Gargoyles “Avalon”


Gargoyles Avalon screenshot

Wow.

Wow wow wow wow wowsers.

After a couple of straightforward, semi-exciting, semi-bland episodes, the three-part “Avalon” is a smack in the face of totality, of aggressive forward momentum that I somewhat complained was lacking since “City of Stone,” really. “Avalon” is a multi-layered, densely-packed saga that is intensely complicated, lying somewhere between a Moffat season of Doctor Who and the sheer audacity of Primer. I actually wondered what it would have been like watching this live as a kid, without the ability to rewatch, rewind, or record. It must have been mind-blowing and frustrating.

I quite enjoyed “Avalon” in the broadest sense, and I certainly will never fault any show for being ambitious and daring. I think it works much better to look at “Avalon” as on full unit instead of each episode separately, mainly because the first two function primarily on flashbacks, and there’s no reason to re-hash past episodes. Needless to say, “Awakenings,” “Long Way to Morning,” “A Lighthouse in the Sea of Time,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “Vows,” “City of Stone,” “The Price,” and other episodes all have a part in what occurs in “Avalon,” and I’m much less interested in how it all fits together (since time travel, like a tower of cards, falls apart the second you start to poke at it) and more interested in how it develops its plot, characters, and themes.  “Avalon” works as three episodes of incredible mind-fuckery; at a narrative, personal, or thematic level, it’s a tad bit more hit or miss.

Thinking about these episodes more, I realize that “Avalon” is really about Magus. I mean, of course it’s about Goliath and his eggs, the mysterious Avalon and the Weird Sisters, the Archmage and the Tom the Guardian. Yet Magus’ role in all this feels the most complete, the most substantial. It is his story of regret and redemption, of pride and unrequited love, and how he went from a slightly insecure, bratty mage-in-training to a powerful, tragic sorcerer. Part of me wish we really got more on Magus’ role in all this, but part of me absolutely loves the restraint put on his story, revealing everything we need to know, and ending his life in perfect tragic fashion. But I digress.

“Avalon” begins with Tom, the little blond boy from “Awakenings,” arriving in New York all grown up and all clad in armor, convincing Goliath, Bronx, and Elisa to return with him to the mystical Avalon. While traveling he recounts the entire tale of how things played out after “Awakenings.” It’s pointless to go over EVERYTHING, but the broad strokes are that Princess Katherine, Magus, and, uh, Tom and his mother (who kinda seem randomly as chosen guardians to bring along) take the eggs to Katherine’s uncle, King Kenneth. Here we get some more DELICIOUS Shakespearean drama, what with the king’s lover, Finella, actually in love with a Lord Constantine who only cares about himself and power, and then he incites a riot, kills the king, and takes control of the kingdom. He then demands Katherine as his wife, but SHE AIN’T HAVING IT, so she and her crew (along with the king’s lover, who finally got over her jealousy and own sense of betrayal), sneak out of the castle with the eggs on their way to Avalon. As soapy as all this is, the episode definitely works through those plot points really fast, which honestly is probably for the best. I mean, half the lover’s quarrel plot is exposited by Tom’s mother randomly, Lord Constantine kills the king rather easily, the king’s son is barely involved, etc. The whole thing was basically “City in Stone” condensed to one-third of an episode, just so we can get the hell out of there.

Before I continue, I feel like I have to mention that Gargoyles has a particularly negative view of not just New York, but the overall world. It’s seems to always be on the verge of danger or violence, which is a bit odd during a time period when New York was specifically fighting its way out of the drudgery and chaos of the 70s and 80s and building itself up into the commercialized, sell-out vision of early 2000 (the city that never sleeps is the city that never wins). The gargoyles seem to fight crimes every night. Tom’s arrival is immediately met with a violent encounter with three thugs seemingly out of nowhere. I know that there are some vicious thugs out there, but even the violent 80s criminals would steer clear of armor-wearing, Scottish-accented, sword-wielding characters. I bring this up to point out that the fight here seems forced, but also to note that, for a series of episodes that should have been produced by Disney’s signature animation studios, we instead are given their third best, Koko (their second best being Jade). Koko does great backgrounds and handles wide shots fine; close-ups they seem to struggle with, especially with spacing out the pacing. The battle here goes from intense to joking, really jarring the viewing on how to interpret the tone of the moment.

Tonal shifts hurt Avalon than it believes. When Princess Katherine head over to Avalon with her team, they face the Weird Sisters, who are apparently just the guardians of Avalon. The reveal that these powerful beings are simply guardians is somewhat disappointing, especially when “the sleeping king” of Avalon fights like a regular guy. These powerful beings lose to Magus, and there’s something off here, what with the sisters being transformed into owls after Magus reflects their spell. I don’t know. It seems like the sisters lose too easily. I guess it’s because the Grimorum is really powerful, but “Avalon” kind of implies that its nothing compared to the magic of Avalon, a place where one hour equals one day. I think its because there’s no rules or scale to the magicks in this show, no clarity of power. Like, no outside magic is allowed on Avalon, but it’s never explained why.  Does Magus read spells from the Grimorum or can he just cast them? Later in the saga, the Eye of Odin, which caused Fox’s physical transformations in “Eye of the Beholder,” allows the Archmage to control the power of the Grimorum when he eats it (I’m going to get to that in a second). Since when does the Eye have that ability? It was created on Avalon, so now we’re back to Avalon’s magic being stronger than human magic?

This becomes more convoluted when present-Archmage, who is a magical badass, travels back in time to teach his wussy past self how to be awesome. This is really where all those episodes I mention above come in, as the Archmage works a Xanatos-like scheme in gathering the magic items, as well as pulling the Weird Sisters, Demona, and Macbeth to their side. Seeing if all this works out at a narrative level is beside the point; the important thing is how the show pulls this off, which it does with a bit of skill, comedy, and oddness. Watching the pieces come together is definitely fun, and present-Archmage shitting on past -Archmage is humorous. “Bending the rules without breaking them,” however, doesn’t work really, because it isn’t as if they found loopholes so much as the show reached way out there to make things work. I mean, the Archmage gets the Grimorum onto Avalon by eating it, which is the kind of logic that allows dogs to play basketball (the rules didn’t say you couldn’t DIGEST the book!).

Disappointingly, the entire Archmage character is simply a mustache-twirling villain. He just wants power and revenge, which is surprisingly shallow from a show known for complex, fully-realized bad guys. Gargoyles, as always, is a show about finding a purpose for moving on, for living and powering through even the roughest of circumstances. The Archmage’s purpose is certainly driven, but it’s buffoonery at the most simplistic levels. I mean, the guy, who is basically a god now, keeps toying with his victims on Avalon, which includes a half-assed invasion of the castle and a ridiculous (and poorly animated, even for Koko) sand/beach fight. I think the Archmage is supposed to be laughable though, since see says stuff like, “At dawn, you will die. Get used to it.” How was that not followed by a maniacal laugh?

The Archmage’s lack of character is tragic because it crushes an angle to Magus’ story, a man who secretly loved Katherine and cursed the gargoyles for a thousand years in a fit of emotional rage. He was torn by this act, as well as his feelings for Katherine, which greatly affect his confidence in magic. He struggles with spell casting and age, reflecting his battled feelings, watching his love fall for Tom over the years on Avalon. He doesn’t believe his magic is strong enough to go up against the Archmage or the Weird Sisters. The guy is in a tailspin, keeping up his facade for the eggs and the hatched gargoyles running around, and it’s wonderful stuff to watch. He was a student of the Archmage, and it sucks that this part of his story wasn’t explored further – how would he feel about his teacher becoming a monster? He should’ve been the one finally going up against him. Instead, he fights off the Weird Sisters, who come quite close to besting him, but he draws power from the sleeping king’s parlor, sacrificing his life to save everyone on Avalon. Watching him fade away with Katherine and everyone by his side was a truly powerful moment, ending one of the better character arcs on the show’s run.

The other battles are fairly uninteresting. For one thing, I’m still unclear why Demona and Macbeth are so hard to beat. Yes, they have weapons. Yes, they’re trained in battle. Yes, the gargoyles are not fighters. But they have sheer numbers and know the layout of the land and magic of their own. The fights feel strangely isolated, with scenes of Demona going up against Elisa and Macbeth going up against the sleeping king, which everyone else standing around and, uh, watching? Oh, the sleeping king is King Arthur, who is awoken by Elisa and Magus after a bunch of trials and tribulations. Yet he’s useless (without Excalibur) and doesn’t seem particularly powerful, but he does beat Macbeth, so that happens. Demona is beaten when Katherine fires a laser gun so a shitload of debris falls on the gargoyle, which I guess was supposed to be an AWESOME FEMALE MOMENT, but, I mean, Katherine doesn’t know how to use a laser gun, and why not shoot Demona instead of wall above her (yes, I know, S&P, but the whole point of laser guns is to get away with shooing other characters without repercussions). Also, Goliath beats the Archmage with ease, which of course he would, and it’s also uninteresting because the Archmage does all the stupid-villain stuff you see in lamer TV shows, like talk too much and be arrogant and make terrible decisions in battle. (Goliath rips the Eye of Odin off the Archmage’s head, and he can’t control the power of the Grimorum he ATE, and I guess this goes against the rules of Avalon so Avalon kills him. Again, the rules of magic are rather unclear and arbitrary.)

I feel like “Avalon” also missed out on re-acclimating Goliath to the gargoyles on Avalon. The gargoyle seeing his clan’s eggs hatched and all grown up should’ve been something significant, but it kinda feels glossed over for that silly sand/beach fight. It’s especially odd, considering Goliath has met his daughter for the first time. I’m not too worried about this, since I imagine he’ll be learning more about her later. Still, I feel like the show kind of did a disservice here, especially in keeping Demona under a spell and unable to react to seeing her old clan’s descendents. They kinda have a moment where Goliath snaps Demona out of her trance, but the Archmage immediately resumes control. The ending simply flops Macbeth and Demona onto a boat and ships them off, which finalizes what seems like a missed dramatic opportunity .

Despite my criticisms, though, “Avalon” handles it all fairly well, via great pacing and fun characters with excellent VO work, selling every moment with A+ appeal. It’s really just a lot of fun, which is the most important thing, animation and plot points aside. At this point, Gargoyles begins what is known by the fanbase as the “World Tour,” where Elisa, Goliath, Bronx, and Angela (who is his daughter) travel to random locals and deal with stuff. It’s CRAZY that the show completely decides to shift gears to more randomized episodes; I guess they too found “Protection” a lot of fun and wanted to do more of that. I’m sure that the will be more serialized aspects in the upcoming episodes, but the emphasis will be more on being episodic, and hopefully this will allow things to be looser and freer, in a way. Unfortunately I will have to get to those episodes at another time, as I will be taking another break due to work, vacation, and the upcoming episodes of the remaining television season. I’ll be back to you this summer, Gargoyles!

“Avalon” A-

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  1. #1 by Nina on March 16, 2014 - 12:24 am

    I always felt that Katherine didn’t shoot Demona directly because although Demona had turned on her clan, she was still part of it, and I believe that Katherine respected that. I don’t think she wanted to be responsible for any more dead gargoyles.

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