Reaping Potential

Just the rambles of a person who is still relentlessly feeling so many feelings about this and wants to let them go. I want to move on. I wanted this to be an academic analysis but quite frankly I don’t have the stamina and I’m tired and want to let it go. I’ve learned my lessons from this story and hope we all did too. I know I’m not the only one who was shattered by the ending, who was hurt and betrayed by a story filled with so much love, ending with so little. I guess I want to put this as my own method of processing. I hope it helps. Is it a bit stupid? Yeah. It’s been more than a month. But I’d like to be done mourning a story that I believed was going to live somewhere. 

This was originally planned to be a giant analysis on how Critical Role didn’t pay off its storyline, but the more that I think about it, the less I want to do it. There’s a reason TTRPG live shows do not receive the same sort of critical scrutiny as their more concise audio-visual cousins of film and television. It’s an endeavor to evaluate 400-some hours of storyline that is both game, and story, and live, and not up to the creators all the time, with all the complexity of mechanics in storytelling and parasocial relationships mixed in. It’ll be a grand endeavor for someone to begin to unravel, but quite frankly, there are people more attached to analyzing this new media than me. I wish them luck on their job. I have my thoughts and I do feel that criticism in this new media — the sort of criticism that legitimizes all new art by analyzing what its achieving and what its consequences are — are very necessary (while getting into Critical Role, I was amazed at the complete lack of review essays, criticism, and analysis) but I’m not going to take upon that mantle. There are people who care more, and I pass the grace of pioneering this new media’s criticism to them. 

What I’ve realized is that when I’m angry, it’s very often not an issue with what I’m angry about. When I see a family member lounging and I feel a pang of rage, it’s not with the fact that they are lounging — rather, they deserve some rest, I understand that, logically. Emotionally, I’m an inferno: how dare they rest while I cannot? The issue isn’t with them — it’s that I have some sort of barrier that doesn’t allow me to partake in rest with them. 

I had the same realization while writing this out. I could stay angry at this series for doing, what I initially ascribed, as severely under-realizing its potential. I was so furious that it picked up concepts it could not grapple with. I was angry that it didn’t follow through with set-up in a satisfying pay-off. I was miserable at the idea that after all this, after 400 some hours, after Thursday after Thursday, this was the ending that we got, that left all its grand ideas untalented and whimpered to a shadow of its former glorious self.

Then I thought to myself, geeezuuussss, there’s a lot that I need to work through myself.

I understand that I am also a person with insanely high standards for media and that Critical Role was one of the few things that impressed me at a time when I needed some reason for storytelling to exist. It was proof, for me, that stories can still be raw, real, and rewarding. I search for transformation. I search for it in an intelligent , reflective, grasping way. I want to find stories that are willing to go places that my emotions cannot find an outlet for in reality — a form of rich catharsis. That’s an insane bar for something to hit, and when a friend recommended this to me and I understood what concepts and nuance this show was playing with, I allowed myself to hope that I can find that transformation within it.

This is not a sustainable system. I barely understand my own emotions so I search for something that mirrors them and makes me feel in a way that I cannot access in my usual emotional life. I feel that recognition, that “oh there’s something bruised here that I didn’t know existed” and I prod it, hoping that by mulling over this enough, I can unlock something that I couldn’t see before. These characters and the personal nuance and complexity they held with their stories and inter-relations scratched that itch with this raw feeling in a way that I haven’t felt in a *very* long time, so naturally, I came back. And I hoped. I connected the dots and I woke up Friday mornings to think about the events of the previous episode and I drew so much art, like never before in my life quite frankly, because I needed to get this emotion out of me— it was too powerful to maintain. 

There’s something also incredibly moving to experience something in fandom. It’s been a long time since I experienced something this communally, this in time with the actual events of the story. It subsumed the cadence of my week — being a Critical Role fan is a lifestyle that sometimes I wonder how much I chose and how much I succumbed to. The creative fervor and enthusiasm of the fans sustained me during my lonely early months of quarantine. I found so many friends through it — not just as a sustained interest in the same thing, but a similar type of interest in the same thing. It felt good to not be lonely in seeing something special. I value those creative connections through our shared muse so, so much. The muse may not be as inspirational anymore, but the artwork and experience still remains.

I still cant think about the actual events of the series and endjng without crying (this? They get this ending, for all that story?). I hope to get it out and continue living my life. Don’t remember which Between the Sheets had this phrase, but one of the cast had to choose between reality and fiction. They chose reality, and I remember being surprised, for some odd reason. It’s so obvious now that is the only legitimate and satisfying choice. A story cannot achieve the transformation you seek for you; you have to seek it in the reality of the world you live in. In essence, you have to do the work yourself. After recently reading Jenny Odell’s “How to do Nothing,” I’ve been craving reality away from the systems that take my attention, energy, and life cadence away from me. The systems that benefit off of taken attention can’t give the satisfaction of the love that follows said attention. Attention is something freely given. I’ve been listening to more birdsong, wiping oil paint off my fingers, stretching for dance lessons. No matter what, while fiction can affect reality and can feel so, so real, it is still fiction. It can have a transformative effect, but hey, I can do that on my own too.

As a smart friend said, “so what that a series didn’t end the way you wanted to? Stop this, love yourself,” I can now say, a goddamn month later, I feel like I can finally, stupidly, throw all these thoughts on a page, as disparate and unconnected and unedited they are, take a deep breath, and let go.

D&D as storytelling

D&D a narrative story made by many people at once. The DM controls the world and shows the impact that the player characters have on the universe. There is both planning and organic storytelling in the moment, with certain actions left up to chance that everyone accepts as true (dice rolling). This is then steamed live, no pauses or edits, to a live audience, who live through the experience in the same real time as the actors. Together, as the actors have their raw experience together, forming a story in the air between them, the viewer sees it and feels it in the same moments as them, creating a very strong bond with the occurrence.

The space between thinking “the plot should do this. My character should do this” and that actually HAPPENING is instantaneous. It’s not a team of developers working for years on crunch – it’s someone saying something and it immediately being a fact. The magic of watching cr at the table, how I explain to my friends who could not comprehend what I’m spending my time on, was I felt like I was an ancient person, sitting at a fireplace with my tribe mates, and we were looking at the stars, and we were making a story together. And it was real. And it lived between us. Even if I didn’t say anything, the story was between us, the fire, and the stars. My attention was rewarded because the innate humanity of what I was feeling was the same thing happening with the players at the table. I paid attention to something; so did they. They reacted like real people do. In a sterile and false media environment, where there is no little connection and vulnerability in truth, this didn’t feel realistic — it felt true. Primitive, even, like the fire between us and the stars above us, telling a story in the moment like every culture before writing technology.

Analysis

I’m going to stick literary analysis stems from objectively seeing What Is In The Text. the first thing every one of my media classes did is “ok what’s LITERALLY happening on the screen.” And we had to explain, “that character faced left, that character walked over here, that’s a medium shot, this take is very long.” And then you work with those objective facts. Granted, how you interpret them is different, but what’s in the text is exactly what’s in the text. You can notice omission – such as how every other couple had a scene of what their lives are like together except for the wizards, who got exposition. You can notice intention, but you have to look at What Was Physically There. In complex media, we have words, visuals, and audio, three different levels of analysis. In D&D, you have the added layer that you’re not seeing the characters or the world — you’re seeing actors at a table who constantly break into their non-acting selves. I’m not just happy for Yasha, who finally broke her chains, I’m happy for Ashley, who looks like she’s having a moment of rapture. That’s the parasocial nature of this medium at work. We’re not here for these characters, we’re here for what these people choose to show for us as well. For this analysis, I will try to keep the parasocial to a minimum, for that relationship means something different to each of us.

Yes, it’s their story and their game, just like any author’s characters and books is their book. But if its out in this world and expects to be treated seriously, it has to be receptive to criticism. Actual criticism. For a long-form 500-hour commitment, Critical Role is a hard thing to critique — you have to love it at least a little bit to want to 

And then I think abt how ttrpgs are  venn diagrammed with video games and the question of evaluating something as a collective storytelling experience and also is it art and also this is new and not respected as it’s own thing

Chuck: Ok ok ok another thing – twt people often say something along the lines of “it’s improvised so we should hold it to different standards” but never elaborate on what those adjusted standards/means of evaluation are? Like I would be genuinely curious to hear what differences they expect there to be when both improv storytelling and pre-written media are creating a story. What allowances are we making? Does that just mean the actors get to make a bad story and we can’t criticize it for that alone? The only time I see it come up is in the face of viewers not enjoying something

What happened

Let’s start at the beginning: what quite literally happened in the show?

–        141 episodes broken with a pandemic. An incredible assortment of very suspicious characters trying to constantly reason why they’re together and what they;re doing. The world is filled with intrigue, alliances, and depth, and its up to the players to decide their actions in a complex system with its own history, connected players, and consequences. At many points the characters engage and don’t with certain plot points according to their character’s motivations at various points in their development.

–        The later half did not meet the former half at all, leading to its spiraling demise, and illuminated the faults with the whole premise.

 Episode 140

  • I wish 140 was where we left off. A major climactic battle against an enemy (which I guess they had a relationship to?) that used everyone’s skill set and had beautiful character moments that felt like natural points to conclude the audience’s viewership. I wasn’t personally invested in the Somnovum/Cognoza/Lucien plot, other than the fact that it was someone with the face of their dead friend. I couldn’t understand the stakes of the pattern that Lucien wanted to unleash, I didn’t understand why the Nein wanted to stop it, other than the fact that oh, this is creepy and big and weird. I went along with it.
  • The battle itself was riveting with excellent character moments. A couple that stood out to me include Jester landing the killing blow with a declaration of regret that she wasn’t there to save Mollymauk, Fjord protecting Veth, Caduceus, and Jester with marine layer and some of the best dynamic battle strategy I’ve seen, and Essek pulling Caleb from that tower with his strength, having a moment of connection, and stepping back into the fray without their baggage. The villain was defeated, and the the resurrection ritual failed, and Essek broke down crying over a stranger that his friend cared for in a tremendous show of character growth and empathy, and Fjord comforted him in the most tender and solid way that showed his own growth and character as the protector, the one who steers them through tough waters, and I felt, ok, they received a roll they didn’t like and they still made meaning from it. The meaning is to go on. “Do you accept defeat, Caleb Widogast?” Essek asked, knowing that these people have done the impossible over and over and over, never giving up, always trodding further, always so full of love and motivation. While Caleb can’t respond, Caduceus prays.
  • It had Fjord protecting everyone with Marine Layer, the guardian of the group. It had him speaking truth and making meaning when a miracle couldn’t occur.
  • It had Jester finally expressing her regret that she wasn’t there to save Molly.
  • It had Essek wrestling with his grief and his connection getting him out of it the funk. It had him crying over a stranger, empathetic for this body and his friends.
  • It was Caduceus, originally called to bury a stranger, stating that he wanted to save a soul, and “putting it back.”
  • It had Caleb bending the universe to his will with his imagination
  • It was Yasha, the Orphanmaker, being looked at with the soft eyes of “love.”
  •  Yasha got her best friend back. The most beautiful person she’d seen, who brought her back from a memory-addled haze of destruction, who found her a family to land back on her feet with, who was so alone and so filled with love and so filled with rage. She got her best friend back. So what if he didn’t remember her? He called her “love.”
  • 140 had so much art. So much friendship, so much of a high. We could’ve believed this story. Ok, fine, it’s about friendship, I’ll buy it since I’ve been with these characters for so goddamn long. Then 141 happened and the immediate effect? Complete and utterly stunned silence. People who voiced their disappointment were piled on, people who saw whatever lovely crumbs latched onto those and called it canon.
  • 140 didn’t pay off the whole story, but it did enough. It paid off the hole in the story that was a death from 120something episodes ago. Their first real loss, their first glue that held everyone together. So what if they don’t deal with the external plot? They’ll magic this wound and heal as a party. This isn’t this continent’s story, this is their story. This is more than just fine, it’s a showcase that this story was about the Mighty Nein all along.
  • 141 reminded me that I was foolish for expecting pay-off for this set-up.

——————————

WHAT WENT WRONG WITH THE FINALE

  • The 7-hour finale began with me furiously writing to friends: is it just me or is the vibe off? A couple folks responded that sure, there’s a vibe, and none of us could pinpoint what it was.
  • We began with the normal slow ramp-up to actual character decisions — Molly returned, but didn’t, and the feeling of expectation and care and “oh there’s something to play with here” quickly dissipated into nothing. Wasn’t there a victory in the previous episode? Didn’t we get something of our friend back? Jester had a lovely conversation with her mom about her love life while Jester was going on a suicidal mission to Antarctica and also Space while Veth reunited with her family and said that never again would they be separated. Come with her. Caleb stood there, waiting to teleport them back, looking at mother and father and son, together. They return and Jester takes off her necklace, and Caleb received a very ominous message from Trent and suddenly, after a climactic battle in the previous episode, we were fighting again. The battle itself felt stupidly easy once they figured out how to clear it and Trent fell to the ground under Beau’s direction, Veth’s glue, and Astrid’s decisiveness. Astrid took out her knife, ready to finish the person who created her venom with a decisive, cathartic action, and Beau and Caleb stopped her with a self-righteous appeal to justice in the face of someone who’s whole life was consumed by this man. And I stared in shock that these two characters who both understood the gravity of what Trent did and can tell the horror of what Astrid went through — somehow they persuaded her to not kill him for a testimony. Astrid screamed into the air and Trent lived and all sense of catharsis immediately dissipated. Molly wasn’t back, the abused can’t eradicate the abuser from their lives — this story won’t have a satisfying ending.
  • It’s hard for me to watch the rest of the episode. I know at one point Essek said goodbye, repeating himself, so clearly wanting anyone to ask him to stay, and they bade him farewell into his isolated outpost, waiting for assassins and discovery, like good friends do. I was so caught up in tears that he so obviously wanted anyone to tell him no, don’t go, you mean something to me. I can’t remember what else happened in the finale. Fjord met Vandran and I was thinking, man, this would’ve been a cool thing to set off to do and then leave to the imagination. I don’t remember what Jester does except be next to Fjord (I know she does other things, I know she does, she always had her own path to follow). Beau and Yasha have a lovely domestic scene and then nearly a battle when Yasha goes to the Wastes — a place never visited in the story, a place that Yasha’s arc seemingly intended to grow past (I understand returning to the place of origin for other characters. I did not understand it here). Kingsley did whatever and I could not care less for a character who appeared from nowhere with the face of someone I once knew.
  •  Complete lack of stakes
  • Lack of purpose in the narrative
  • Characters going back to where they came from (this isn’t objectively bad, but I also wonder — why go back? What has changed? Do you see it differently? Youre back – now what?)
  • Characters giving up
  • Every single narrative thread either dealt with in the most lazy, swift way, or forgotten
  • No real consequences for organic actions
  • The things that brought me to this series: the spontaneity, the role of chance, the raw joy of creating something in real time — none of that felt present. 

I felt like I was watching an episode of Narrative Telephone — the stilted voices, the quiet doom, the silence in-between as we vigorously try to figure out what’s next. Are we landing this plane? Come on, just crash already and get it over with.

 (To get stupid for a second — what I cannot get past is that they recorded this 7-hour collapse, sat on it for a week, warned us all about it, and then calmly released it into the world, saying they were proud of it. Now that’s some goddamn good acting. I can say less about good decision-making.)

WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THE FULL GODDAMN THING

  • Reacting to events rather than choosing them and no follow through and no consequences
  • Hoping that everything would set up to something
  • Running away from conflict
  • Structural issues with how they told the story — who’s the writer? What choices did they make?
  • Obvious with Essek and Lucien
  • As critical role ramped up, I had full faith that they would connect all the dots they held. And not just connect them, but cherish the gold they had created. If there’s anything that frustrates me to the point of rage, its when people do not value what they have. The episodes of 90 – 99 were the best example of this, with 91, 94, 95, 97 as their major highs. The cast was making connections abt their relationships, affecting the world by interlocking a peace. Every character was related to the events of 97 in some capacity and recognized the gravity of the moment — one broken person, who had full right to respond to a revelation with rage and pain, instead chose to give another broken person who had recognized their hurting actions — they responded with a second chance. They responded with grace, not necessarily forgiveness, since it is not their forgiveness to give, but a “you can choose to not do this. You can choose to be better.” And I had never felt more hopeful, more gleeful, more shaken with a story’s decisions and consequences.
  • What happened to this breakneck energy? These revelations, these interlocking stories, this grand tale that binds all these characters together, that promises catharsis?
  • A character-driven story that forgot that internal motivation was needed to actually progress forward. Twice, by a vaguely evil-aligned purple NPC they were asked about their plans. Twice, they evaded the question without any real answers. There was a plot, in the towers of Zadash, in the basement of Yeza’s Felderwin house, on the deck of the Wind of Eons. It was a story of reckoning of what actions led us here, and what actions can get us out. What do we need to do to leave a story better than they left it.

The pandemic

  • Distance, it’s all fucking distance. Pandemic distance. Distance from the texture and reality of the world. Distance from each other’s real emotions. Distance that creates cold hearts, not the vulnerability that characterized the series at its highest moments.
  • The fragile state of the group’s connection to the narrative and each other barely allowed for consequence. I still think about the Nein’s confusion after they failed and yet still pulled off Rumblecusp. After coming back from break, the confusion, drag, and lack of engagement with the obvious points should’ve been a warning about the new trajectory of the series rather than a simple “oh they’ll remember how to play again!!”
  • It’s been months — of course so many things would be forgotten. 
  • From March to July, the cast thought their thoughts, and the fandom thought theirs. The fandom analyzed the political alliances of Wildemount, dove into what a “war criminal” actually means regarding real-world Geneva Conventions (funny enough, Essek doesn’t count, but Caleb does), considered all possible avenues of possible next actions, knowing that we left on a point of conflict. What to do about Essek? And the cast was split in 98/99 and that was a delicious point of interparty tension and ideology. Should they keep their loyalty to their new friend and keep his secret? What’s more important to them, the righteousness of handing over the mole they were searching for or keeping the peace between these two mistrusting nations? If Essek’s crimes held weight, what about the Nein’s comparable crimes? Do they have a list to go after? Where are they on the list? What does “good” mean? If Essek doesn’t feel remorse, yet still wants the war to end — what to do with that conflicting information? How do they trust when even this new friend betrayed them before he knew them?
  • And while the fandom mulled over this for months, obviously the cast was coming to their own conclusions as well. If only we saw how it came to fruition.

THE PANDEMIC

  • I don’t think it’s necessary to say what went down March 2020. The world stopped and Critical Role stopped with it. We maintained our distance, wore our masks, and stepped away from our loved ones to save them from our potential harmful selves.
  • The cast returned to play in July after 4 months apart. They sat at separate tables, six feet apart.
  • This is going to be a reductive analysis that brings some of the parasocial elements back into play, but please be patient with me. The distance was apparent. Between the cast, who could no longer whisper questions to each other and stay engaged in the story while a different scene was happening. Between the story, where the most relevant and pressing plot points were discarded and forgotten. Between the world, that no longer felt quite real, where consequences hit those who dared.
  • I should be the last one to say that the summer and fall of 2020 weighed especially heavy in the United States. From one crisis to another, this impending feeling of doom, rising Covid cases, a government that quite simply did not care if people lived or died, a lack of accountability for humanity-infringing powers. Families couldn’t see each other. I can’t explain how isolated, angry, and despairing the country was. We were there.
  • I understand the hesitation to touch heavier topics such as systemic abuse, control, and benefit. That doesn’t change the fact that they were in the story before 2020.
  • This hesitation and distance impacted everything in the narrative to the point that Critical Role Campaign 2 can be easily split into two sections — pre- and post- hiatus.
  • Major heavy plot points were forgotten.
    • The Nein did broker peace talks between two warring nations, in which they had legitimacy in both. They supervised, or at least attended, the peace talks. And then they never returned to the country that first declared them “heroes.” (At one point during the conversation with Lucien, Caleb mentions that he’s proud of the peace talks, and I almost forgot that was a motivation of his for so long).
    • What the Nein found in the alchemist’s basement in Felderwin — the Assembly’s foray into beacon research, the exchange between the Assembly and Essek, the fact that Trent’s students were adept at it — there was more to uncover in this storyline, I know it.
    •  To be continued with Essek.
    • No feeling of stakes and texture.
    • One of my favorite moments in Critical Role is when the party first arrived in Asarius — the narration over the City of Beasts made it seem like something so complex, living, thriving despite its name and associations. Like nothing the party has seen before. Proof that the civilizations that they saw were not the only way to organize a society. A showcase that the people that they considered not-people — goblins, gnolls, minotaurs — could run a safe and growing habitation.
    • This texture of the world I want to parallel with the Nein’s scenes in Rexxentrum, this city built up as a harbinger of doom and visibility to those who want to disappear into the shadows, and how the Nein reacted to it. The throne room sequence made me sweat with tension when I saw it. The stakes felt impossibly high, with Caleb in a cold, panicked sweat, 1 HP away from death, terrified of what visibility means to his and the group’s safety. Beauregard made the Nein’s case with nervousness and panic-clear intention. The guards saw Fjord and Cadeuceus’ Wildmother aspects and commented on them. When the barkeep laughed at Yasha hailing from Xhorhas.The texture of the world showed its ideology, assumptions, and realistic elements of the culture, and the Nein responded in turn with the gravity of the situation.
    • And it went the other way back around. The reason that Essek grew to like the Nein was due to their persistent efforts in bothering him with their charm (“Wonder if he’s a family man,” wonders Beauregard after he departs their home in 90). The reason that Veth returned to her body was that Caleb used every bit of research he scavenged and time he found to work upon the transmogrification spell. Ludinus D’aleth realizes that the Nein are a threat after dealing with the singular chaos of Jester Lavorre.
    • The world and the characters had an effect on each other. That’s more than what I can say about the campaign post-hiatus. Did Vess De Rogna’s death have any consequence? Maybe in the post-post-epilogue that we didn’t see.
  • Almost none of the friendships and relationships between the characters that made the show so engaging actually remained.
    • Some notable examples:
      • Fjord and Caduceus barely said words to each other, after Caduceus helped Fjord through a crisis of faith, power, and usefulness. I don’t remember any real interactions post-hiatus.
      • Beau and Jester were roommates who constantly interacted with each other through small jokes, helping each other in battle, quips and challenges. I don’t know how to bridge the gap between “She’s fun, she makes me laugh. I like her ridiculous plans. I think she’s complicated and layered. I dunno” and “I think– it’s easy to lust after Jester because she’s… sparkles and confetti and shiny. There was something about Yasha from the moment that I saw her that I think I’ve been avoiding. I don’t know.” These two statements have nothing in common.
      • Jester and Nott were the best combination of chaos. In 128, when they spoke in the fire plane about making a proper detective agency, I was reminded that oh! They actually have things in common! I just hadn’t seen them interact in so long I forgot they had a fantastic “case closed” basis of a relationship.
    • Yes, many other relationships did remain: Beau and Fjord, Beau and Caleb,  Caleb and Veth’s , Veth and Fjord’s friendly antagonism.
    •  Yes, new relationships grew.
      • Beauregard and Yasha’s headfirst romance.
      • Fjord and Jester’s easy romance.
      • Yasha and Veth’s friendship.
    • Should relationships change? Should relationships grow? Absolutely. The arc of Caleb and Veth’s friendship is one of my favorites in the series due to all the layers between them and the ways that it manifests in different moments — two comrades on the run, mother and son, arcane partners, just two friends who want to see each other safe, happy, and at home. Their relationship transformed, went through waxes and wanes, but it was still there because they were important to each other. I wish the other relationships could have gone through the same transformation instead of being let go.
    • What we were left with are these new relationships that the Nein chose due to their impending doom — Fjord confessed to Jester because he understood the press of mortality (a completely legitimate reason), Beau and Yasha finally had the time and opportunity to spend time together and dedicate effort to getting to know each other (alas, Ashley’s shooting schedule). Neither of these are bad choices. I just wish they feel like they came at a cost of the relationships we had for so long, that kept the group feeling like a group, instead of a set of couples. (And this is noting that Fjord and Jester didn’t really interact a lot like a couple — it’s just that their other relationships felt so far away).
    • Mechanically, this may be due to more tower sessions and less watches, where the characters did have time to talk and get to know each other (compare Nott and Yasha’s discovering they both liked to collect in the early days with the “I’ll kill your family” conversation in 68). Narratively, this may be because the Nein felt more open discussing everything out in the open rather than the persistent “I take [Name] aside” that happened in the beginning of the show, when all these relationships were still being built despite paranoia and mistrust. Still, they could have tried.
  • No real motivation for the actions taken — why were the Nein doing the things we are doing? Yes, Caleb wanted to follow up with the Assembly and decided to begin with De Rogna, but that plan fell apart almost immediately. At one point, they were going to someplace on some map in Antartica, following a man wearing their dead friend’s face, the corpse of an archmage in their backpack, and no clue why they were doing any of it! When they caught up with him and Lucien asked their motivations and goals — no one could actually answer! This character-driven storyline didn’t have any characters driving it anymore!
  • And again, I understand why there was a break! Everyone’s lives stopped! It would’ve been different no matter what, if they played over Skype or at a park in masks or whatever! There is no way anything in anyone’s lives wasn’t affected by the pandemic! With something this huge, there is no way anyone is leaving it unscathed. I just hoped that this story would be a miracle.

The most obvious case of the structure of this story sagging at its seams under the weight of the pandemic and social unrest in the States in 2020 is the character of:

Essek

  • Easily the non-player character with the most thematic and plot relevance
    • Themes:
      • Skepticism with a purpose
      • Alienation from your society
      • Learning to love by being loved
      • Choosing to make different choices from the ones you previously made
      • Choosing love
      • Choosing transformation
      • Understanding personal potential and reaping it
      •  Sagging under grief
      • What to do with regret
    • Plot relevance:
      • The catalyst of the war plot
      • The closest member of authority to the nein
      • Dealt with ppl related to the trauma of 2 mighty nein members (Caleb & Veth)
      •  Access to a misunderstood culture and nation that actually had a lot of cool stuff going on
      • Knew of Vess De Rogna, who was connected to the Aeor plot
      •  Knew Trent Ikithon, who was connected to Caleb’s past
      • Knew Ludinus Da’Leth, who was connected to Molaesmyr & Caduceus’ journey
      •  Followed leylines, which were connected to Tharizdun
      • Curious about gods’ ascensions into divinity (Aeor plot)
      • Curious abt arcane development in the realms of time & space (time travel, moons, dunamancy, consequences of our actions)

WHAT WAS THE POINT?

In the end, as the door closed on this story, I sat there and wondered — what was the point of it all. What did the Nein actually accomplish? Every plot arc wasn’t truly initiated by them — they were caught in the beacon heist in Zadash because it was in front of them. They went to Xhorhas because Nott’s village was attacked and her husband kidnapped. They gave the beacon to save their asses in the Bright Queen’s Court. Each of those were a reaction against the world after they couldn’t run from its events anymore. Even the Nein’s biggest accomplishment, the peace talks, afterwards didn’t feel like something the characters actually cared about. When Caleb mentioned them as a point of pride in the circle of motivations with Lucien, I was surprised, since he never seemed that invested in the actual fallout of the conversations following. One of the few moments in the story when the characters chose a motivation and marched to it at all costs, no matter the twists in the story, was during that peace talks arc. They 1) wanted Yasha back 2) to stop this useless conflict. That’s when I thought, oh, we’ve finally hit a plot. This is the plot. The plot is about reconciling previous beliefs with the reality of this other nation that considers you heroes and remaking the world in the ideal of this new information you have about how it could be. It would mean using all connections in both places to foster connection across and show that hey, we’re not all that different. Look at us, this group, we’ve made love happen here. We can do it for these nations too. Then we went to Rumblecusp and forgot our purpose in the woods, so far away from the reality of the conflict tearing the continent apart, and Caleb said, “I know there’s more work to do on the side I know best,” and gave the group motivation, and then Vess was murdered, and they wandered around the Arctic following a ghost and a dread, and in some ways, it feels like we’re still there.

Did they find themselves in places they were happy to be? If love is the answer, and “the only choice we consistently made was to take care of our friends”, then why do they split and not make any indication, other than the obvious ones, that they will actually check in on each other? Why did I watch 141 episodes of people learning to trust and to be and to love for them to let go of those relationships? If we’re leaving the story on “and then there were nein” (a fan-made quote, not in the show), then I have to ask, when were the Nein actually good friends, recently? Asking Caleb to consider working with his abuser? Forgetting Caduceus at every turn? Seeing Jester for the image she projects, rather than the hunting person underneath? Not trusting her relationship with someone so obviously important to her as her childhood friend turned god? Letting Essek go off to the gallows after he risked his life (which no one else they asked did!) to go to Aeor with them?

In the end, what we got were pieces of the full people and the full relationships we left off with. No catharsis from the story, no connection between the characters, nothing to celebrate or to truly ponder over. I remember sitting in shock, crying, thinking, in no way is this it. The last episode had a better ending than this. This? Was a plane crash landing just to land and say, hey, we did it. We’re done.

If there is no point, then what were we watching? A game? A story? When someone plays Tetris, even with no characters and no obvious story mechanic, the story is of the person trying to accomplish whatever they were searching to do using the Tetris mechanics. Does a story have to have a point? Not necessarily. But I wish I didn’t feel like I was promised one. I wish I didn’t see all those points of connection and set-up that didn’t have a payoff. I wish that the energy that I had invested had paid out. I wish that the love was reciprocated. But how can a screen love you back?

—————————————————

THE ROLE OF FANS IN ALL THIS

@gwenstacying “there was this one tumblr post that proposed that the reason why fictional media that’s considered average in quality consistently performs well with fandoms spaces is that people like projecting their ideas onto a concept they can improve and I think about that all of the time” https://twitter.com/gwenstacying/status/1401433608095739904?s=21

@goatwaxing “these kind of series usually don’t try to challenge or make cathartic feelings in the viewer either (or ‘hurt’ the viewer in other words) hence the kind of plain feeling. they might try to bring in big concepts but don’t really try to say anything personal or new with it” https://twitter.com/goatwaxing/status/1401608243709886471?s=21

I’m not a great fan. I can’t see two characters who’ve never interacted and say “they’re in love now. I see the potential. It’s real to me.” My brain doesn’t work like that. I can’t fill in the blanks with fanart or fanfiction. I’d rather make something in tribute of being a good story rather than trying to fix its shortcomings.It’s not my story to tell, quite frankly. It’s not my job to fix it. That’s the job of the creators.

“Why are you sad that you didn’t see all the potential in the blank space? We have so much to fill in on our own.”

If I don’t see it, it’s not real.

I work from the text, I use what I see on the screen. I can’t see what isn’t there. It’s very hard for me to enjoy most media, quite frankly, because my mind immediately starts analyzing it. What is its intention? Is it reaching that? Is that a rewarding viewing experience? Would I recommend this to someone else? Asking someone to try to watch a 500-hour series is an insane thing to do, especially if there’s no reward at the end.

Catharsis

When I was binging Critical Role in a desperate attempt to get caught up, my friends asked me what was possibly so good about a series of a hundred 3-4 hour episodes, and all I could reply was that it was the only piece of media that I knew of that actually felt rewarding to watch as a viewer. I paid attention; so did the cast; what I thought of as moments of potential were the same moments that they had found. And to have your attention and care validated like that — in the modern media space when creators who plan in advance and the fans pick up on it and the creators then ignore the natural, organic progression of what they had already set up for something different (case in point, Game of Thrones, Westworld), Critical Role felt more in line with Gravity Falls. We were working in tandem, we were playing in tandem. The live feeling of it all was the same too — I was breathing the same rhythm as they were somewhere far away in Los Angeles and all of us were watching Jester give a hag a moldy cupcake sprinkled with the dust of deliciousness. When meta writers started wondering, hey, sure, Essek might be the traitor, but what if he’s just lonely? And then he admits just as much at their dinner in the Xhorhaus. When someone noticed, hey, Fjord’s voice does a little weird thing, and so did Jester, and so did Caleb, and both of them reacted in character, truthful to their experiences (Jester didn’t prod, but she did ask him to be mean to her, and Caleb grilled, but only because he wanted to know that Fjord’s whatever wasn’t a liability to the group like Caleb’s past was). It felt like we were walking in step and everything made sense.

Then we got the pandemic break. Suddenly Beau was over her “lust” of Jester and Veth and Caleb barely talked and suddenly instead of investigating the Essek question, we were going straight to the Empire, who we *know* from all our shared experience, cast and audience, were a bunch of power hungry cutthroats. The reasoning broke down and I had no idea why we were doing anything with what emotional motivation.

A couple moments did still hit, and for big reasons. Caleb choosing to go to the dinner with Trent and choosing to take the job from Vess and breaking down with the realization that Trent ruined his life and he willingly helped and going on a murder spree in Vergessen. Caleb was finally hitting his extreme, reckoning with what he had set forth, truly facing it with full, real emotion. Full pain and full regret and full whole-hearted rage. Someone told me once that anger is the soul’s response to knowing you should be treated better and Caleb barely allowed himself to transition from fear before Trent to anger.

What surprised me most was that no one was there with him.

During episode 99, Beau and Veth spoke about Essek and his crimes and what sort of punishment he should receive. Caleb was obviously bothered by this and the fissures between these three started growing. These two, who Caleb told his worst secret, who were the first to know, who stood next to him when he faced his abuser for the first time, suddenly putting their judgement on a person who their friend obviously feels some level of kinship with (consider the few moments that Caleb actually initiated touch and conversation with someone). That was a question of ideology — what does it mean to punish someone? Who are we to do so? Do we put the same judgement that we put on others on ourselves? I was so fascinated to explore that dynamic but alas! The pandemic.

That strained relationship stayed. It grew more and more obvious to me that Caleb and Veth in particular didn’t know how to reconfigure their relationship with Veth’s new form. Caleb (and Essek, and also Halas) achieved the impossible and in the hectic pace of revelations of 97, no real configuration happened. In most interactions with Yeza and Luc, Caleb became a doting supporter, constantly keeping them together, giving Luc everything he could (and it took me until 141 to realize that Caleb was projecting his familial situation onto Veth’s. Of course he wanted to keep them together).

Every episode after the peace talks, I wanted Caleb and veth to explode on each other, like they did earlier in the campaign. Please. Let the emotions go. Let them live. Let us reach the extreme of our emotions and recognize them for what they are — and then fucking deal with them in sober, austere sincerity.

For example, thinking about the various parallels of Captain Flint from Black Sails and the limbo of Caleb’s story. 

Caleb never had to choose between his family and re-entrance into his civilization. Flint was all about reconciliation with England until that Charleston governor who sold him out told him to decry his relationship with Thomas in order to had his old life back. That’s when Miranda reminded him of thomas’ ethos: know no shame. And flint realized that these people would rather destroy him and then let him beg for their forgiveness rather than the reality, which is that they wronged him. Caleb never got a choice. Caleb never really got a structure over how to think of his actions and his loss (further augmented by the fact that he DID the vile act). If Caleb was offered by the assembly, “hey, we know what you are and you can return to the empire and we won’t keep hunting you down, in exchange for you asserting that what you did to your parents was right and good. Caleb would have to make a choice. Can you barter for a machine and give away the thing that made you human, that made you love?” Bc if Caleb says no, that he did a horrible mistake and these people who should be living aren’t— then the assembly essentially killed innocents. And Caleb would need extermination to continue their machine’s march. But Caleb never had that choice. The situation with Trent, his country, the government, his parents — it’s all in this amorphous blob of “home and past” that never got sorted through and realized what truly matters. When Caleb called himself a “patriot,” I wanted to understand what part of the mess that was the empire was his home? I wish we had gotten the epilogue sooner, for him to have gotten that catharsis and realized that the people who gave him the ammunition are still doing it to others. I wish that he had been wanted sooner. Ostracized and alone. And realizing what matters. 

There are ways to tell a satisfying, dis-satisfying Ending. Once again, Black Sails comes to mind with the most incredible thesis statement of an ending. It’s objectively a failure for the characters, but it’s a revelation for the viewers. It brought material needs and ideological needs right against each other in the most character-driven way and made these two very different people come to an intense meeting spot in between them. Neither ends up happy. Neither truly receives what he wanted. But each made a choice, a line in the sand, and let the consequences run forth from there. In the end, the build-up of four seasons dissipates into myth, but that doesn’t quite matter, because we got the stand-off. We got the decision. We finally understood what this story was for. And it was only when the characters are driven to the extremes of their identities, purposes, human needs, could this be discovered.

Quite frankly, I don’t want to do that work myself.

I want to be told a story. I am a member of an audience. I am not a consumer. I want to leave the firepit with a settled feeling in my heart that I have heard a new, beautiful, fulfilling story. It’s not my job to fix an ending. It was the creators’ to finish it in a way that felt like it was actually finished.

REFLECTION

  • Reflection — one of my utter favorite moments in the show was beau’s shame after the bright queen throne room scene in 57. “We fucked up and we need to change.”
  • Thats a level of self-reflection sorely missing from every moment in this goddamn story
  • Why was it ok for Caleb to have a fancy fae friend but not Jester? Why was Veth allowed to advocate for murder when Caleb couldn’t? Why was Eessek shady for not telling people who had nothing to do with anything about the crimes that would’ve gotten them killed and not Fjord, who spoke with a fake voice for half the series and was about to break a giant evil sea snake onto the world? Why was Astrid still trustworthy? Why are we doing this job? Why is Dairon’s assumptions abt Ghor Dranas specifically awful due to their position as a researcher? Why does Ludinus look down on the Kryn religion? Why must there be an Empire? Who benefits from the set-up for this universe? Who suffers? Where do our assumptions about good and bad come from? Why is the world built like this? Do I see this as its best version? What do I care about in it? And what should I do about it?
  • Where is the fantasy to let someone else do it? Is the fantasy to do your best for the next generation and abdicate personal responsibility? Is the fantasy to accept defeat at the height of your power, prestige, legitimacy, letting go of connections? Is the fantasy lack of accountability? Is the fantasy to accept defeat and go easy into that dark night? 
  • Do you accept defeat, Caleb Widogast?
  • Set-up and pay-off. There are stories where it makes sense to not have a pay-off. THat was built into the story itself. An example that immediately came to mind is “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar-Wai — it’s all about the mood of these two lonely married people, dismayed over their spouse’s infidelity to each other yet not yet taking the plunge with each other (at least, that’s what it seems like. We don’t know. We don’t see anything. “Will they or won’t they?” isn’t a question relevant to the story, because the story isn’t about the decision, it’s about the mood.
  •  D&D isn’t that sort of medium. Yes the mood in the heart of the Aeorian ruins was beautiful, yes the hijinks with making giant ice worms was super funny, but I expect to wake up on Friday morning and think about Critical Role. And for the last couple months I mentioned to my friends, huh, it’s weird that there’s nothing to think about. Yeah we had an episode, but there’s nothing to think about concerning it. They agreed, and that should’ve been a sign that the story had nothing at its core anymore.
  • D&D is about choices and consequences. It’s about the thrill of being in the moment and seeing all the possibilities and dealing with what happens. I needed some choices and I needed some consequences.
  • Someone mentioned that in a moment when the world is crumbling around us and the former ways of success aren’t working anymore, there is no point in sucking up and sacrificing self for the hope of some award at the end. It’s not coming. There is nothing else to do but make bold choices, not for the system but for yourself. Making bold choices, independently. True for the self.
  • (Said in terms of a 9-5 job with no real pension at the end in this ridiculous time. Everyone that I know had a ruffle with their jobs during the pandemic. We know that the structure won’t have a reward and that we have to do it ourselves.)

ACTUAL CRITICISM

There are two ways to evaluate something: on a personal basis of whether you liked it or in the context of its creation, intention, and affect. And too many people mix up the two.   

I can hate a fantastically well-made movie (I threw up after watching Chinatown but cannot deny that its a suburb creation. I was personally sickened and intellectually, in complete awe. I also thoroughly love watching those good McElroys make those lovely creatures in Monster Factory. Do I think during it? No, I just enjoy. Multiple ways of enjoying something. As a smart child once said, ballet is pretty. I don’t like it.)

There’s a difference between hating and critiquing. This is not my forte of criticism and feels very unwieldy in my clumsy hands. My form of love is accountability. To make a bad analogy, I’ve been told by many older people that younger folks are just so negative about the state of things, just constantly pointing out everything horrible about everything. I constantly remind them that criticism isn’t hate — if anything, criticism is closer to love than hate (of which the actual inverse would be apathy). Criticism comes from a place of love — of seeing something for its potential, of seeing the good it does, of seeing those consequences, and wanting things to be better, goddammnit. Accountability is a form of love. 

When a fandom grows from an intimate, insular conversational group to an unwieldy mass expecting the same access, of course there will be growing pains. The medium of Twitter definitely doesn’t help, where there is no difference of form between hate and critique. As mentioned before, who would want to write up an actual proof-read media review on a series of just how many hours?

A thoughtful person wrote back to me, asking, what were we expecting, a revolution? This wasn’t a show made by radicals. And no, it wasn’t. I wasn’t expecting a revolution at all, actually. The characters rejected revolution from the Zadash arc. I was expecting a story reacting to its set-up.

Almost every character’s story is one of dealing with an environment that didn’t care for their humanity for its own gain. And none of those environments truly got discussed or restructured.

I was thoroughly convinced that these very Empire-focused characters would realize that their assumptions about the world were incorrect, that everything is way more complex, way more human, way more glorious in its curious mystery than the simple flatness of the worlds they came from. Xhorhas, despite its neocolonialist varnish, could’ve been the catalyst 

Caleb’s story is the most obvious one of these. He is a survivor of actions done to him not just by an isolated person, but a state, an ideology, a machine so much larger than its power or cogs. His trauma is both personal and structural and messy — to uncover where his own actions molded into his teacher’s which molded into his government’s which molded into his society’s which molded into his family’s which molded into his own — it’s so messy. Concluding Caleb’s story is not as simple as removing Trent Ikithon, nor just killing him. Ludinus Da’leth said he knew. Volstrucker Astrid took upon a new government seat. Veth and Yeza can’t — or can they? Return home? Idk. Xhorhas remains alien and other. 

The lack of reflection goes into all the -isms that cause so much needless pain in our society — the casual racism towards Xhorhas, the egoism of taking NPC’s effort for granted, the paternalism in thinking their way is the Best Way. It’s everywhere. The assumption that these characters are the center of it all — it permeates the whole work in this ego-centric way that highlights who is producing these stories, how, and why.

A smarter person than me said that creators should at least show some curiosity towards their subject matter, especially if it lies outside their lived experience. They should digest it, understand it fully, all nuance and consequences and effect, because otherwise, they’d just be regurgitating their own experience. And in a world where we are so full of so many similar, under-thought experiences, with this culture and these current crises, with these voices, are these really the stories we should be telling? 

Assorted tweets. Idk man.

https://twitter.com/yettinim/status/1392561133161263106?s=21 “They’ve essentially created a creative, fantastical environment where white players cosplaying brown people draw inspiration directly from the aggression that BIPOC face in real life, echo real world racist sentiments, traumatize real BIPOC viewers by making those sentiments True.”

://twitter.com/emilyvdw/status/1415011804783157248?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Etweet “A thing I need to write but haven’t yet cracked is how many shows and movies right now, especially in big franchises, are sprinkling in the vague concept of “trauma” to give stories a facade of narrative depth without actually committing to thinking about how trauma operates.”

https://twitter.com/Bolverk15/status/1404731562076278784?s=20 “Entertainment industries have successfully psi-oped people into thinking that mild criticism is the same thing as hate and that it’s completely normal to gulp down the garbage they serve us.” (Granted, Critical Role is not Marvel, but with the timeline homework necessary for ExU, part of me wonders whether this is our unfortunate media future).

https://twitter.com/gwenstacying/status/1401433608095739904?s=21 “there was this one tumblr post that proposed that the reason why fictional media that’s considered average in quality consistently performs well with fandoms spaces is that people like projecting their ideas onto a concept they can improve and I think about that all of the time.”

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth- telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

— Ursula K Le Guin, Commodified Fantasy Takes No Risks

COLONIALISM

(I think abt how in progressive circles, colonialism is only now examined as its own thing. Got racism and homophobia at least to the point of trying, this might take a while)

Smarter people than me have analyzed the effect that the Luxon as an entity had on the whole idea of evil races in D&D. Al I can say is that the legacy of colonialism cannot be separated from any gigantic concept and consequences of our lives and our fantasies, and while sure, a part of it was at least prodded with this world-building, it was done so in a very …. Sincere and simple way.

The best example I can give is the Cobalt Soul. An organization meant to store information about the world in its libraries and root out corruption so that the cataclysm that apocalypsed that world no longer occurs. Any thoughtful person would ask — ok where does it get its money? Its power? Its clout? Its purpose? Yet those questions were mostly hand-waved for fantasy. Dairon stated that if the Soul is corrupt, it will take out its own. From my limited understanding of power and human nature, that seems highly improbable, and to many others who saw behind that to the Soul’s centuries-long stalemate with the insidious Cerberus Assembly and said, oh, they’re in on it. This is totally a ruse. This is, for modern terms, an intelligence agency. 

What made this obvious to me was the few times Dairon appeared in the narrative. In Rosohna, in disguise, on a mission, realizing for the first time that wow, the Kryn are actually kind of decent? They’re just people. No real monsters, just people going about their lives, and that their religion wasn’t that weird at all. Dairon unlearns her racism, yet doesn’t look further at why they didn’t know it in the first place. At one point, they apologize to Beauregard (of “it’s a white Xhorhassian” fame). Why her? Why not those people they spied on? Why not the nation relegated to monsterhood behind a mountain range? 

And even those people — sure, they went evil due to Tharizdun’s influence, but the idea of their redemption itself happening through divinity and missionary work shows a willingness to see beyond the image of what an Othered nation should be, but not what else it could be. Alas, that would take more imagination than just rearranging the roles on a board — it would take reconsidering the basis upon which this world is even created.

Character arcs

The characters did have arcs. Not fully visible and demarcated, but they were there. When we say “arc,” I wonder what we’re truly meaning. Bc on one hand, arc could mean a briarwood thing, that now we as a group are pursuing your story in a dedicated manner. On the other hand, it could just mean the natural transformation of the characters. Sure fjord had his arc with the pirate arc, or he could’ve had it all the way to accepting the star razor and using marine layer in the final battle as the most versatile and organic protector of the group. Sure beau didn’t really have an arc, but she grew from the experiences she received all throughout. I’ll never forget how pissed she was at herself for fucking up and being so unprepared in the bright queens throne room. She learned and grew. She spoke for the nein in Rexxentrum. She was stellar, honestly. “I wait” and she was fantastic. Just a little bit abt them, bc I want to say something and let it go.

BEAUREGARD

At one point,, Beauregard was my favorite character. The last of my binge episodes were her speaking before the King about Tharizdun, straight to negotiating her misery for Nott’s form, and pondering the group’s codependency on each other after they finally tell her they care for and value her. Fuck, I’m typing this and I miss her. That emotionally-rock-hard darling with so much love. I remember some tumblr analysis going around that Beau was the first to apologize as well was was the one least apologized to. Her reaction over Molly, her constant support of Captain Fjord, her sober analysis of Caleb’s trauma, her easy symbiosis with Jester — seeing her unfold in these relationships and showcase her heart was such a joy. I loved seeing Beau happy and connected with those she loves.

In effect it was her story, and not Caleb’s, that began the anti-Empire streak. A rebel without a cause, directed by Dairon to one — to root out corruption and topple broken and exploitative systems. I always wanted Beau to dive in deeper to what it meant to her to be a member of the CObalt Soul and what the Soul actually was — to ask why Diaron was so racist, to wonder why there wasn’t any movement at all in the stalemate with the Assembly. She seemed happy to do her own thing and report when convenient and while sure, thats a relationship, I wondered how she used the Soul and her ambivalent relationship to it as a tool of legitimacy (Darktow, Dwendal, all the teleportation circles). It felt to me like someone ending up in a situation that they didnt choose and then seeing that hey, some parts of this works for me, this isn’t too bad. That ambivalence with regards to loyalty, counterintelligence, identity, nationality, hierarchy, and agency is a fascinating thing that I wish was explored further. She got there due to trying to prove her worth to an abusive family. When I think about this, I still hurt a bit — despite her father’s attitude, she was still trying to think of ways to run his business better. She still cared! No love was coming but she still tried! The scene where she spoke to Thoreau — god! What a scene! It was painful to watch and so gratifying to see her recognize that relationship and how much she had grown past it, despite of it. I loved her relationship with TJ. I loved the ambivalence with her mother. It was difficult CR2 emotions at their best, and Beau brought them forth in spades. Afterwards, choosing misery for her love of the Nein — choosing to make that choice because it was going to come anyways, so what, she’s pushed people she loved away anyways, she can handle removing this Best Thing that ever happened to her from her life. I cried. I truly did. Her hugging the Nein in the rain… that was catharsis. Going in deep and dark and intense and realizing what was there and resurfacing for air.

What the fuck happened.

The curious, questioning sleuth and researcher suddenly stopped asking questions. I pondered her silence during the dinner with Trent, until she said in this tired voice, “When will assholes stop taking credit for our accomplishments?” This is a fair judgement to make, especially with regards to Trent causing Caleb to spiral over his own agency, but the lack of curiosity…. it just felt like a curiosity come to too early. There was this other lovely meta post comparing how Caleb and Beau phrased their questions at libraries. Caleb went into it as an engineer, looking for a certain answer for a certain question for a certain purpose. Once he got it, he was good. Beau, however, would keep going, like a journalist. How did X affect Y? Where did Z come from in this relationship? When did Q start making waves and how do the other factors influence it? Like a hound tracking a scent — no wonder all the Pepe Silvia memes were of Beau. She did have one of these moments near the end of the series, in Aeor, but it felt so detached from the main plot and missing just one or two bits of info (Primordial asset = beacon! Tharizdun = pattern! You were so close to finally linking the plot together!). This hound dog couldn’t hunt no more.

About her romances. Oof. While I was never quite a fan of the Beau/Jester relationship, I do understand why others did. There was a beautiful friendship and love there. Jester and Beau were truly really close — they called each other out! They pushed the other farther! They were so much fun together! “I think she’s complex and layered” — for a second, Beau was the only one who saw Jester as a complex person instead of an innocent child! Who helped each other with their familial issues! (No lie, there was this scene in 85? I think? Where Jester says “wow my dad is sO COOL” and then looks at Beau and you can see the set-up of the scene: Jester is having a real emotion about her father, but Laura wants Marisha to have the space and the impulse to speak about Beau’s misgivings on her own. It’s fantastic role play and works beautifully together. Love it. That’s the shit I can’t get enough of.) 

But Rumblecusp, with the distance of the hiatus and the definite new intentions, that beacon glow disappeared. Beau was always doubtful of the Traveler and obviously did not trust Jester’s full judgement in things that mattered to her. In some sense, I never quite felt that Beau respected Jester as her own intelligent, thoughtful individual of practical agency (more in the Jester section). From this perspective, I can see why the painful word “lust” was used to denote Beau’s feelings towards Jester post-peace-talks. The feelings themselves were simple — a crush, a flight of fancy, in love with Jester’s easy-going smile and bubbly surface persona, very similar to Caleb. It felt like a retroactive simplification. While absolutely awful, it could be, in bad faith, be described as lust. Even writing it out feels gross. Out of all terminology to use, that felt like the worst one, to reduce something budding and beautiful to something so… base. They barely talked, afterwards. They were best friends. They were roommates. Instead, Beau told Fjord, hey, go ahead. While everyone is probably happier for it, it was one of the clumsiest moments in CR2 that could’ve been handled with so much more grace. 

A moment of surprise — Beau receiving her justice with her father and Zeenoth. Everyone forgot the High Richter’s shock at how Beau got into the Soul. Beau herself, making peace with her relationship to it, never questioned it further. While it was an awful start, it didn’t really feel like a plot line that needed an ending — everyone kind of knew where they stood to each other, even though it was still awful what happened to Beau, yes, absolutely. What I think this moment did was do a late-game introduction that the court system in the Empire could be just. While I am happy for Beau for this personal victory (which I’m not sure she was actively searching for), I feel like the general storyline suffered to show that justice, whatever that means, can come from above. Oh, you don’t have to deal with your difficult feelings with your family and your organization (even thought she totally did and came to a pretty solid conclusion of self-worth despite them), we’re the courts, we have the authority to deal with your problem for you. I personally don’t remember the courtroom scene in the finale, I was still too busy crying over Essek. I know Beau handed TJ the badge and said she’d check up on him, and while I understand that bit of personal history from Marisha in the wrap-up, I still think that connection and that relationship could’ve been dealt with, again, in a more graceful way. 

I guess I should talk about Yasha? I don’t have much to say. They were cute together, I liked how much Marisha and Ashley were obviously into it (that little tidbit about them texting about the couple’s futures, Yasha all domestic and Beau as the career woman — cute! Not particularly introspective on Beau’s side but she let go of that a while ago! I just liked the fact that they imagined a future for them! With kids! Man it’s so cute! Also why the fuck didn’t Fjord talk about an orphanage as part of his future plans during the finale, that would’ve been so beautiful and thematic and yET—-). I loved the date in the tower, both of their obvious glee at having this moment to themselves with absolutely no stakes, just fun, ninja-corgis. It was cute! 🙂 I wish I had cared at all. I understand Yasha falling in love with Beau in Kamordah, seeing Beau hold her ground against her father and remain her own person. I loved Yasha threatening Thoreau at the door. Every moment of Yasha taking out her wings and protecting her. There is a resonance there, and an obvious attraction, and a similar physical connection of respect and admiration, but I kept wanting them to have an actual conversation. At one point in the finale, Beau said “you know me better than anyone” and I had to scoff. I like you both so much. I love them finding safety and fun and intimacy with each other.There was so much more to know than what you showed us. I wish they had any of the depth they tried to gloss over.

In the end, what was Beau’s story? A rebel without a cause going along with one (remember when the peace talks were important to Beau? Yeah me neither, since I only remembered it now) and then… idk doing more official rebellion? It’s interesting bc Beau has one of the most solid emotional arcs of coming into her own, opening up her heart, but not necessarily her impact on the environment. In the end, she’s the only one of the Nein with an official position of authority (ok fine professor also Caleb whatever). What does she do with it? What’s her cause? Who does she still care for? She’s on such solid ground, compared to the hot mess of her early days. She’s solid now, independent and loved and authoritative. For what?

VETH

Veth went from one of the most interesting, layered, trying characters to someone I could barely understand.

A goblin who’s actually a mom trying to get home, a bullied girl from a small town who wanted connection, a fantastic alchemist, a fearless helping friend, a successful criminal. 

She used Caleb, her partner in crime, to get her body back, and in the progress, started evaluating whether she wanted it in the first place. 

She wanted:

  1. her body
  2. her family
  3. her old life

These three things are related but not a package.

  1. Jester unlocked her curse. Caleb/Halas/Essek/herself brought back her body.
  2. After the plot attacked Felderwin and she followed it to Xhorhas in search of her husband, she collected her family in a safe-enough situation, promising to constantly return from these dangerous quests she hasssss to do, but I’m come back.
  3. The alchemy shop burned down; her family resided in Nicofranas; she found a different career in adventure camps after the epilogue.

All of these plots were related to her goblin hood and connections to the Empire plots through her husband’s alchemy. 

I don’t have enough words to say what a fantastically dynamic character Nott was — she had personality, a willingness to be engage with the surroundings in such a uniquely chaotic and enterprising way. Eating the fruit in the water temple? Inspired. “Case closed?” Heart wrenching. Seeing her slowly unfurl her connections to Yeza, that guy she cared for — electrifying. Everything about her relationship with Caleb, their trust, dependence, the scene with “No, we’re on a planet.” I have warm feelings for the goblin, the wizard, and the magic cat, on the run from the law. The episodes of 48/49 and the tevations within, starting with Caleb lying flat in the cart upon seeing Ludinus and Vess, to finding all the experiment notes and vial of dunamis in Yeza’s basement, to “Edith, where’s my son” — there was such a moment of connection of her story to that of the larger, looming world around them. They escaped the war but here it was, the main event of this whole campaign in the first place, 50 episodes in, finally beckoning them to engage with it. The Reigel shoe dropped like a jaw and the plot followed.

This revelation led to some of my favorite inter-party relationship conflicts between Nott and Caleb. “Your people did this to my people” is by far one of my favorite lines in the series. It set up a distinction and an issue of identity and past that was never followed through, unfortunately. Caleb realized that the goblin he huddled against as a fellow criminal was actually a married woman with a child. They didn’t ask each other where they originally came from — why would they? They were running from it. That snapped back at them with the unveiling of Calebs backstory via Beauregard, and then again with Nott’s backstory unveiling to Veth. Whereas before in between missions, Caleb and Nott would chat, she headed to Yeza. The distance grew, but the relationship stayed, especially after Nott made it explicit to Caleb that she wanted to change to her original form. 

There is something wonderfully interesting and sinister in Veth’s use of Caleb to regain her old body. She needed a master of transformation to transform her back — conveniently, here he is, talented and codependent and oh shoot, handsome too. Of course he would want to help — when he saw her, Luc, and Yeza together, all he wanted was to keep a family together, some sort of karmic balance against his own destroyed one. What I’m not sure Veth was prepared for was her crush on him and the subsequent re-evaluation of whether she wanted her husband, son, and whole precious life back in the first place. 

Did Veth even want her old life? She grew to love adventuring, having an effect of some sort, not worrying and letting inhibitions loose. She kept the same fervor of life when she transformed back. I could see her debating so strongly between going with the Nein and staying home — it’s dangerous, they’ve died before (Molly), she could not come back. Eventually the question of returning to Felderwin, her home, dissipated with a hand wave of the Assembly still searching for Yeza. Her old way of life as the hidden and supporting wife that knew that Heza was meant for greater things also lost its luster – she was confident now. She gave her toddler a crossbow. There was a dog now. Yeza got in hot water because Veth advocated for him (for some reason I remember this from some throwaway line). There was a reconfiguration here that happened to implicitly, I wish it could’ve been talked about more. I wish I saw her evaluating this out loud. I wish I saw her pondering what got her in this situation in the first place, because it wasn’t the goblin attack. I wish I could’ve seen her weigh her options and choose. 

Was Veth truly played like a small town girl? I’m not sure. Following her backstory’s explanation, not many of her reasons could be tied down to her upbringing or culture. If we take the standard assumptions for small towns, we get a stereotype instead of a nuanced exploration of what a small field of vision actually looks like when it’s exploded to the grandeur and complexity of the greater world (if anything, Jester is a better example of this narrative set-up). The casual homophobia of hearing Beau’s crush on Jester, saying she would do her best to provide opportunities, and then intentionally setting up moments between Jester and Fjord and the casual racism towards goblins — until the very last episode!! The very last one!!! After Xhorhas, after everything she went through, *still* she kept at it! Why!!! — sure make it seem that there is a narrow-minded worldview at play, but we have no confirmation that that’s what this character was meant to explore. Her judgemental nature felt like a fantastic character flaw that grated on other characters — by far, her easy judgement of Essek following the peace talks was one of my favorite set-ups for character conflict that never got resolved. Where did her righteousness come from, especially considering that she mulled over restarting the war to unlock her curse? When did she ever make decisions for the betterment of all, rather than those close to her? How could she not see her best friend was hurting from her comments? These are all fascinating setups for conflict, discussion, clarity, transformation. Post-hiatus, none of them were followed through. It grew clearer, through Veth’s debilitating inaction, that she felt confused as a character what her next steps concerning her family and life goals were. It became more obvious also that Sam Reigel didn’t know what to do with her. If it was meant to be a character arc, well, other characters should have asked her. She should’ve discussed it with someone. Yeza as a doting, wonderful husband of an NPC didn’t give any particular direction except “I love you, honey,” but for a notable bold exception — to make those who undid their lives, wreck their home, and cause the death of their child, finally pay. Trent and the Assembly weren’t only Calebs story — they were Veth’s too.

Thinking about the plot itself, Veth held so many of the keys to it through Yeza. At any point, if the Nein chose to pursue the looming question of the Assembly, they could’ve asked Yeza about it. At any point. He was there. He was safe. He was an underutilized resource of a larger story. But hey, Veth was a small town girl.

CADUCEUS

Oftentimes, I forgot about Caduceus. That he was there, that he had an effect on the story too. So afraid of the world, so detached from it with his wise and worldy ways, so trying to teach everyone how to live despite not quite living himself. An interesting character build. What a pity that no one actually interacted with him. The cleanest example I can give is when they met the Stone family. Yes, the Nein helped bring that Clay family member back to life, I will give them that. But to fuck around with the Stone’s stuff after they were asleep for so many years? To not ask Caduceus at all what he meant by, “I knew I shouldn’t have left?” To not wonder about this faith and how much they have all benefited from it and to give it some love? To give Caduceus his due? To challenge him when he’s being pretentious? Yes I also love the “love saves people” quote at Trent during the dinner, but also, was that the right moment to unfurl it? Was no one going to ask — and who gave you that authority? What are you dealing with? You’re the one keeping us all alive — how may we help your life? I was convinced that they returned to the Blooming Grove in 141 in order to set up a couple mini-arcs to finish up the summer in smaller, more focused groups. Of course Caduceus, with his wildbrother Fjord and fellow tree-enthusiast Jester would tackle these visions of blight (THAT HE WAS SITTING ON FOR THE WHOLE CAMPAIGN). Of course I should’ve expected that nothing would come of it.

FJORD

I don’t have much to say about Fjord except his arc was actually pretty done. Nice. As I look back at it, I see a solid internal through line that didn’t require any external influence to really conclude it. Fjord began as a liar, trying to make himself more than he was. He leaned into that toxicly machismo act of charisma and realized, hey, if this goes hand-in-hand with also unlocking a giant demigod onto the innocent seas, maybe I shouldn’t. He went through a crisis of power, lost it all, and fell in with the grace of a loving, wild mother. He did it on his own terms, with his own voice, goofy and solid and practical. Caduceus grilled him on nature as deception and Fjord answered with his own deceptive experience — practicing faith, on his own terms. When asked his goals, he said he wanted to protect the Nein. He did, constantly. He never had to prove it through words — when Fjord stayed back to fight Lucien as the Nein escaped, he drew ire to himself to protect them. When Fjord unleashed the Marine Layer in the final battle, he hid them so they could hold onto their last hit points. He gave an oath to the wild open sea and accepted every wild thing Ukotoa threw at him. His actions showed his growth in a way so solid, when he chartered that ship in the epilogue, I felt so solid in his whole arc.

What I didn’t need was a lore dump about Vandran, but whatever, it’s the epilogue, it happened. I don’t remember much except just wondering why we saw it as an audience. The Fjord I knew grew past that, but even if he didn’t, just a direction of “I want to findwho started me on this path” would’ve been enough without the very frail, human letdown of an old man past his prime and trying to enjoy the tropics. It’s weird, a bit unnecessary, and only slightly diminishes thebeauty of Fjord’s story. I still see him in that ship. His open gaze and receptiveness to whatever comes next didnt need to look back. He was steering his ship forward to whatever comes next. 

JESTER

It took me a long time to understand Jester. Generally speaking, happy-go-lucky characters don’t really appeal to me, but I understand why they do to others. I saw her hollow sadness at feeling the need to put on a brave face and remain the lovely little sapphire she was, but I didn’t connect with it. Not every story is intended for every person, and that’s fine.

I only think I started understanding Jester during the cupcake sequence. It was a brilliant move, excellently acted, tense in such a beautifully cinematic way, sincere in every moment. Ishsrnai fell for Jester’s dismay at losing her hands and wanting to break open one last moldy cupcake together, and so did I. When Jester cast Modify Memory with the Dust of Deliciousness, my jaw dropped. In D&D terms, it was an utterly brilliant move of both mechanics and role play, leading everyone, DM, table, audience so sincerely that we couldn’t get a smidgen of deception — was it even there? She wanted to split the cupcake!! Was it manipulation, if it was so genuine? 

Suddenly, every moment of Jester’s brilliance shone for me — her obfuscating pasty ridiculousness at Ludinus, her constant hugs to Essek (which broke through his isolated shell before any arcane mirroring), her snide “Trent Icky-Thong” — oh my god, it’s all intentional. Her kindness is intentional and genuine and so so her and she knows exactly what she’s doing. Her kindness and joy and openness is a choice. She learned it from her brilliant mother and carries that loving, decisive energy forth into the universe. It’s not her hugging Essek despite not liking him – she does like him! She sees he needs a hug! She knows it’ll work! So she does! It’s manipulation in the kindest form of the word. 

She doesn’t play by anyone’s rules. She chooses, every time, to make a joke, to do a kind act, to break the tension. What a joy. What a blessing.

What I could not fathom to save my life was how no one else saw it.

One of the most heartbreaking parasocial moments (I said I wouldn’t and yet—-)  in the campaign wrap up was the cast all together smiling and nodding to each other as they all repeated, “Yeah, Jester has this childish innocence around her, yeah,” as Laura could barely be heard over the din: “It was intentional.” None of them saw the depth and tragedy of a character who could never be seen for it. I was shocked at the table. I thought they knew.

That same voice that said “it was intentional”  also hid her sadness and confusion during the Travelercon arc. While I didn’t connect with Jester, I had many friends who had due to seeing her intentional kindness and happiness as an expected performance for her inner loneliness. Yes, she wanted to be happy, it wasn’t a lie, but she wasn’t necessarily honoring the intense negative feelings inside her. I was waiting for a moment of catharsis for her as well. During the whole Travelercon arc, as Jester was scrambling to show that yes! She knows what she’s doing! She’s going to make all this work!, I was waiting for her to finally burst into tears from the stress of expectation. I was waiting for someone to confront her about it, help her face those feelings, allow herself to feel them in full force, to work through them, to be stronger on the other side, still working with intentional positivity but honoring her own multitudes within. 

Instead, we stopped short of any plunge into those deep feelings. Through some confusing Power of Love, Jester and Artagan did and didn’t pull off Travelercon, setting the tone of mediated consequences and “I guess that worked :/“ that characterized the post-hiatus tone of the series.

(I could go into the whole deal with Artagan too, but it did dismay me that out of the people who had proclaimed text-based feelings for Jester, Beau and Fjord loved her but didn’t trust her enough to trust her best friend since childhood. The suspicion and paranoia that characterized the Mighty Nein as a group traveled to Artagan, despite himself just… being his chaotic self. I myself didn’t know how to understand the relationship (again, Jester is far from my point of view character) until the wrap-up mentioned Doctor Who. Oh. Oh my god. One of my favorite shows, one of my favorite dynamics. You mean that I could’ve been enjoying this instead of worrying about it the whole time?)

Last parasocial moment concerning Jester — during the wrap up, I can barely remember other questions and revelations relating to her. Her story seemed to fade into the shadows. What I do remember is the bright moment of Laura Bailey jumping up when Vex’halia was revealed to be the Master of Coin and the rest of the table cheering. Obviously there’s still some emotion left for other storylines.

YASHA

I planned a thing here but honestly I don’t have the steam for it. There was something here, I wish it was followed through.

MOLLY

He was important because he died. He made everyone realize that they had to decide some things and stick together. He passed his phrase to Beau, who took it without actually vying into what it meant — “Leave a place better than you found it.” (And at no point did anyone ask which places they left better than they found them. No reflection, alas!) 

What the fuck was with him not actually returning. In terms of set-up and pay-off not working together — the actual fuck was the decision to not bring him back, even as an empty body and a new soul. Why not just let that hope remain a hope? Why take away such a victory? Molly returning wasn’t my blissful idea for this series’ ending, but it was good enough — it obviously mattered to the players, to the characters, it brings everything around again, while I was going into it with misgivings (Molly never meant that much to me — this is what I get for coming into the narrative a year after his death), I knew that this thematically *worked*. I cannot piece together why break it apart. If it was an experiment of storytelling, I would ask for a better trial.

CALEB

The original beginning of this paragraph was “I’m already crying.” There is so much to cover here and I know I’m not going to cover all the bases.

Caleb was my entry point into this series. When I first heard his introduction, I knew he was going to be my absolute favorite character. Something about the obvious weight he carried, his obvious want for connection and paranoia and fear of “what if they see the truth of my horribleness” just — I look back at the moment when I started the series and think to myself, what a headspace I was in to identify with that. To say the least, Caleb appearing in my life at the time that he did — his story really helped me process parts of mine. Kiddo supported by everything and everyone, fails for many reasons, disappoints so many others, the weight of expectations, the joy of an earnest love for what got you here in the first place, a real confusion as to what to do now that you’re in this muck other than just want to undo it all — boy howdy, did Caleb help me process a lot. It was incredible to watch a character so fully self-hating allow himself connections and love. It was incredible to watch him grow from a paranoid mage focused on regret and fear to a caretaker of the Nein, the one who makes their home, the one that brings them home. 

Relationship with Nott shifted after he found out her real identity (such a raw sequence of events, god, I get chills still thinking about it now). The talking-past-each-other-love with Beau, close then farther. Simping over Jester (ok aren’t we all? But not like that). That beautiful understated understanding with Fjord. 

He was their home and in the end, he teleported one gang home, and another gang away, and as they paired off, he was left alone. He was their home. And no one bothered to ask what he was up to. What he was worried about and planning to do. 

And what hurts more is that Caleb’s story was, at least to me, quite clearly the central story. This was a war situation and Caleb’s was the plot closest to it due to his connections and his growth. The relationship between his runaway extrajudicial executioner asset to an imperial, consuming nation was the central one to the plot of the needless war between two nations bent on hungry exploration of divine and arcane potential. This difficult and tense relationship between loyalty, identity, past, and future was never quite interrogated. Caleb was never asked whats the difference between his homeland, his government, the state that he served, and the people and community that he came from (yet “I’m a patriot” he says — ok but what does that mean?). He never quite accepted himself as both a perpetrator of great harm and violence as well as a victim — “He ruined my life and I helped!” Without the conclusion of “without him, i wouldn’t have ruined my own life.” He never quite understand his previous place not as a just and necessary part of the Empire society, but as a perpetrator of great harm to hold controlling safety. From my memory, Caleb never expressed regret for killing other civilians and “traitors,” only his parents, which he knew was a lie. He could accept that his parents weren’t traitors and that he committed an awful fact on the basis of a lie, but he was never asked to make the greater leap to his volstrucker role in the narrative — that the whole government is a lie and that there have to be enough brainwashed kids who buy into it, the glorious purpose of it all, to hold the weight to keep them all safe, in Astrid’s terms. Just a couple more interrogations. A couple more sessions of questioning the whole situation. If the Empire doesn’t care about its citizens, then what is this war? What is that nation over there? What is the lie told about them? What do I do about the connections between us, including this other mage who gets my situation better than my countrymen, those of my identity, do?

I already talked about this earlier in the “Catharsis” section, but I think it has to be gone through again. Because Caleb’s story was the one that could never really get going and actually dive into those questions with full, genuine emotion.

I don’t think he quite accepted his own rage and fury and anguish. Vergessen was one of the few moments where the characters actually chose the next plan of action. While it was awful to watch (especially considering the consequences of that messy raid and how someone just took off the amulet, for no reason, and caused the utter quagmire of the real finale to erupt), it did finally allow Caleb to release that rage. He was an intentional murder machine. These people knew exactly what they were guarding, what sort of apparatus this was, what’s the purpose of this organization and the violence that it causes. And Caleb went through with this righteousness and rage that I thought to myself, finally, finALLY, FINALLY!!! The Nein were scared of him but FINALLY they were seeing the consequences of what he went through! It’s not just sad man Caleb! Anger is the response to when you now you should’ve been treated better! And Caleb was ready to light that place up with his fury! Refusing to talk to Ikithon! Accepting himself as the worm in the vollstrucker ranks! Finally becoming the defector, truly, no friend to the Empire, YES! Caleb was making decisions and reeling in their consequences! Every time Caleb goes violent like that, it felt like the Nein were seeing him for the first time and realizing that oh, this is the level that he operated on. Rage, fueled by love. Rage, incendiary and ruthless. Decisive and without any regret. Jester and Veth were so caught off-guard that it was almost hilarious. Did they not know his capacity for violence? Did they never understand the extent of what was done to him that he never had the opportunity to provide retribution for?

For that reason, whenever the Nein talked to Caleb about the weight on him, I was frustrated with their simplicity at the depth of his pain. This isn’t something that can be let go of, not without intense work and willingness to see the situation for what it is. Veth couldn’t look at it in the face, go into the depth of Caleb’s pain. Beau could. Fjord and Yasha would have, if Caleb let them in and they engaged on his level. Essek would have. Essek always had the capacity to, as his mirror. But they never did — there wasn’t enough time, a child just died, their dead friend was walking around with horrors in their dreams, and no one could unpack the dense weight of the unrealized and heavy plot on Caleb Widogast. (There is another discussion to be had about the fact that Caleb was ready to kick off his plot in Rumblecusp and with the mess of Lucien’s return, there was a whole section where both and neither thread was being followed, and then only Lucien, as if those parts couldn’t have been reconfigured in order to fulfill these loose ends in a way that made sense. But that’s not on the players, that’s on the DM, who adhered to dice rolls for time management rather than his storytelling judgement. It’s ok Matt’s still great but also this felt sloppier than intended).

And when the plot tried to engage with Caleb Widogast’s loose ends, at the very end? The sloppiest, crassest, more Marvel-esque dealing of an interesting and nuanced topic I’ve ever seen. I still can’t think of the ending with Trent with rational thought. Trent. Fuck balls shit god shit fuck damn. All because someone remembered that an amulet was taking up an attunement spot and didn’t want to deal with it again.

For the Nein to have murdered their way through Vergessen, murdered their way through Nicodranas, cut off a man’s hand, glued a dick to a woman’s hand for no justifiable reason — for them to have any authority on how to best deal with Trent from the perspective of judgement and righteousness — it’s just ludicrous. The fight itself felt fake in a space battle sort of way, with its own moments of poetry that I could’ve run with if it hadn’t been so stupid. Beau’s little speech about justice to Astrid felt most disingenuous of all. What does Beau know about what Astrid has suffered under Trent? What does Beau know about the court system and its perceived justice — other than her recent commupance in a situation she had already resolved and is now receiving legitimacy in? What legitimacy, especially in the face of human pain?

What are the principles under which we operate? 

What happened to “leave something better than we found it?” What happened to “no more children on the pyre?” What happened to “he ruined my life and I helped?”

All they needed to finish the narrative was finish Caleb’s story. Instead, due to Beau’s story concluding with the court system, hey, justice can be out of our hands. Someone else can take the children from the pyre. Someone else can provide judgement for what was done to you. Someone can make you witness for your own actions again, and again, and again. When does it end? When this third party decides something and decrees it law, or you? Do you accept defeat, Caleb Widogast? The one who wouldn’t stop flaming Lorenzo, despite near-death? The one who created a wall of fire upon a look at immediately incinerated a ship? The one who pulled out a beacon and began the slow process of knitting a scrappy trust? The one who dove into a Cathedral of his parents’ god, incinerated a crowd of acolytes, and held his own? The one who, when faced with his self-hating mirror, chose the strength and transformation of grace? 

Where is the fantasy in Caleb’s story? Where is his best vision for his story? Is the fantasy to let go of decisions because you’re tired (how… irresponsible!)? Is the fantasy to have fantasy due process in a system where you were the extrajudicial executioner? Is the fantasy seeing your land recover from its hideousness — even though nothing objectively shifted in its power and material life to change that? Is the power to let go of the ability to affect the world? Coming from the man who declared he wanted to bend fate to his will, who created imaginative maneuvers in a dreamscape days ago, who had creative ways of keeping his friends alive, who made spells to delight and to destroy and to save, who just —- I knew I would cry writing this. Because this ain’t it. This ending isn’t it.

His scene at the grave was the break in his story that he needed to get. I understand why his narrative ended there, I do. His parents catalyst of his story, and sending those letters into the ground was as much catharsis as Caleb would get from his relationship to his family now (but Frumpkin, come on man, Frumpkin!). I cried, for the boy and his letters and the family he’s so close and so far away from, for all that he went through to get here, for the past staying the past and the future remaining unknown in its awful uncertainty.

What I can’t let go of is that *that’s it.* 

Back to the pyre. Revenge was never Caleb’s prerogative — we know that. He stated that from the beginning. He never wanted to kill Trent, he wanted to make sure that children are no longer fed to the pyre like he was. In some effect, he did that. But Caleb never had the story push to look beyond that and to see the larger machine of the Empire and all their individual cogs in it. He removed Trent, eradicated the program as it stands. Ludinus knew about it, knew enough to have plausible deniability but also that it has changed over the years. He abdicated the spot of authority to Astrid, who, while a victim in all this, was a teacher — she fully believes the Empire’s purpose, even if she had suffered under Trent, and would continue to perpetuate the violence of his post, albeit in a different way (at least I hope she would have the sense of thought to ask if any of this is necessary). Sure, Caleb exposed something and switched some seats around, but the heads of State are still there, hiding in plain sight. The machine continues its relentless march, uncaring of who falls underneath its treads. And Caleb teaches the next generation, presumably how to not get caught underneath it, when he had the opportunity and momentum to change its path.

At least that’s where we leave it off. I call bullshit on this. I know that Caleb has another story after this, I know it. He’s young, he’s intelligent. He’s capable of so much. He holds all the secrets and the curiosity and the hope. He doesn’t give up. He still sees what’s wrong and what could be changed, and if the story doesn’t prompt it, then it might after. That he’s not just a teacher (which in itself is an admirable profession and obviously what he truly wanted to be — no judgement there!) who tells his students to go out, change the world, my time has passed (there’s a climate change/fascism analogy here that I don’t want to unpack). He has the ability to enable that change himself. Caleb doesn’t leave any task unfinished. The hopeless tone of “Going after the assembly, we’ll see about that” — bullshit. I call bullshit. That’s Caleb after all his friends have left him, their home, to build new ones. Thats not the Caleb who has someone to save and a decision to make.

At every opportunity, Caleb reached out to mages and asked, do you know there’s another way to be? That ambition isn’t everything? That there are things other than the pursuit of knowledge? And every mage blew him off, until one looked back. Caleb never had real supporters in his political catharsis and familial pain. I hope that while the Nein couldn’t engage (they knew him at his most raw and feral, when he couldn’t speak on these things without collapsing, but they got him to the point where he could own what happened to him with a clear sight and a brutal honesty, even if they didn’t actively ask), other people in Caleb’s life would. He has too much work to do. He deserves his rest.

PARASOCIAL ASPECTS

I chose to ignore the fact that this isn’t just a show. It’s a parasocial experience as well.

I began with talking about how it felt primitive in some way, like sitting at a campfire with friends and watching the characters achieve their stories in the stars.

It’s not just the characters succeeding on a plan — it’s the joy of the players. Every yelling session at a thematic or tense natural 20 isn’t the narrative rejoicing — it’s the players! We’re not just here for the story, we’re here for them! We’re here for Travis embracing his own personality through Fjord! We’re here Ashley processing her grief through Yasha! We’re here for working through familial obligations with Sam! It’s so obvious when a story is more than just a story. I keep on saying that D&D is therapy, and it’s so joyous to watch people process and play in real time. I do not envy their position of doing this in front of millions of people, but hey, we all choose our methods.

This parasocial relationship moreso when we engage with them outside of the story — Between The Sheets, Talks Machina, Twitter. I will not lie that seeing the Critical Role crew be so unabashedly joyous in making this series just — here are people, doing what they love, and having such a good time doing it. One of the weird things that I kind of adore is the fact that they’re all older than me and stumbled into this because they just loved doing it. Like, there is joy in the future? There is success? There are friends making something beautiful together? Look at them!! @me: Here’s your evidence!

Between the Sheets is what made me respect these people in a professional way in the first place. Hearing their stories felt like more moments of self-realization — am I a hustler like Marisha? Is reality better than fiction, like Taleisin says? Am I prepared to give myself time and opportunity to trying my passion like Matt did, like Quyen did? What will it take for me to crawl out of my shell, like Ashley did?  

When I see a character beat and I can see the actor feeling more intensely in it than just the character —- oh. This means something to them. 

But also, not truly them, but what they chose to present to the world. We don’t know these people. We see a reflection on screen of what is chosen to show us. As said before, a screen can’t love you back. This is inspiration, and this is entertainment, and they;re really good at it, but sometimes I can’t help but notice that it isn’t a character doing something, but the actor playing them. 

As stated before, the two moments with Jester revealed to me some of the dynamics at play that made the ending feel so, so off. (Disclaimer, I know these are adults who are actual friends in actual life and no one needs to be protected from anyone else, I know that).

  • When Laura couldn’t say “Her kindness was intentional” over the din of everyone else saying that Jester was so childish, so innocent, such a pure soul.
  • When Laura stood up to celebrate Vex being on the Tal’dorei Council and everyone cheered her on. 
  • One is so much clearer and more supported than the other, the difference is staggering.

In the end, they didn’t even See each other, what the others were trying to do with their characters, with pandemic distance and loss of plot momentum and confusion as to their whole ass motivation. 

Just like another set of eyes that couldn’t meet.

SHADOWGAST

I don’t have the words to explain how much these two characters mean to me.

Caleb was my original entry point. As soon as he said his first words, that calm demeanor, that subtle mistrust, that enthusiasm and intelligence, I knew I would adore this character. Seeing his trajectory, seeing him live through so much baggage— I could finally see someone who was holding baggage similar to mine. Not that I am comparing it — I very much did not kill my parents due to extremist nationalistic ideology — but seeing someone deal with his issues of shame, grief, self-hatred, paranoia, self-doubt, it felt like a breath of fresh air. I was so glad to see his trying connection with Beau, his camaraderie with Veth, his understanding with Fjord. Seeing him grow and develop these relationships was so fulfilling, yet his gaze couldn’t really see past the group.

Until Essek.

One of my favorite descriptions of this phenomenon was in some Lin-Manuel Miranda interview I digested during my Hamilton days (we disparage that now, but 2016 was a different time, and thankfully we’ve all grown since then). He mentioned how he came to some workshop and noticed across the room Tommy Kail. He described them seeing each other like two dogs at a park noticing each other with wide eyes and straight backs and pulling at their leashes — this is a person I need to know.

I’ve had those moments too. When, despite a crowd, I can feel this one stranger brighter than the rest, like they already know what I’m about to ask. Hell, most of my relationships formed like that. When its not just my conscious thought, but a body reacting on some primal level of attraction — that this connection is on a level that the conscious mind can’t hold and the body instead reacts.

Once I noticed this reaction in myself, I kept on noticing it. I asked a much-older friend how she met her husband (both are in the 50’s and are gladly living the retired Floridian lifestyle), and she said that it wasn’t her choice — her body gravitated towards him at the social function, as if no one else mattered in the room. In “Conversations with Friends,” the protagonist doesn’t plan to sleep with the married actor — the catalyst is described as a “key, turning inside her chest” and only then did she kiss him in his wife’s wine cooler. In “Untamed,” Glennan Doyle describes when her future wife enters her life for the first time — “My whole being says, ‘There She Is.’”

Shadowgast was always characterized by their intense eye contact. Like freezing in shock that someone is actually Seeing them for the first time. Like performing on a stage but knowing only the full self is seen. We always knew that they both knew what was going on — they saw the other manipulating them, they saw them knowing that they know they are manipulating them, and yet they also see the sincere interest and personal curiosity in the spaces in between. And the eye contact. Like there’s no one else in the room. Like this is a conversation only for two.

There has been too much written about these two, about their intentional narrative foiling (fire and ice, darkness and light, sun and moon, past and future), about their thematic push and pull (the gravity of attraction, the gravity of what you’ve done, the bending the universe to your will, the control of past and the influence of future), the identity negotiation (loyalty to the nation, but for what, when the person in front of you knows you better than those of your described group?), the grueling process of knowing there is no atonement, maybe they cannot undo the horrors they have done, “maybe we are both damned, but we can choose to do something, and leave it better than it was before.”

More than anything, it’s the Seeing. It’s the mortification of being known. And it’s funny — they don’t ever particularly ask specifics, but they walk that trial in the other’s naked gaze. There’s a sensuality, a sexuality in that. Each interaction completely electric in its back and forth, in its deliberate reveals and decisive acceptance, in its prodding, joyful, ludicrous dance, eyes still seeing only each other. Seeing, and acting, knowing what body is under that performance. For what is more deliberately intimate than knowing anyone at their utter worst?

Years ago a friend of mine had a dream about a strange invention; a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said before you could get to the highest compliments at the very bottom. There is no way I would ever make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but I understand its terrible logic: if we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known. 

Tim Kreider, I Know What You Think of Me

I consider 97 to be the thematic episode of what this series could have been, about nations and secrets and power and the saving grace of not hurting the one who is you, but kneeling with him in forgiveness. There’s some sublime in that scene. The rage, the hope, the gentleness, the active process of two people realizing that the person who entered this room is not the one leaving it though the actions done towards each other here. It’s transformation. It’s past and future undone in the glorious expanse of the present.

Well, it was that at some point. I understand Caleb’s avoidance of Essek post-Rumblecusp — I wouldn’t want to deal with the version of myself that forgave the worst parts of me. What a dream to wake up to in a sober morning. I get the avoidance, the intentional choice to not speak of him, because you’re a cautious, guarded person who gave so much vulnerability — now how do you live with that?

I wonder that about Essek as well, after it all. The way Matt played him was a person completely shattered by the connection to the Nein and remade anew. I was surprised at his emotional maturity in Aeor, quite frankly. Willing to help, so desperate for any acceptance because his moral views were so flipped, taking any crumb of affection and holding it close. I get it — the Nein weren’t trusting anyone, barely remembering the consequences of their own actions. A rightfully resentful Essek, who got the taste of connection that then bailed on him while he was floundering, when he needed them most — that’s not a version of Essek that could exist in a story where this NPC would tell the party, Hey guys, you were dicks to me. You called me a friend and then you forgot about me. I trusted you and my whole world got turned upside down. That would be someone reacting negatively to the Nein, someone putting themselves first instead of them. At that point in the story, they were so disengaging that I understand why that tough love and call to step forward in the relationship couldn’t have been an option. Still makes me wonder though.

Essek in Aeor was a revelation of a character. The slow, consistent, distant development of him in Xhorhas paved the way for this concentrated showcase of a changed and trying man. His first conversation with them makes me cry — the self-flagellation is real, as is the desperation (“trust….”). I wanted to take him by the shoulders and tell him that he could ask for more. They turned his life around — they do have some responsibility for that. He pushed back to Jester’s boundary-pressing jokes with soft no’s <3, he embraced the dirt and blood and grime of adventuring, he gave difficult questions to Fjord about the rangers, he threw himself on the floor to look at some runes, thrust Caleb’s head at the wall to look at a beacon gem, he yelled in anger and said “aww” at Beau and Yasha reuniting, he giggled and said “up,” he didn’t trust Charlie, he marveled at the beacon room, he made a bad joke about soup, he pressed Caleb on his dedication to being a better wizard. Are you serious about this? He asked. You changed my life and I want to make sure you’re walking the same path you sent me on. Yes, Caleb says, stacking papers. Yes.

There’s a reason these interactions were called “crumbs” in fandom. They were tantalizing examples of what a meal could be, of showboating and checking in during fights and calmly chatting about distrust while walking, and breaking beacons to restore their friends (remember that? A giant thematic step for both of them? Essek breaking the item of his curiosity, Caleb turning time forward, both of them doing together what they know can’t be done alone, and saving not their pasts, but their futures? Holy fuck? Nah we can’t rest upon the beauty of this, let’s go to break). Of Caleb waving Essek to the clerics to heal him (when did anyone care for Essek so passionately, so wanting him to be whole again), of Essek calling Caleb “young man” (when was the last time anyone called him that? He went to sleep a teenager and woke up at 28), of gazing into infinity together, not at each other, but at the potential that they both crave to influence. 

I wondered at what point of this I would cry. Hah! It’s here. I was writing this so soberly beforehand. I know I just need to write this and let it go. This is when I run out of explanations and go to the various small screeds I wrote after the finale. It’s so funny reading them right now. I was so angry. I was in so much pain and in some capacity I still am. I couldn’t even think about them after the finale without crying. I think I spent a whole week on and off tears because to know that they ended with such hollowness after such a beautiful arc just — it hurt because I still cared, I know that. It’s taken me 2 months to comprehend why I cared so goddamn much. Ok. The tears are dripping onto my shirt. Let’s go to the screeds, the melodramatic rage of someone who wanted so much more for one of the best transformations I’ve ever seen.

When you’re telling a story, what does it mean? What does it mean for a broken person to see another one and promise to grow together and then keep them at arms distance? It means a life bereft of what it makes it worth living — human connection without ppl who understand. And for one to reach out and the other to reject their hand — I know he didn’t reject it in canon, I know the scene was about the parents and not the Essek, but Essek was confessing, and Caleb didn’t see him.

I’ve been watching them with bated breath this whole time. I know that electric energy between them. I understand the heavy gravity. The intellectual, fun banter. I’ve been here the whole goddamn time. They were still careful around each other, in the end. The forehead touch and the following hug in 140 were more actions confirming feelings and attachment than anything in 141. That forehead touch, fuck me up, to use the first spell he taught Caleb, to control potential, to pull Caleb from under that tower, for Caleb to press against Essek in an echo of his Fortune’s Favor kiss, to see each other, for Essek to feel that and surface from his grief of what he did before he found these people who undid what he chose — that’s  —— look there’s storytelling that can be planned and storytelling that is magic and that was magic. That was something divine. It was quick and it was just a moment but good god it was real. Caleb does not initiate contact a lot, and mostly with Essek. Just Caleb putting an arm over Essek and Veth’s shoulders. Just simple comfort in his closest people. Trust enough. Assumption that these important relationships will stay in his life, enough. I didn’t need a kiss, I didn’t need a grandstanding “I love you” — they know that. They both know their attraction and their attention and the other’s caring and imploring gaze. What they needed was time for that to come to fruition.

In the next episode, I’m not sure how to describe the painful ness of it all. Essek could barely look into Caleb’s eyes a week ago. They had the scene on the boat what, a month ago? A couple days before that, the war ended. 3 months, the Nein was in Essek’s life. In our time, they moved slow. They didn’t need to say it. We knew. The cheek kiss felt out of place for so many reasons, among them the fact that I dont believe Caleb could’ve done it. It was hard for Liam to say the words out loud, it was painful to watch Essek repeating his gratitude for the Nein twice over and not receiving anything in response (he wanted to stay, how could anyone not tell that he wanted them to ask him to stay? To say that they’ll help with his predicament? That they know he’s going to his death? That he’s scared, and he can admit it, and that no one is reacting to it? That he’s continuously vulnerable and no one is picking up what he’s putting down? That no one is standing with him against this fear? Sure this isn’t Essek’s story but I wouldn’t expect anything less from a friend. Friends are there for each other. And fuck, the Mighty Nein are kind of awful friends). I hated the kiss. I hated the “don’t be a stranger” — Caleb is on yOU to not be a stranger and reach out to him! Essek is the outsider here, make it obvious that you’re inviting him back! That you want him part of your life! “I’ll see you again, ok?” Would’ve been better. “I can’t do this right now, but you’re important to me.” Would’ve felt more true to Caleb at the moment. “We’ll have other things, yeah?” And Essek would reply, “Yes, other things.” And they know that there’s a whole lifetime of work between them. 

It’s been so hard for me to rationalize the ending with what I know of the characters and that split between character and creator I think is the thing that finally helped. Caleb and Essek definitely Saw each other, over and over and over. The eye contact that was so central to their relationship went through its own own arc with Caleb’s shyness, Essek’s shame, and them looking in 140. Matt was looking with open and sincere eyes. Liam was looking at the table.

That scene was obviously not for the shadowgast of it all — it was Caleb dealing with his familial choice, and it was incredibly powerful. I will not disparage it. It was painful and it was full of grief but seeing him make that choice was painful. Same with the scene at the grave. It was powerful. It was painful. It was transformative of someone finally Seeing — yes, Essek was there, but it wasn’t his scene. It was Caleb’s and his family’s. Caleb was finally looking at his past and grasping it. (Frumpkin was the start, and I am not a fan of him being let go, but I get it, even though I am disappointed with the opportunity to turn the cat around and say, hey my good dude, I’m not Frumpkin, we both know that, I’m my own cat and I love you and I will return to you. You don’t get to choose who loves you.) 

What I am more pained by is the fact that out of three unresolved elements of Caleb’s life, this was the one he actually had the most access and agency in. The Empire is a giant bitch of a problem; his parents, unprocessed grief; and Essek, a glint of potential. 

Fuck, we haven’t even talked about Essek yet. He confesses to Caleb — “I wouldn’t change a thing,” how is that anything but a confession of complete and utter devotion — and I saw Matt nodding to everything Liam was saying, still looking at the table. “Together for a while,” and Matt didn’t say anything, and “But Caleb is human and Essek is Essek,” and they split and remained friends, such firm lifelong friends, such good friends, can’t you tell they’re friends, they’re just friends, until Caleb dies, I guess. I saw a couple beautiful analyses of this as the relationship between someone with terminal illness and loving and letting go — that’s a beautiful read of this sentence-long dynamic, but I’m not sure that was ever the point of this relationship. There was the whole thing about whether Caleb would transmogrify himself to get a longer lifespan — but their relationship was never about spending time together in domestic bliss and growing old and having grandkids. It was about work and sensuality. It was about walking the gauntlet of atonement knowing it won’t come and just doing as much good as you can for the rest of your life, carrying your sins, knowing they’re lighter with the person next to you carrying theirs. It was about doing what they could with the time they had. It was about understanding and challenge and looking further and creating something new. It was about reaping potential. In the end, due to how the narration flowed, there was none of that electric energy, none of the sublime understanding, no room for Essek to have an effect on Caleb’s narrative. I literally can’t see a future for them. It wasn’t a dance, it wasn’t sex, there was no Seeing in it. It was a solo, blind, masturbatory sequence of pointless pain.

I don’t even know what happened to Essek after. He faded like a shadow from the narrative, changing faces, running from the dynasty. God. No stated direction, no stated purpose, no optimism, no connections other than the ones he’ll be initiatiating (hilarious the only one of the group who said he’d keep in touch with everyone. Hey did I already mention hes the best and I love him? He cares so goddamn much). There’s nothing for me to hold onto. No scenes. No dialogue. Essek was there and then he wasn’t. Matt liked some tweet about how Essek wouldn’t accept Caleb’s old-age rejection and would still care for him and implore him to understand he isn’t leaving — that’s a lovely sentiment. I wish it was a scene. A liked tweet isn’t the canon of the text. 

I know what I saw in said text. I think that’s the worst part. Is the imagining that it’s real. Seeing jubilation on social media afterwards felt like I was going insane. All these beautiful drawings of sweet kisses and domestic gardener Essek, just this beautiful, open intimacy and love, this earnest joy, this delight in each other’s company without any of the heaviness that got them there. I have to laugh!! Y’all, we didn’t see any of that! We’re making it up! They didn’t give that relationship that texture in the text, the fans did!

No, bro, I know when something is real. I was there. I was watching this the whole goddamn time. I know when a complex emotion is implicit, I’m an adult human with decent enough emotional maturity and the ability to read a situation. I also can recognize when something is hiding under its implicit assumption — a real lack of love.

No decision in that epilogue was objectively awful (Caleb becoming a professor isn’t the endgame I imagined for him, Essek living in disguises isn’t it either, but they’re not objectively bad choices), but it was misanthropic and hopeless and status quo and banal in the face of everything that made that story worth living and watching and putting energy into. It’s a shame. It’s a disappointment. It’s a shadow of its beauty and grace that we followed for an outrageous amount of episodes, compared to their payoff. “They we’re together, they were canon,” my ASS. “It was special in the moment,” BULLSHIT. We’ve seen every scene with these two — we know what they’re like, how intense their chemistry is, what sort of accountability and challenge they give to each other to keep going, keep getting better, not just undo mistakes but continue working to make sure no one else followed their paths and inflicted the same horrors on the world. THAT was the story we had. Accountability as a form of love. “I will love you on purpose,” instead of “maybe I love you? I guess” in that half-hearted ending.

I cannot accept the tone of this ending, sure, 6 hours into a 7 hour stream that obviously no one wanted to be a part of. I cannot accept it knowing these characters and this trajectory. They’ve survived too much to just wither in this awful half state of “they’re canon, confirmed on Twitter, with none of the chemistry and understanding that highlight this relationship and the sheer on-screen thematic power it has.” In a way, shadowgast was representative of the trajectory of the whole show, and how much it’s not just this one relationship that collapsed into nothing, but also pretty much everything in the series. It was the story they found 50-some episodes in about unlearning who their societies made them to be by building connection with the Other and realizing that maybe there’s more potential in this than what they came from. All we needed to wrap it up was a satisfying end to Caleb’s story, and yet, we got 141.

There’s just this feeling of senseless grief all throughout everything — these are characters at the top of their game and they give up any power, status, or chance at affecting the world. Yes there is grief, but there is also triumph and consequence. And just before they got to the finish line, they give up. It’s a shame and it’s relentlessly disappointing. I thought they knew the magic they held, with these plot elements and the potential of a literal Potential Item of the beacon, of the divinity in the grace of forgiveness, of the spiritual element of choosing to change, yourself, the world, to accept it, to allow yourself to be transformed in the process — and they squandered it. This story was so much more than where it landed. And I’m thinking of every timeline and every world and every possibility that there is a better life for these two — and I hope that that’s what I can hold onto rather than the bull shit we got. Anyways. Now I know how to not end a story. We witnessed that glorious train wreck together. As much as I love criticism, and I’m working on a giant analysis of how much this There is so much more joy to be gleaned. In another timeline, there is joy for these two, and in this timeline, we still can create stories that actually matter where hundreds of hours of development weren’t thrown away in a single line for the most nuanced and developed dynamic.

Maybe, after some time, Caleb realizes who’s next to him. He sees the power they hold together, the intelligence and practicality and devotion of the man next to him. He sees his patience and he feels his stupor and feels the weight of everything yet undone and the one who will help him do it, who he will help in return. They would look at each other, Seeing and Knowing, and look in the same direction, and go, bending time and space to their wills. Making something better than it was before.

It’s so obvious that this story wasn’t done yet. I felt sick after the declaration that the Aeor arc was the last one — they didn’t finish! They promised a recipe and didn’t cook it! These are ingredients, not a meal! And no, I don’t expect to do it myself! I came to this restaurant, I can cook myself at home! But I came here for inspiration, for someone outside of my own league, to see what else could be done. I’m not a professional voice actor, I’m a mediocre storyteller at best, I don’t have connections or a platform or a voice or a foundation. I know none of these things were built overnight, but it’s not my trajectory. 

It’s not my job. It’s theirs.

And to serve this slice of seasoned raw lamb in a bowl and call it a stew — this gives me no warmth. I can tell what it should have been. And I am looking at the cooks and thinking, this is your creation? You say you’re proud of this?

There’s the garnish on top. It’s done. The waiter has gone and moved onto further tables and meals. This ones not done and it’s what I have. It was a complex meal, lots of undertones, lots of transformation and different parts of the process moving at different speeds, different times. I get it, it’s hard. I’m not sure what happened in the kitchen to deliver this. Maybe the cooks were tired. Maybe they realized this cuisine is too hard with these pandemic restrictions on ingredients and consequence. Maybe they saw the line waiting outside and had to viciously close down their current offering in order to start afresh. I get it. Shit happens. The pandemic knocked the world askew. I was in LA at various parts of it; I know it was a ghost town. We’ve all gone through political, interpersonal, financial, health, and material scares this year. We’ve all lost. I cannot blame anyone for undercooking a stew that they still had the capacity to create and I had the audacity to order. But Jesus Christ, don’t lie and say you’re proud of it. You’re smart people, I hope. I know you’re seeing the same result I am. I’ve brought this stew back home. I tried finishing it on my stovetop. It lacks the richness of what I know this restaurant could create. I could make my own stew, and sure it would be edible, but I’m not a cook. That’s not where my skill set and life purpose lies. I shouldn’t feel like I could do a better job because it’s literally not my job. I guess I’ll expect less from this restaurant, do better on my own. After all, fully sarcastically, what a tragedy! To not get what you expected. No one owes us anything, at any time, at any point, really. 

But this isn’t, to continue the stupid metaphor because it’s working, just a meal.

WHAT NOW

Why did I write this. I’m tired of my own thoughts and I want them to live away from me. I kept waking up and thinking of the painful transition between “he and Essek were together for a while” and “Essek is Essek.” Thinking about how much someone can fuck up Trent’s ending that badly, that callously, that cowardly in this year of our lord 2021. How a found family doesn’t actually say that they want to care for each other at all and remain in each other’s lives after they split. To think of Essek losing his whole life and now having any idea of how he builds it up again. I don’t want to think about them every week and cry for the unrealized potential, for every other timeline we could have gotten, for every fate left undiscovered.

I want to hope for a better story. Mostly for myself. I’ve had a lot of irl conversations over this recently, because it’s definitely not normal to have this intense of a reaction to a series ending like this. Jesus Christ, I had hoped a lot with this story. I wanted to see them happy to know that eventually I can also be Seen, that I can walk with that baggage and leave what I was part of better than it was before. That I can have some amount of impact on this world, not in an egotistical way, but in a keeping someone safe way.

I want to raise my standard. We’re not just shared a story. We’re its audience. WIthout an audience, it does not live.

I want to take my lessons. I want to recognize that the care put into this is was not wasted because of a shoddy ending, but rather taught an important thing (melodramatic much? Some folks have told me that I’m grieving over it like a lost relationship and jfc, melodrAMATIC MUCH). 

  • To never expect anyone to do the work for you. I wanted to see Caleb work through his weight, to find that he wasn’t alone, to find the action to work against his despair. I wanted to see Caleb find some amount of peace that I myself am searching for. For a couple weeks after the finale, I mourned for the hope I had for seeing someone else succeed in this narrative. I wanted to see him do it. I wanted to have hope that I would too.
    • So instead? You have to do it yourself.
    • An interesting thing, alongside that quote about anger — can’t change a situation? So change yourself. Fuck me up, y’all, this was a tough 2 months of change.
  • No one can ever love you the way you need them to. This was a meta line that no one in the game actually recognized. But it’s true in its harshness. Again, no one can ever love you the way you need them to. So love yourself.
  • Love something for what it is, not what it has the potential to be. I hope I don’t have to explain this. Happiness is expectation minus reality. I know how much I hurt myself with expectation. Not necessarily perfection, but expectation. Enough better damn be enough.
  • Reality is so much better than fiction. This trend of seeking transformation and recognition and processing through fiction isn’t reaping the same rewards. Time to put entertainment in that category — entertainment — and soul-search somewhere else. This was fun. God, was it fun. 97 and the CR fandom kept me alive during my living alone period of quarantine. It contributed to the biggest artistic impulse that I’ve ever had my whole ass life. I can’t forget that. I remain thankful for that. It’s just so much harder to find that inspiration myself instead of searching for it in the hooking mirror. 

I have my own stories to tell, my own life to live. I wish I could think past on this with soft affection and I guess I do, for the wringing it caused me, to fall in love with a story and to care this much, and to be left with such a gaping hole where a conclusion should be. Is this my conclusion? I hope so. I’m so done with having a new thought every day about how else it got so fucked up. Im trying everyday to fully enjoy my life. It’s a damn good life. I saw a hummingbird today. I cooked some mushrooms I picked from the woods. I hugged my mom. I made plans for the weekend. I’m going to finish writing this and I’m going to take a shower and go to sleep. It’s a new day tomorrow. With all the potential, all the possible choices, to take a chance, and roll the dice.

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