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.

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.