Gargoyles “Shadows of the Past/Heritage”


Gargoyles Heritage screenshot

We’re back!

After so many weeks of being absent, I have finally returned. Part of my disappearance was due to an increase in work (which has since died down, kind of). Some of it was due to the sheer number of TV shows finishing up their seasons, which of course I had to catch. Some of it was general fatigue – between work, television, and the gym, my body was beginning to wear itself down. I needed to mentally and physically rest. But now I’m back, and not only are essays on their way, but there should be some other things coming too.

But this isn’t about that – this is about the “World Tour” ventures that Goliath, Angela, Bronx, and Elisa are embarking on in the wake of the Avalon saga. As Tom yells to Elisa: “Avalon does not take you where you want to go, Avalon sends you where you need to be.” In other words, while we’re still in the midst of season two, this feels like a new season, or at least a reboot of some sort, a mystical way to create some breathing room between all those crazy, complex, wild events from before and the events coming up. While it’s bit early to tell how things will go, right now it feels like a good idea. Fewer characters, fewer schemes, fewer plotlines – not that Gargoyles was a particularly tough show to keep up with, it was just coming dangerously close to crushing itself under its massive complexity. With episodes like “Shadows of the Past,” the show gets some room to breathe.

“Shadows of the Past” is a unique episode not just of Gargoyles, but of animated TV in general. There’s no real action until late in the episode; instead, there’s a lot of pondering and rumination. It’s no coincidence Disney brought in their A-TEAM animation crew for this, to signify the “reboot” nature of this series and to give the necessary visual panache to an episode dedicated to thinking and talking existentially. It was the details I love most; Elisa almost tripping when she’s climbing a cliff, the wind blowing through her and Angela’s hair, Goliath panting in fear and fatigue – and the strong visuals match up to a strong character-driven episode.

Working with such few characters helps this show immensely, in particular how it focuses on Goliath’s attempt to keep his sanity and Elisa’s and Angela’s attempts to calm him now. Goliath taking stock on his past and his role in the events that happened in “Awakenings” is powerful stuff, and kudos to Michael and Brynne Chandler Reaves to really work and break down his mental state. Gargoyles are driven by both the need to protect and the need to avenge. Without the former, they’re aimless and lost; without the latter, they’re lacking and dishonored. “Shadows of the Past” brings up the latter point to great effect; by not being there for his clan when they were killed, and failing to adequately seek revenge on those who betrayed/killed his clan, has Goliath truly failed in his role as leader?

Essentially, the answer is yes, he failed, but it was far from his fault, and it’s true that Goliath has to come to terms with. But it’s hard, and the two mysterious energy spirits that grant Goliath his fevered visions aren’t helping. I love how the episode lets the weirdness drives the stakes here; it’s pretty obvious that everything he sees is fake, especially when the stone-versions of his former clan appears before him, but to Goliath, all of this is real. The tension isn’t in the audience trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t, but in hoping that Goliath can figure it out for himself. That’s a bold move, letting the audience root for Goliath and not the narrative.

The visions being perpetuated by two green spirit “things,” revealed to be Hakon (the leader of the Vikings which destroyed the gargoyles) and the Captain of the Guard (who betrayed the gargoyles to the Vikings). I’m not sure if the show will get into it, but the episode barely pays lip service to explaining how and why the two are in spirit form, and how they are generating the magic ability to cause such visions. It’s irrelevant thought, as the point is that these two are trapped souls driven by hate and revenge, working in tandem to draw Goliath’s life force out and apply it to themselves, restoring it to them. It doesn’t really make sense (the location where this all take place is nebulous at best), but it doesn’t have to. The point is that Goliath’s guilt is being exploited by Hakon and the Captain.

Once again, the theme of purpose and drives are full force and center, but here, the question of that drive is brought into focus. Gargoyles hasn’t really put a lot of stock into the thought of whether the ideas that drive a person to continue on is justified, at least not until this episode, and I’m curious if that something the show will explore later on. Here, though, as the Captain watches Hakon draw Goliath’s life force away, he too takes stock of his role in the gargoyles’ destruction, and realizes his own failures. He attempts to atone for this by attacking Hakon, and in a visually strong moment, the two spar within the strange, hieroglyphic-laden structure as everything glows and surges around them. Again, there’s no clarity as to exactly what’s going on, but the idea is clear. Everything explodes, and when the smoke clears, the Captain is finally granted the freedom to move on into the afterlife. He and Goliath, after thousands of years, finally come to, if not an understanding, then at least a peace.

Goliath and company head back out into the waters to try and head home, and Hakon is trapped in rock, and its telling that what upsets him the most is not being trapped, but not having anyone to hate. For you see, having nothing to drive you is a fate worse than being stuck somewhere for all eternity, a fate that, as Goliath mentions, he chose for himself. It’s a strong episode, one of the best since “Awakenings,” really. I kinda feel bad for Elisa at the end though, who has to wait by the stoned gargoyles all day before they can move on.

After such a great outing with “Shadows of the Past,” “Heritage” is a letdown. The A-TEAM animation is replaced with Sun Min, who do passable work, although I’m not sure they were given a strong script to work with. “Heritage” is a lot more episodic, attempting to be something like the really fun “Protection,” where the Elisa and the gargoyles appear in a random locale with problems, get involved, and fight their way into saving the day. With a little more work and time Gargoyles will most assuredly get better at this during this “reboot” period, but “Heritage,” comparatively speaking, feels sophomoric.

Part of the issue is that it kinda plays uncomfortably in the “Native Americans are all about their past and closeness to the earth!” cliche, with only a few moments of depth that allow it to surpass it. Adam Gilad, the episode’s writer, most likely meant well when writing this episode, but a lot of the developments border on generic stereotypes, like Natsilane (who’s Westernized nickname, Nick, is portrayed as being distancing from his heritage), who is so engaged in Western ideas (he graduated Harvard, ya’ll!) that he isn’t able to connect to his Haida history, and as a result the land is dying.

“Heritage” isn’t a bad episode per se, but it’s definitely lacking. After a weird sea monster attacks their boat and simply swims away (the gargoyles put up a good fight but there’s no way in hell they could’ve bested that beast), they find themselves separated from Elisa. Elisa, near-dead, is nursed back to health by Nick’s grandmother, who is referred to as Grandmother, while the gargoyles side with a creature-gargoyle named Raven. For a chunk of the episode, there is an interesting grey area, the story blurring the line of who’s the real villain: Raven claims Grandmother is persecuting his brethren, while Grandmother claims Raven is sucking the land dry and taking it for himself. The episode isn’t a moral quandary though. It’s clear that Raven is the true villain.

The episode doesn’t explain who he is outside of a dangerous evil being, and even though there’s always the chance we’ll see Raven in the future, the episode doesn’t hint at anything significant, or even why he’s wants the land in the first place. Part of me thought he was one of Oberon’s children, the dark elves that pop up from time to time to just cause trouble (like Puck), but it’s revealed that Grandmother is actually one of Oberon’s children. (SPOILER: some research revealed that Raven is a children of Oberon, which raises the question why Raven and Grandmother were fighting in the first place. I mean, we could get into a whole thing about Oberon’s relationship to the Haida history and the land, and I’m eager to see if Gargoyles will get into that, but I have my doubts).

There are some things I like about this episode. I like that Angela noticed what looked to be an animation error – a wing from a flying monster moving through one of Raven’s fake-gargoyle – as an illusion and played it cool, revealing it to her father later. It’s only been two episodes (not counting “Avalon”) and we don’t have a real sense of who Angela is, but she seems to be a bright, self-sufficient character who can kick ass. We haven’t passed the Bechdel test yet, since Elisa and Angela so far have talked mostly about Goliath and other males in the show, but I don’t think it can quite apply here. Still, I’m curious to see if they both move past that and grow as characters. Angela is still a blank slate, but any more development on Elisa is always welcome!

As for the episode… well, after Angela exposes Raven for the sham he is, all the layers come tumbling down. Grandmother exposes herself as a child of Oberon, the gargoyles reveal themselves to Nick, gaining his trust and restoring his belief in “the old ways,” and he gains all the necessary magic powers to defeat Raven, in a surprisingly anti-climatic fight scene. Again, it’s a bit unclear what Grandmother’s connection to the land is – the ending sequence, where Grandmother’s hair turns into water that restores life to the land is oddly not commented upon – and while the show’s commitment to accuracy is commendable, correctly placing the Haida tribe in western Canada, it isn’t exactly on point when it comes to clothing.

“Heritage” feels like a placeholder, an episode designed to given the whole “World Tour” premise some context – that is, to display the kind of episode adventures these core characters will find themselves in. I do hope things from a narrative perspective will improve though. The potential is there. Hell, I even enjoyed Raven, with his sassy remarks, he makes a for a entertaining villain who seems to enjoy himself, a nice addition to the self-serious badguys of Gargoyles’ rogue gallery. But “Heritage” focus on “Othering” without giving characters like Nick something to build on other than the “get in touch with your roots!” type of agency that he has in the entire episode makes it overall disappointing. I’m hoping we’ll see Nick, Grandmother, or Raven again, but I feel like, other than Raven, this is a narrative thread the show won’t be coming back to. It’s understandable – Avalon most likely have more significant events for our characters to deal with. I could be wrong though.

“Shadows of the Past” A / “Heritage” B-

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  1. #1 by Nina on June 4, 2014 - 6:52 pm

    Good to see the Gargoyles recaps/reviews back. I’m going to warn you – the Avalon World Tour arc contains a lot of “gang goes to x to solve problem” episodes. However, they do serve to expand the Gargoyles universe, and help build up to the last chunk of episodes.

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