toronto. I found work subcontracting for an IT company and working for the Federal Government. I moved out to Charlottetown and stayed with my best friend while we sorted out the housing situation. We got a beautiful house on the edge of town adjacent a horse farm. The pace of life slowed. I buried myself in family, and started healing from those psychic wounds that I’d accumulated over the last two years.

But I started getting headaches when I tried to read.

I hadn’t been reading much during my depression. It’d been a symptom of my depression, and as these things often are, this symptom fed back into those painful feelings and left me paralyzed. Having come out the other side I kind of wanted to start reading again. But I was walking (and later driving or being driven) to and from work instead of taking transit. My daughter was growing and made more demands on my time. I was working. And when I tried to read I would feel tired quickly and there were those headaches.

Eventually it came to pass that I discovered I needed glasses. It was 2019 and I was 40. These things happen.

However I was still struggling to read. Fiction wasn’t clicking with me. “Show, don’t tell,” had gone from a piece of craft advice to a stone in my boot. Having healed I was getting more concerned with politics again beyond a sense of unending despair, but I felt a sort of anxious urgency to speak and be spoken to clearly and without dissembly. The contradictions inherent in fictive text had bugged me for a while. I was writing about that in 2016, a few months before I burned out and fell into depression, and I’d talked about it depth at the 2015 Spec Fic Colloquium a year previously when I’d dug into the concept of, tabula rasa rebellion as a form of ideological neutering. But what was a nuisance in 2015 just grew and grew until it made it very difficult for me to enjoy anything but the most strident and didactic books. I turned to works in translation largely because people outside the anglosphere were more likely to say what they meant and mean what they said in their fiction.

These days I mostly read French books. So that “works in translation” thing kind of stuck I guess. But I’m learning French too so a few of those book aren’t in translation and that’s really cool. But I’ll get to this.

Ok, so we’re into the home stretch here. Things were definitely on the up-swing for me. I had glasses, I was working, had a beautiful red house that was mine in a nice neighbourhood with a whole bunch of little girls near my daughter’s age with whom she made fast friends. My wife had finally found a position worthy of her talents and she was working and happy too.

I’d left the Federal Government job – it’d always been contract – but I’d moved seamlessly into another position. I had a direct report who I’d the best relationship since the good job I’d left at the start of my depression.

I was traveling for work a lot; and reading on flights. I read a couple of science fiction novels but the confused ideology of books like The Expanse series – books that wanted to be about radical, transformative, paradigmatic shifts in technology and culture but that couldn’t imagine a universe more different than what we have now, only with basic income for some – just didn’t gel with me. I was enjoying Ian M. Banks. And I was enjoying non-fiction.

I read Julie Watson’s Ghost Stories and Legends of Prince Edward Island. This was effectively a work of anthropology – a mythography discussing the stories my new home told about itself. I adored it. I also read my old, dear, friend Vanessa Brown’s true crime book about the Forest City Killer. I don’t generally read true crime, and only did read it because of who wrote it (Vanessa is one of my two oldest friends). But in these books I found what I’d been missing; I found that the clarity of conversation I was struggling with in fiction was present in these books that said what they meant and meant what they said. My return to reading came in fits and starts, but it was a start. So I suppose I should thank Vanessa for helping me overcome a pretty severe obstacle in my life last year.

It was February 2020 and I was mostly worried about my cousin who lives in Tianjin and my in-laws who live in central China. My boss, the one I liked, left my employer, and things were getting tense as COVID-19 crept over the horizon. I was in Texas in early March, when the travel ban came in. I returned home the same day that mandatory 14 day self-isolation periods for international travel were established. Soon after schools closed and we went into lockdown. Unable to travel for work, and with my American clients in disarray, work was going poorly, and somebody needed to give greater attention to our daughter, who was going a bit feral, and who was not really learning French despite being in French immersion.

My wife and I knew one of us were going to have to step away from work, and my employer offered me an out. We came to an agreement that they would lay me off, but unlike the time before when I lost my job I actually felt great. It wasn’t like I was the only person out of work in April 2020, and it meant I could be there for my daughter. I became her French tutor, and started learning French a bit myself to keep up. Eventually the lockdown eased in PEI and my daughter started going to ballet again. The weather was nice, and I really didn’t want to spend time indoors. COVID precautions precluded watching her dance, so I got in the habit of getting a coffee from the shop across from her dance studio and taking it to a picnic table, I’d drink coffee and play with my phone, read news about COVID, read about politics. Sometimes I’d pinch wifi and watch Youtube videos. I’d become fond of a few channels that talked about philosophy but I’d noticed that most of them were very entry-level. (This isn’t actually all that true, but the stuff I found first via politics focused Breadtube types was.)

I’d always loved philosophy.

If you go into my back-catalog you know I was writing about Hegel in the article about rebels. I talked about Nietzsche in another article, but it’d been years since I’d read him (my Nietzsche reading having been between 1999 and 2004) and I don’t think I fairly represented him in those writings so I’m going to leave off the link. I’d been getting pretty involved with radial leftist discourse online and was frustrated by the ML/Anarchist conflicts – which I largely saw as arising out of miscommunication and century-old bad blood.

It was by then getting to be about mid-September and I was also painfully bored. So I decided to fill one of those gaps I saw in Youtube philosophy content and start putting out some videos specifically targeted at leftists presenting ethical problems within leftist discourse and using a largely materialist-existentialist frame to address good ways of approaching these problems while hopefully side-stepping the sectarian divisions that bothered me. So I decided I should brush up on my philosophical reading.

I’d loved that stuff in university.

Fifteen years ago.

But hadn’t read much since I’d returned from China in 2007. So I eased into it by picking up The Present Age by Kierkegaard – he’d been my fave in university. Honestly I think a lot of people going into philosophy at the undergraduate level found him a bit opaque, but I’d been interested in theology as a precocious child and by the time I met Kierkegaard in university I was already well-situated to understand him. I’d found writing essays about Kierkegaard was a good way to get good grades in philosophy classes so… I stuck with that.

And when I returned to philosophy I started there and with Simone De Beauvoir – who I adore for her successful efforts to secularize Kierkegaard’s ethics and whose ethical sense underpinned my planned project. I started researching for my first video. It was getting to be the American electoral season again, and leftists were arguing about whether leftists should vote and if so how. I decided to do a video about that and read Sartre, Adorno and Horkheimer to round out my reading list. (And, of course, Marx.)

I planned to do a second video about whether a state could be ethical, and picked up Foucault. I had encountered him in university but had been generally unimpressed. I wasn’t well situated to see much profundity in him then, and he’d never been a difficult author for me so I just saw him as being another overrated postmodernist. This was a position that I rapidly erased upon reading Society Must Be Defended, which is an exceptionally easy to read and engaging series of lectures regarding the relationship of the discipline of history to the structures of state power that surrounded them. In this book I found the lynchpin to the questions about the state I wanted to ask. And between these two books, I rediscovered my ability to read for pleasure.

The flood gates opened. I started grabbing up books as fast as I could learn about them. In November and December of 2020 I read Mark Fisher, Frantz Fanon, I started in on another Foucault book (Discipline and Punish), started re-reading my favourite graphic novel (The Invisibles) and also reading Valerian L’Integrale volume 2 in French, my literacy in that language having improved sufficiently to handle it since the start of 2020. I read Gilles Deleuze, whose essay, Postscript on the Societies of Control, is possibly the most singularly influential thing of the lot of my Q4 2020 reading. When you occasionally see me reference, “the search for new weapons,” I am quoting this essay. I also started listening to podcasts, particularly Acid Horizon, and through them learned about a host of other philosophers (Felix Guttari, of course, but also Simondon, Lyotard and Bataille). I revisited Derrida and Nietzsche and found my opinions on them had, in fact, shifted since university. Bataille’s The Solar Anus was nearly as influential for my recent WandaVision essay as Fisher or Adorno were, albeit more for the stylistic freedom that I felt in it. And I should note that this massive glut of books, essays, poems and commentaries was all stuff I was reading and listening to between October 2020 and now. At the end of November I found another job which is operating fully remote, and I set up a home office that has come together as a very comfortable space to work, create, read and have a good think in.

I am reading again. And eventually my reading overflowed into writing. I’m not sure I can write fiction where I am right now. If I do, it’ll have to be a pretty substantial break from what I wrote before. But Adorno and Deleuze, Bataille and Fisher have reignited my fondness for criticism and I have more reading on deck as I’m set to read Anti-Oedipus, The Weird and the Eerie, The Rebel (you can see hints of Camus peeking out of my recent review of Star Trek Discovery Season 3) and Critique of Dialectical Reason vol. 1 after I finish with Discipline and Punish.

My research specific to the question of the state is almost done and has left me more certain than ever that the main things separating modern state Socialists from Anarchists are semantics over the definition of what a state actually constitutes. I am excluding various online malcontents from this discussion. Frankly I think most Marxists would do well to tell Stalinists and Gonzalo Thought proponents to jump off the nearest pier just as I think most anarchists should remain on guard against eco-fascist entryism. There will be a Youtube video for the ethics of the state in pan-leftist discourse at some point.

And that’s where I am. It’s a long way from 2016 where I went through burnout, depression and loss of basically everything in my life but my family to here, healthy, happy, bespectacled and with a renewed vigor for my passions. Not everybody makes it through depression. Fisher didn’t. If you go through the biographies of my reading list, it’s not precisely the perfect-picture-of-psychological-health-and-wellbeing-club. But I did. I came out the other side stronger, if weirder.

That urgency to speak and to listen to clear language remains. I do worry about the state of the world; who couldn’t after the year we’ve been through. And I think part of the attraction of theory over fiction is in looking for solutions instead of deferments or temporary escapes.

2020 was a hard year for everyone.

2021 is going to be another. And we’re going to keep having hard years until we get up and do something. I don’t have the answer to these big questions that face the world. Climate change, plague, the political instability of late capital: these are vast problems and no one person will solve them. They will require everybody to work together. I’m not even sure how we could begin to accomplish the sort of transformations we need to undertake to start making the world a better place.

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters,”1 and it feels strange to be talking about how good I feel personally in this uncertain time compared to the relative stability of four years ago. But I think it’s because I’ve been through change and transformation. The only constants in my life are the relationships I carried with me through darkness. I am a process of change. The world is likewise. I got better – if stranger. The world can too.

1: Antonio Gramsci as paraphrased by Slavoj Žižek.

Fanfiction and the enclosure of the creative commons

The discourse of genre authors, almost perennially, falls to the validity of fanfiction as an artistic category. This debate is never, of course, resolved and it flares up again each time some detractor of the category has their voice amplified sufficiently for those who see themselves as friends of the category to feel threatened.

Considering the sensitivity of artists, this does not generally require much in the way of a threat.

Fanfiction, as a category, exists because artists need to find ways of circumventing the barriers put up by capitalism. The idea of copyright is a modern, and capitalist, one. The first copyright law was formed in England in the early 1700s.

This pernicious concept, that ideas could be made commodities to be bought and sold, rather than representing the intellectual commons upon which creation occurred, allows for parties, individuals and companies, to claim ownership of works of fiction, of characters and situations. Only fiction doesn’t work that way. And it’s good that it doesn’t.

The only reason we have a record of most of Shakespeare’s plays is because some theatre nerds with fast fingers would come to his plays, take notes on the script and then sell copies for a side hustle.

Art, including fiction, is iterative. It’s a form of communication and as such it can’t help but be iterative; an answer contains within it the premise of the question. Copying, mutating and iterating are essential creative tools, and they’re tools that are increasingly restricted as the bounds of copyright tighten, terms lengthen, and laws like DMCA move power toward those who want to enclose the creative commons. As a result these components of fiction become walled off.

I want to be clear here that this is far from the only way that capital distorts art, or encloses upon the tools of artistry. For another example please see my essay on how the franchise as a marketing structure makes the artistic use of ambiguity untenable and undermines finitude. Capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with creative ventures; the generation of the fanfiction / original work dichotomy is merely a good example of this forced limitation.

That said, the dichotomy exists in the minds of people trapped within the bounds of what Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism. And since it exists, it’s necessary for us to grapple with its contours.

It’s fine if you want to iterate based off work so old there’s no clear thread of ownership; but if you want to engage in communication with living artists, you must pay for the privilege, or else you must create fic. Fanfiction is an artificial category. Literally no writer is not also a creator of fanfiction. We can’t help but respond to what we read. It is in the nature of art. What separates “fanfiction” from “original” fiction is only whether one can claim ownership over the fiction in order to sell it. This is a useless distinction for artists to argue over.

Why do you care whether another artist wants to sell work or enjoy creative expression as an amateur? The categories of professional and amateur are, in themselves, problematic enough without assessing each work of art an artist creates along the axis of marketability.

This is, of course, the secondary reason that so many “fanfiction” writers who “file off the serial numbers” are reviled. The first is because they’re frequently women as a result of complex social movements. But there’s a sense of fanfiction crossover as having cheated its way into a market it should not own. This is “business ontology,” as Fisher would have put it, creeping into art appreciation.

One of the things that reinforces my communism is the brutal ways capital deforms art. And I get it, artists need to eat. I mean, I maintain a day job explicitly because my art is not profitable. If I could make a living as an author, a critic or a painter I’d do that instead of being a project manager.

My ideological side wants art to be the hard stone that is spit out by capital; for art to be deliberately and aggressively counter to the demands of business ontology. I would make a criminal of every artist. And as such, I am something of a friend to the amateur, including the fanfiction writer. After all, fewer things are more criminal within capitalism than to remove productive action from the bounds of the marketable.

But it’s kind of ridiculous to see professional artists, people who have nomadically sampled the intellectual commons and made their compromises with capital to be allowed the privilege of making art a career, dunking on an artist of no particular notoriety just because they don’t enjoy the fodder in the former part of the commons now within the fanfiction enclosure and loudly say so.

Don’t play the game of categories with them. Find lines of escape instead. The search for new weapons continues.

Wandavision – finitude and the franchise

If you intend to enjoy WandaVision you may want to consider not reading this.

The greatest obstacle to critiquing WandaVision is Disney’s transhumanism.

This goes far beyond the legendary frozen corpse of the founder, lying in wait under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride until the day the stars are right. Instead the transhumanism of Disney exists in a revulsion toward finitude. Nothing can ever end. “Dreams are forever,” as the founder said.

Copyright and trademark are eternal. The House of Mouse is an eldritch singularity, drawing in all of mass culture and hoarding it, digesting stories and shitting out merchandise.

Stories, too, cannot end. Nothing symbolizes this better than the blood-gorged leech of the so-called Infinity Saga. The five odd hour hours of Avengers Endgame and Infinity War smash brightly coloured brand indicators together and ape some vast Manichean conflict between a godlike conqueror and a gang of heroic rebels; but the telos of the two films is just a strident defense of the status quo. The reward for our heroes at the end of this supposedly infinite war is a reset. A return. And not even the return of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s hero would return home transformed by the journey. Peter Parker returns unchanged. He slots seamlessly back into old friendships and routines. He is eternally on his journey, forever rejecting and answering calls that never go anywhere. A journey without distance. A cycle as brief as two turns of the clock that signifies nothing but two more turns. But of course the war is infinite, of course its conclusion is a return to an unchanging present. Disney cryogenically freezes narratives. It is terrified of a story ending, because an ending is a letting go. And Disney can never let anything go; it is as incapable of that as the singularity at the heart of the Milky Way.

This vomitous pile of a story hangs over WandaVision; its stench is ever-present. It haunts the story. In such a circumstance, how could we possibly fairly review the story before us?

Only by cutting it away from its own diseased bones. If WandaVision is to be assessed as a singular work of art, it must be walled away from the Avengers. We must exorcise the putrid ghost of the Infinity ” Saga” and approach the text tabula rasa. We will dispel the unspoken belief that he is a ghost while she lives still and start from the beginning as if it were alone, not one chapter in a “saga” but a story: an enclosed and finished work. If WandaVision cannot survive this form of scrutiny, it can thus, at least, fail on its own merits. And the only thread to redeem this product as a work of art stands in approaching it alone.

And it turns out that tabula rasa is the perfect way to approach WandaVision because, after dispensing with some period-appropriate credits, we meet our protagonists as blank slates in Pleasantville. Or at least they are in part blank slates. They come pre-equipped with mannerisms appropriate to an archaic fish-out-water situation comedy and complete and comprehensive knowledge of each other’s powers.

The show really wants to make this clear; Wanda and Vision don’t know what the date marked on their calendar is. They don’t know where they’re from or what their favourite song is. But they know she can summon objects ex nihilo. They know he can walk through a wall. The strangely selective gaps in memory continue. Vision knows he has a job but not what working that job entails. Wanda knows she stays home but does not know what a homemaker does. Archaic sit com hijinks ensue.

WandaVision, within the bounds of its textual frame, is remarkably disconnected from the Real. This disconnect presents itself in two overlapping ways. The first is in a profound temporal disconnect. Time stutters and jumps. A decade passes. Nobody comments. The show is set within situation comedies, but the precise sort of comedy refuses to be nailed down. It’s the Honeymooners or Andy Griffith one moment. Bewitched and I Dream of Genie the next. It gestures in the direction of the Adams Family for a moment then pivots and is, for a mayfly lifespan, The Office. Fashion, decor and hairstyle flux and, while our protagonists maintain a kind of postmodern indifference to this strangeness, Agnes is always exactly the character within the scene required to situate Wanda within the chimerical setting. And this is good, because excepting Wanda and Agnes, the rest of the cast are automata who comfortably glide between genres and roles. This may seem unkind to Vision, but he is immediately designated an automaton. Whenever in the comfort of his home he drops the act of humanity. He is perfectly aware he’s inhuman. He once calls humans small and limited. But Vision is a machine so simple he can be brought low by a wad of bubble gum. Vision is unaware of the extent to which he fails to understand himself at all. That failure of self-knowledge is a theme here.

I think the best way to envision the split in the self-knowledge Wanda and Vision have is to say that they don’t know who they are; but they know all too well what they are. They know that they are abnormal; each episode of the two which were released this week is about a test to see if they can fit in.

In the first of these tests, Wanda meets Agnes, and this is probably the highlight of the show. Kathryn Hahn is delightful. She has exceptional range, and razor-sharp delivery that hits the precise right note of parody to provide the kind of post-ironic frisson this show demands. Frankly, she acts circles around the rest of the cast.

With Agnes’s help, Wanda interprets the heart marked on the calendar as an indication that the evening is her and Vision’s anniversary and prepares a romantic evening for two. Meanwhile, at Vision’s work, he learns that a hazing ritual for new employees is to treat the boss, Andy Hart, and his wife to dinner. They have exacting standards, and the consequences of failing to impress are dire.

The dinner proceeds as a pastiche of early ‘1960s sitcoms. Wanda acts overly affectionate with Mr. Hart, and they explain it away to her origins in a fictional European country nobody comments on her lack of an accent, though Mr. Hart makes some dark allusions to his distrust of communists. Wanda and Vision finally compare notes, and attempt to change course from an erotic romp to an opportunity to impress the boss, engaging in increasingly desperate acts to conceal the fact that Wanda is attempting to hasten dinner along with her magic. At one point she transforms one burnt chicken into a basket full of eggs. “Oh no, too early,” she says (or something to that effect). The terrifying implications that she turned one chicken into many eggs is left to hang in the air, unexplored.

Eventually dinner is served and WandaVision pivots to where it is at its best: pure psychological horror. Mrs. Hart has become woozy from hunger waiting while Wanda bungles dinner after dinner, telekinetically throwing lobsters out windows and doing eldritch… things… to chickens. They get dinner on the table and everyone is seated but the mood is spoiled. The guests ask some questions about Wanda and Vision’s origins but they’re evasive. Mr. Hart becomes increasingly animated, pounding his hands on the table while a clock ticks noisily in the background. 

“What is your story?”
“Why did you come here?”
He’s screaming.
He chokes. 
The clock ticks.
The shadows draw in. 
Wanda commands Vision to help Mr. Hart, who has fallen to the floor, gasping for breath.

Vision reaches his hand through the front of Mr. Hart’s throat and retrieves the errant speck of food.

The shadows recede. Mr. Hart recovers his composure. He and his wife are entirely happy with how dinner went. They leave. The moment of horror ends.

The show retains, from this moment on, an edge that stays with it until one scene prior to the credit roll. Wanda and Vision discuss their strangeness. They seem to have forgotten the terror of the scene that unfolded with the Harts, or at least the trauma of it. Again there’s a sort of partial amnesia as if they know what happened but not what made it significant. They remark on the strangeness that they haven’t wedding rings and Wanda summons rings from nothing again. The laugh track invades here. Sighs of happiness. But it’s ash. Those happy sighs fill me with revulsion because the laugh track has become a character in this horrible, surreal nightmare of a story. The cooing of an invisible audience is a pressure that pushes against the senses. It edges close to the haptic void.

The moment ends. The credits roll. But it’s a fake-out, not the real credits but the credits within the show. This is when WandaVision trips over itself and ruins its own frame in the last scene. Our perspective pans out of the TV playing the show they were on and reveals some shadowy space. There is a panel of screens, including that playing the WandaVision show. One screen has some vague tacticool bullshit on it, and a militaristic logo. The eye is drawn to this screen, as if the logo was somehow important. A hand enters the frame, rendered in the perfect clarity of modern digital cameras, rather than the bespoke lo-fi black and white of the episode before. It turns off the screen. Rather than being left to wonder at the hypnagogic setting, we are allowed to see briefly behind the curtain. To be shown that there is, in fact, a place more real than the world of the show and that it is in some way in control. The question of who controls this liminal space will likely be a central one. I find it hard to care at the moment because this antagonist is gestured at so vaguely that it might as well not be there at all.

More credits roll, these ones comprise a stylized symbolic affair where settings and props from the show are rendered as if they were made up of CRT pixels. They eventually pan out into a digital simulation of two interlocking rings. If there was any doubt remaining at this point that Wanda and Vision were in some sort of generated simulation, this image would dispel it completely. This is disappointing.

Our second episode begins indulgently. First it gives us a previously-on. Considering these two episodes are rather short (~30 minutes each) the division into two episodes might have already been a little questionable (there is some structural reason which I will address later, but I find it poorly executed). To insert a “previously on” at the start seemed honestly insulting. Perhaps it could be seen as a joke, teasing at genre tropes that condense season-long plot threads into two-minute recaps constantly, but if so, it fails to wink at the audience in the way that literally every other joke in this horror-comedy does. Immediately after this our ears are yet again assaulted by the Marvel fanfare. Loudly and at length. 

After a setup for the episode’s mystery, the show cuts to yet another credit sequence. This is the sixth credits sequence across two episodes for those keeping count. This one a cheerful cartoon that carefully, and in great detail, delineates the geography of the setting and the powers of Vision and Wanda. Vision and Wanda remain these faintly smiling cartoons throughout, still rather blank slates – they are these repositories of terrifying power that are unknowable because they do not know themselves.

The second fit-in test is a PTA talent show. (They have no children.) Wanda plans a magic act which will lay bare the artifice of magic, the ropes and mirrors. She hopes it will demistify them. Vision goes to a Neighbourhood Watch meeting but it turns out they mostly just gossip. The people are the same men from his office in the previous episode. He doesn’t notice. He denounces one of the members of the watch as a communist. They all laugh. This show has a casual hatred for the political other. Communism looms as a threat in the text more explicitly than the comedies it simulacratizes. They think he’s a joker. He swallows some gum and it clogs up his gears. Literally.

Wanda, meanwhile, has a series of surreal encounters that might almost feel Lynchian in a better overall work. She encounters out of context objects, a PTA cult, a new friend and then suffers through a repeat of the terrifying encounter of the dinner party. This time the leader of the PTA cult, Dottie, tells Wanda that she doesn’t like her, doesn’t trust her good intentions. She looks to be getting ready to say something more terrible still to Wanda but a radio in the background is screaming with static. A voice cuts through, “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?” And I just wish that WandaVision could sustain this level of quality, because this scene is legitimately frightening. But Dottie immediately forgets the encounter and seems perfectly satisfied.

The magic show goes well. Vision acts drunk (from the gum) but everyone seems to think it’s a bit. They try to sneak away but the town loves them. They drag them to the stage and give them a trophy. There is so much clapping. Far more clapping than hands in the scene to clap, until it becomes a cacophonous wall of noise. The haptic void again. The credit I will give the creative team behind WandaVision is this: when they were using their sound pallet rather than Marvel’s corporate noise, they used sound in interesting ways. Wanda and Vision pass the test. But I worry the magic show will, in some ways be an apt metaphor for this show: a process of demystification, an admission that the audience isn’t here to be startled or enchanted but just to see how the magic trick is done.

Then there is a coda at the end of the second episode that escapes the careful mirroring of before.

 They cut away, tell some jokes, cut the tension. They kill the mood. The transitions are artificial – WandaVision is built of artifice so this shouldn’t be surprising. But it has the effect of spreading oil over everything, undercutting the tension they’ve built. They try to kiss. Vision tells Wanda, “It’s really happening,” WandaVision has already undercut this with its framing so it lands weakly. We’ve already learned he’s wrong by this point. They told us clearly several times in the outro to the first episode. Things become terrifying again, as noises outside lead to a spooky beekeeper climbing out of the sewer.

Wanda commands, “No,” and the whole universe rewinds like a VHS tape. (Not like an 8mm film tape. Another temporal disconnect.) She and Vision kiss. They are not interrupted. The world explodes in colour. Their appearance glitches like they’re within the TV. A voice calls, “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?”

WandaVision’s second episode struggled with pace. It swung wildly between psychological horror and broad comedy. It wasn’t bad at either. It could conjure moments of existential terror in its two mirrored confrontation scenes, and it hit a comedy zenith with the talent show scene, which managed to fuse the careful staged humour of the 1960s with fly-on-the-wall cringe humour more part of the media landscape of the 2000s. Wanda’s absolute power is legitimately terrifying and she could be a good subject of horror. A terrifying and unknowable person in a clearly artificial landscape, a being of immense power and unknown intent. Although both Wanda and Vision seem infected by a compulsion to conform to the immediate normalcy of the ever-mutating narrative, she seems to do so by consent. By the end of the episode, using only the text within the show, I could sincerely argue that it seems more likely that what we do seem to know about the characters, that they have these powers; that they want to conform to local expectations no matter how absurd; that they are unaware of that absurdity; their virulent anti-communism, all of it, was only Wanda’s interpretation, her sense of the world superimposes itself upon the Real. Vision’s interior is depicted as a simplistic cartoon of cogs and wheels, like Bender from Futurama. Is this, perhaps just how she understands the robot? Or is this the show reminding us how absolutely empty he is? Wanda is not empty. She commands the temporal movement of the realm they are within. We’ve seen them stutter and jump in time in strange and unnatural ways throughout both episodes, and Wanda is shown to have power over time. If this were a show disconnected from the MCU, if I really could read it walled away, cut from the rotten bone, it could be a good show.

But I can’t. I try to keep it walled off but the show fights me too much. There’s the opening music. Twice across an hour of television, the Marvel fanfare. That bombastic leitmotif demands that you remember you are in a Marvel product. And it demands this twice. The doubling format has more narrative uses too, and mirroring is used heavily between the two episodes to give them an uncanny, iterative element. There’s this sense of simulation in it. The separation of the premiere into two stories allowed for an intertextual dialog that reinforced this iterative rhythm. There is a force within the show. Either it’s Wanda or it’s something far more terrifying than her. And it’s pushing toward an outcome. It’s not entirely a puppeteer. Wanda, at least, is not a puppet. But it’s a force on the story, and splitting the show in two allowed that force to be made plain. Though the first episode was more soundly paced, this was, in part, to service the second episode showing the aesthetic of change; or at least of movement. But this good work is fatally undercut by the “previously on” segment and the Marvel fanfare. This is a show about unreality. It’s a show where narrative, the sense the protagonists have of the Real is very subject to ad-hoc revision. Cutting away to remind us precisely what reality we are in (that of the MCU) is so deeply harmful to this eerie suspension.

Like Adorno and Horkheimer said, “enjoyment is giving way to being there and being in the know.” The show is peppered with obvious easter eggs designed to get viewers hunting lore and getting engaged with the fan community. There is a commercial embedded within each episode. The first commercial is for a Stark Industries toaster. The second is for a Strücker watch. The first, shallow, MCU trivia primes the audience to go seeking for the second. Unless, of course, they’ve seen Avengers Age of Ultron: the movie that exposits the back-stories of both Wanda and Vision, including her connection to Baron Von Strücker – a villain with tentacles throughout the entirety of the Avengers timeline. WandaVision unfortunately shrinks next to this vast back-catalog of work. Where before Wanda was this terrifying and unknowable entity, now, with the background coloured in, she’s a much more mundane person. Just a run of the mill superhero, trapped in some superheroic situation by a dastardly villain. The potential of WandaVision is crushed by its proximity to Marvel. Too much foreign text crowds the work, demands to fill its cracks and make clear its meanings. Ambiguity is bad for brand maintenance. You want to engage the fans. Make them feel good because they knew things. You have to make sure to sneak the S.W.O.R.D. logo in so that the real-in-the-know fans (and anyone with even a shred of curiosity and a working internet connection) can feel cool for Getting That Reference. The fan games Disney encourages engage the aesthetic of study, of knowing. But they don’t engage the act of it. Anyone can Get That Reference. Keeping you in the media ecosystem is what matters.

I mentioned before that Wanda’s subplot in the second episode was at moments almost Lynchian. But this is another place where the show runs into problems. Because Lynch’s work depends on ambiguity. Reality and recollection blur, identities become indistinct. It’s like they wanted to make a Lynchian story for which a vast encyclopedia exists that sorts all the ambiguity and liminality into easily and exhaustively categorized boxes. We keep being given the hard edges of the thing. Thanks to the demands of Marvel marketing, we aren’t watching a story about unknowable beings in some horrifically comic purgatory. 

WandaVision isn’t a show that wants to mystify its audience. It wants instead to show the audience where all the ropes and mirrors are. 

So, no, it isn’t two unknowable godlike beings in an absurd purgatory. We are watching a story about two superheroes in a situation. Their powers are explained to us quickly and cleanly and smoothly not because they’re part of an intricate fantasy Wanda has created but because the writers are quickly getting people up to speed about the only thing that truly matters for a superhero, the Ariadne’s thread that allows for their interpretation: the power set. Occasionally good artists manage to do something with these empty heroes, and perhaps the WandaVision team will be up to the challenge, but for the most part they’re just broad characters with narrowly defined powers getting into and out of various situations. It’s all very normal and mundane. And this is what the constant intrusion of other texts into WandaVision does. It opens the story’s lungs up and watches as the mundane normalcy of Disney infects it.

Marvel’s blasted overture blares over the start of every episode, roaring for people to get excited for the next big spectacle. What they get instead is a horror comedy about loss of identity in an absurd universe. The surreal setting and its oddly incomplete cast of automata create a pervasive liminality that picks away at sense of self, at the certainty of time; it tortures its protagonist with existential questions. “What’s your story,” indeed. The dissonance between the expectations of franchise and the story the writers seem to want to tell rips at the theme. We expect our heroes, any minute now, to smash their way out of the television and to punch the villain until they fall over and everything goes back to normal.

Vision dies in Avengers Infinity War. The magic rock that gives him life is ripped out of his head and he, alone, of all the heroes who were killed by Thanos, doesn’t get to come back. His was the sacrifice that proved consequences could exist in the MCU. So of course he’s back. Because Disney can’t let go of its property. And that’s all Vision is. Disney’s property.

Dreams are forever, but if a dream is forever you can never wake. Franchise stories keep the dream humming along only by deferring the moment of wakefulness where the story ends. WandaVision could be a strange and nightmarish dream. But because it must be cryogenically suspended in the tapestry of the Marvel Brand, because threads must stitch it into this overall, ever-winding fabric of narrative, you can never wake from it. The boundaries that separate WandaVision from Avengers movies are absent. This is just an artful set of scenes in an awful mess of a vast, never-to-be-completed advertisement for itself.

The failed promise of Star Trek Discovery

It’s unfortunate that in a year with a Star Trek show as good as Lower Decks, Discovery, which is arguably the flagship franchise of Trek on TV, was so painfully mediocre. Discovery season one was, at the time it came out, the best first season a Trek show ever had, and with a few small tweaks to costume and structure, season two was even stronger. 

Star Trek Discovery season two was perhaps the most character-driven a season of Trek ever got. It invested us in the lives and relationships of Burnham and Saru, Spock, Pike, Tilly, Stamets and Culber, Owosekun and Detmer, Georgiu and all the rest.

On top of that it told an interesting story of time travel and AI that touched on many themes and anxieties that had their bones in Star Trek as far back as the original series. It asked questions about the duty to protect sentience, the desire to control and to predict chaotic events, automation and reliance on machines.

Discovery’s use of time travel in season two was sharp, and kept the stakes high. The central mystery was tied to the character and thematic conflicts of the season, allowing the solution of the central mystery to be simultaneously an interesting bit of plotting and a cathartic resolution of  the relationships that dominated the season. The end of Discovery season two established a premise for season three that took Star Trek precisely where most people really wanted it: back to its own future. 

And then Star Trek Discovery wasted a season on the worst sort of brand maintenance, and in the process, reduced many of its central relationships to incoherent nonsense.

Saying something nice

But before we get into the postmortem of a season of television that failed, let’s take a moment to talk about the few things Discovery got right. Book is an excellent addition to the cast. This combination of Deana Troi and Beastmaster had a consistent character arc built around his status as a loner and his integration into a community that allowed us to understand his past (through the conflict with his brother,) a sense of who he was (don’t insult the man’s cat,) and gave him both relationships with others in the world and the opportunity to forge new relationships with the principal cast. If you are going to introduce a new, ongoing, cast member into an extant show, Book is a textbook example of doing so well.

I am somewhat more critical of the introduction of Adira. It’s good that Star Trek has decided to include a non-binary character in the central cast. And, as a character, Adira is more interesting than some of their precursors like Wesley Crusher. However centering so much of Adira’s story directly on either a plot-forced relationship with Stamets or with their struggles integrating becoming host to their own dead lover, who the show demands must be made visible, feel heavy-handed and unsubtle at best. In particular, the scene in which Adira announces their preferred pronouns to Stamets felt like nothing but a bit of social scripting introduced to train Generation-X audience members in the appropriate way to respond to Kids Today. However, the precocious ingenue is a time-honored (if occasionally detested) component of Star Trek, and Adira is certainly not the most vexatious example of this trope. That a show so in dialog with the past of Star Trek as Discovery has been should include one should not surprise. And ultimately, Adira remains one of the net-positives of the show. I do hope that they are allowed to continue developing as a character as the series goes on – their arc being less complete than that of Book – but I like the dynamic of introducing a new Science Friend as it’s clear that Tilly will continue shuffling toward a command-track position. Just, perhaps, the scriptwriters should ease up on the throttle on the found-family narrative and allow Stamets to be a colleague rather than a surrogate father.

The relationship between Owosekun and Detmer was also a highlight of the season. I don’t think any character from the established cast was given as much space to grow and develop as Detmer, and Owo’s support of her was well done. It’s a shame that Detmer’s arc was resolved by half-way through the season, leaving little for her to do other than stand in the background, and that, rather than using the relationship between Detmer and herself, and her established abilities to give Owo her heroic turn in the finale, the scriptwriters simply penciled in a special skill.

Finally there was the exit of Georgiu. I’m divided here, because there was so much wasted potential in Georgiou’s storyline; but she did have a solid character arc, she behaved consistently, and (being honest) Michelle Yeoh remained the most entertaining actor performing on Star Trek this year. Her scenery-chewing swings between horny, cruel, protective and gleeful remained the source of much of the show’s levity. 

There was a while when Georgiu seemed to be an interesting critical figure. Her position as a time traveler and as a mirror-universe figure, her multiple displacements, made her an effective stand-in for much of the deconstructive critique that marked the period of Star Trek between Deep Space Nine and Enterprise and this lent her interaction with the ever-so-Rodenberryesque principal cast a form of metatextual dialog which, during the first half of season three, pointed toward an actual theme.

Of course this was bungled in favour of naked fanservice and brand maintenance as she was somewhat unceremoniously shuffled over to her spin-off Section 31 series, in a two-part episode that fell painfully flat.

Brand maintenance was the name of the game for Discovery season three though. So I suppose this isn’t too surprising. 

A story in search of a theme

What was Discovery season three about? Think about it for a second, really try to think about it. What was it about? We could start by taking inventory on where we came from. Discovery season two established that the crew were a found-family. Our named-cast agree, together, to follow Michael into the future in order to protect the Sphere Data and prevent the arisal of the Control AI that would destroy all life in the galaxy.

Michael and Saru, once rivals, have fallen into a gentle and supportive friendship as she has helped him recover his connection to his people and overturn a form of systemic repression that subjugated Kelpiens throughout history. Michael has been promised the opportunity to reunite with her mother.

Stamets and Culber have been reunited, as the Mycelial Network repays Stamets for his efforts in the two seasons of the show to protect the integrity of the universe even at the expense of his own success and notoriety as a researcher. Stamets, in particular, has learned how to set aside his personal desires and act in the interests of the collective.

Tilly remains the loyal friend and Michael’s mentee. Georgiu remains the dark reflection of the other mother who Michael failed – the pull toward utility and practicality to balance the selflessness of her mother’s own arc. And Pike stays behind to spin off with Spock and Number One. This is fine. We always expected that Pike would be a one-season treat. The sphere data is an enigmatic other. The season ends uncertain whether it will be an ally or a threat – just the certainty that it appears aware in some way.

So what would make sense from here? 

We could build off the sense that Michael needs to pick up the mantle of leadership. We could see her building ties in the future, feeling at home, and having the feeling that she should lead. We could see Saru finding himself a bit too rigid, a bit of a fish out of too many waters. Put Saru on the bridge when Osyraa’s regulators board; have it go the same. Let Michael have her die-hard sequence and then have Saru demand Michael take command rather than Tilley. We end in the same place. Saru retired to Kelpinar, Michael as captain. Tilly has been Michael’s mentee since season one episode one so having her remain so, with an eye toward assuming a command role at season-end, (and perhaps a promotion) would have continued to give Mary Wiseman something to do aside from following Saru around being his folly. This would give us a thematic through-line that leadership requires not just genius and thoughtfulness, but some of the willingness to throw oneself into an uncertain future that Michael represents. In fact, such an arc would hark back to the white rabbit motifs of season one. Michael has always been one to go down the rabbit hole.

Or we could lean into the changed politics of the burn and examine what the Federation really is. This would require reconfiguring the order things happen in a bit of course. The introduction of the Emerald Chain in the first episode was the place to plant seeds about the chain’s instability in the lack of Dilithium. 

We could have then met the painfully mis-used Aurellio – who could have been the initial representative of the Chain to the heroes. He could have praised Osyraa’s vision and ability to unite people in the face of adversity. While the Federation retreated to its starbase of pure abstraction, Osyraa is down in the dirt, trying to hold the galaxy together. Then we learn about the exploitation of pre-warp species. But still there’s an excuse. If we don’t bring them in we might lose the galactic culture. They are important. And then the slave camps. Then the horror that girds Osyraa’s rhetoric. Because as the political story is told, we already know the Emerald Chain is a horror before Aurelio ever tries to make a defense of it. As a result, the scene is absurd. There is no way that Stamets could be persuaded, not when we, the audience already know what’s behind the curtain.

And then there’s the central mystery.

This is the great void at the heart of Discovery, season three, and the center of its failure.

The burn is nonsense.

It’s not a political consequence of the Federation. This possibility is explored during the Galactic Tour and then abruptly dismissed. Nor is it a weapon of an enemy. And there were so many enemies to choose. It could have been whichever faction enforces the outcome of the Temporal Wars. It could be the extra-galactic AI of Picard season one. Or the sphere data. Or these could be the same – the burn could be Control’s last shout of “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.” It could have been the Emerald Chain who set off the burn. 

Instead it’s a Kelpian child who was grieving  the death of his mother. This might have worked, if Star Trek wanted to propose that the universe was an absurd place where only our bonds to each other allow us to cling to rafts of reason beneath a deep abyss of chaos. But Star Trek is far too deterministic for this. It’s a clockwork world of blank hologram faces, binary states, a clearly defined right and wrong. It’s a world where you cannot return to the past because There Are Rules.

And there are rules. Except when there are not.

And so the theme becomes brand maintenance; it booms “I am the Guardian of Forever” and hopes that people remember not just that this is literally audio from The Original Series but also that there was almost a spin-off to The Original Series brought about through a time travel story (Assignment: Earth). There are rules. You cannot travel in time. Except when the demands of Michelle Yeoh’s contract, and of the spin-off roadmap demand that time travel must be done. It winks at the audience and hints about what might be next.

It does the same with the sphere data. All the show does with this remaining thread from the last season is wink and hint. Wink and hint. Nothing is settled. Nothing concrete is learned. It’s deferred. We can’t give away the game for Season 4 or we’d have to actually try something new.

The first season of Discovery had a thesis: that the humanist values of Star Trek as envisioned by Roddenberry were good, actually.

The second season of Discovery had a theme: that this good was sufficient to overcome the end of everything; and that deviating from Trekian Humanism was a path that would lead to ruin.

In the third season of Discovery there is no such thesis, no such theme. There is a half-baked story of petrostates when the oil runs out; an attempt to engage a dialectic of Star Trek and Mad Max and find the oneness between these futures. But instead of pinning the rise and fall of the action to a thesis or a theme, this season is just a collection of events, an absurd and meaningless process of moving characters like game pieces into the configuration necessary to carry forward the franchise.

About that dilithium

Star Trek Discovery situates the Federation as a humanism. Season one makes it clear that what makes the Federation good is what makes Starfleet good is what makes Star Trek good and that this is a deliberate centering of its subjects. The show seems to ask that same question De Beauvoir did, “How could {people}, originally separated, get together?” In season one, the Klingons ask, but should we want that. Shouldn’t we cling to our difference? And Star Trek answers no. By coming together, Michael finds absolution, Saru finds community, Stamets finds love and kindness, Tilly finds someone to look up to. These disparate, different, people build a community that is centered around their relations, they build each other up. This is what makes the Federation good

In season two, Section 31 shifts away from Federation humanism and toward a kind of cybernetic utilitarianism. Build a good enough machine and it will predict how to bring people together. It will maximize happiness and oops we made a paperclip maximizer that’s going to kill us all better do a humanism quick. Season two shows us not the Klingon rejection of humanist community but rather a tecnnocratic subversion of it. And then season two tells us why that, too, is wrong.

In season three, all the Federation is, is a collection of ships and bases, and having run out of gas it dissolves. Well except for the hard kernel that later reterritorializes the absence left by its own collapse, and the collapse of the Emerald Chain left behind. But this reterritorialization isn’t the same humanism. We’re told, by our half-baked materialist Osyraa that the Federation is choking on its idealism. It’s a realm of abstraction, of computer generated holograms built explicitly to occupy the uncanny valley, of programmable matter that can be anything (as long as that thing serves plot expedience) and of force fields. So many force fields. But aside from the crew of Discovery, the actual population of the Federation is reduced to three. Aditya Sahil, Vance and Kovich. Three old men. Each isolated within his function. The lighthouse keeper. The admiral. The enigma. There is no community here for Discovery to be a part of.

The show seems to understand this and so it throws its characters into whatever scrap of community they can muster. And so Michael has her plot-convenient crisis of faith because of her community with Book. Stamets adopts his coworker for reasons that are never made clear in the show. It’s not like even the most evil elements of the future are homophobes; so Adira’s queer identity seems like a weak basis for Stamets to decide he must be their surrogate dad. And Saru adopts an elderly Kelpien (one who must be chronologically far older than Saru) rather than continue his duties as captain – something that had been previously very important to him. These honestly bizarre character choices can only be justified as the scriptwriters realizing the lack in their story and attempting to fill it with something, anything. After all. A family is a community too.

So what is the Federation? Is it a community of worlds? If so all that is left of it is N’Var – where the community of worlds has been made manifest in reunification. Is it a family? If so it has become a very small one. Is it just the fuel to make the ships go? The text of Discovery suggests that. But this is just material culture.  Fanon talked about the structure of a nation a lot. He thought a nation was vast and impossible to perceive all at once, what Timothy Morton would have called a hyperobject. When a group of people get together, in the existentialist-humanist sense of the world, then they, the culture they create, the boundaries they set, the land they work, the wars they fight, the vast totality of all those lives is the nation. A culture cannot exist without a nation as culture exists in the agreeing of the members of a nation on what constitutes that culture. A material culture arises out of a nation, but it is the people who compose it. It is the people who invest the material culture with anything resembling meaning. And so, absent any people to be the Federation, it has no culture. Liberation demands a nation too, as liberation is, by necessity an action we do together. And we even get a hint of that in the void the Federation left in its passing – Osyraa is all too happy to fill that with naked power. But without that sense of culture, without the sense of something built, we are left with yet another thing undone at the end of the season. Because there still isn’t a nation at the end. Just a single found family in the absurd void of space. And frankly, Voyager already did that story.  The failure of Discovery to move beyond the themes of the first two seasons in any significant way but also to resolve any new questions or contradictions leaves me with a Sisyphean sense of the story.

I still like these characters. I like Michael and Book. I like Saru in all his contradictions, and Tilly’s uncertainty, I like Stamet’s incendiary emotional pallet and the smooth water that Culber brings. I want to see these characters have adventures that are invested in meaning. We aren’t there right now. As it stands, we leave Michael pushing the rock of Federation Humanism up the slope of history, having it now slipped from her grasp three times, each time to be recovered so she can start again.

I can only imagine her happy.