Hellier 2

I watched the second season of Hellier, of course. It’s even wilder, more aimless and unfocused, than the original season (and it now has almost nothing to do with the town of Hellier). The core team of paranormal investigators is just as credulous as ever. Following up on “synchronicities” they perceive as complex, wandering down investigative paths that always lead to dead ends, and breathlessly following yet another unsolicited email with a fabulous story, the team manages to somehow always keep the faith, confident that at some point they will uncover something remarkable, all the while believing that they themselves are now significant, somehow part of some massive and largely invisible magic initiation. I don’t even mean “magic” in a dismissive way–they literally believe that they are being led on into a real magic initiation spell. They believe that magic is real, including the “hedge witch” magic of one investigator, the “chaos magic” dabbled in by her co-investigator and spouse, and the ritual magic of Thelema. They believe that all these magics coexist, that magic matters to this case, that ultradimensional beings might be goblins and fairies and yetis and aliens, that if you can read meaning into coincidence then it is a profound synchronicity used by a higher power to lead you to truth, that the 37th parallel is a unique zone of paranormal activity of all kind, that a space man named Indrid Cold was involved in the Mothman events of the 1960s and 1970s and recently died in a spaceship-to-spaceship collision, that aliens visit old ladies in nursing homes to celebrate Mother’s Day, that felons with remarkable tales and signs of psychosis are potentially victims of massive child-sacrifice cults…They believe in “weirdness,” and they want to believe, and if someone tells them something fantastical, they will accept it as true and attempt to assimilate it into their worldview.

I increasingly believe that a feeling of societal isolation is in large part what informs the views of these investigators and their allies. They can all trade strange “secrets” and talk paranormal events as though they are experts in a highly specialized field. They view themselves as special, called to a sacred task, because they “ask questions” that most people ignore. One of the lead investigators acknowledges that he has always been a paranoid personality. And they talk a lot about how paranormal phenomena seem to especially congregate around marginalized people living on the fringes of society, or living in between spaces (e.g., after a move). This, like so much else, seems to be looking at a correlation and reading causation into it–or something similar. Central to this season, they accept the narrative of a woman in rural Kentucky with a history of criminal charges because it ties in enough with what they want to believe (to their credit, they are initially skeptical of her). That woman’s narrative, which throws together the occult and military conspiracies and aliens and goblins and pedophile rings and a whole bunch of other nonsense, sounds like the delusions of someone suffering from some form of psychosis. They actually manage to speak with her later (from prison), and she insists that there is still some form of occult conspiracy, but she backs off on many of the claims she initially laid out, saying that she had just looked stuff up online to explain what was happening. She’s cobbled together a bizarre worldview out of delusions and the weird corners of the Internet, and these investigators never even seriously raise the possibility of mental illness, instead enabling her worldview. To the extent that they doubt her claims at first, it is because they think she might be under the influence of a government disinformation agent.

I think the people in this show, the investigators themselves, feel marginalized. And they’ve found a community within paranormal circles and fringe thinkers. They’ve found purpose in this particular investigation. It feels a little like if Behind the Curve was produced from inside the fringe community, without the irony and self-awareness.

When you find support for your ideas in the discovery of dissimilar deflated balloons at different locations, I think it’s safe to say you might be straining a little too hard for meaning.

Still, the documentary’s second season is long and rambling in a way that can be dull and repetitive but is also a fascinating look into how these people are thinking. There are moments in the show that are weird, precisely because I genuinely believe the authenticity of the investigators. I think they really believe in everything they’re doing. And even when the weirdest moments of the show still rely on you being willing to connect dots that don’t require a single one-to-one connection, or any connection at all, I still respect that they manage to have their weird moments without ever feeling like they’re trying to pull my leg. They’re concerned about being hoaxed (not enough at times, I think), but I think they would never even consider trying to hoax their viewers. They believe in what they’re doing too much. They believe in their research, their investigations, their 3 AM debates. They’re not great at what they’re doing, but they’re doing the best they can.

Nothing’s changed my perspective, but it’s a good show to have on in the background while working out. I’m invested in these goofballs, and I’d like to see another season, even though it feels like they’ve totally exhausted the narrative at this point.

Side note for those who watched the show…When Greg and Tyler go into that cave for the first time, that might have been the most frustrating moment of the whole show for me! They go into the cave without proper PPE or anyone outside of the cave who knows where they are. What if they have a cave-in or a fall or some other disabling injury? What if they’re right about the murder-cult and they get attacked? What if there’s a dangerous animal inside? Then they go in the cave and claim to hear whispers, though I heard nothing remotely like a whisper on the audio, and they refuse to investigate that further! Dudes! If there’s really a murder-cult operating right there, you could be so close to the truth–OR, more likely, you’ll quickly find a more reasonable explanation for what you’re hearing. Then they find those animal bones, which they make a big deal about, even though it could just be where a bear or something similar drags its prey, and THEY DON’T EVEN GRAB A BONE TO BRING BACK WITH THEM. Guys! You could have that sucker analyzed! You could provide some hard evidence to support some of your theories–or, more likely, you could actually disprove some of the ideas you’re bouncing around. As is so often the case, they miss obvious approaches in the moment and almost seem hell-bent on approaching investigations ass-backwards. Ah!!! Hellier in a nutshell.

Big-shot gangster putting together a crew: The Mandalorian 1.6

In the immediate aftermath of the sixth episode of The Mandalorian, I’m excited. It was great fun watching the second half, with plenty of tense action and twists. We have some of the greatest fight scenes of the season, with the Mandalorian really showing off all his abilities. There’s a tense game of deadly hide-and-seek involving the child. We get glimpses of the state of the larger galaxy, both in the criminal underworld and in the Republic. We also get a few more hints about the Mandalorian’s past. And I was delighted by the presence of so many enjoyable actors: Richard Ayoade, whom I remember fondly as Moss from The IT Crowd, voices an arrogant mercenary droid; Clancy Brown, who voiced Savage Oppress (among other Star Wars characters), plays the hulking Devaronian muscle on the team; Mark Boone Junior, memorable as Bobby in Sons of Anarchy, plays the outlaw crew leader who throws together the operation; and the directors of other Mandalorian episodes cameo as X-Wing pilots. Then there are the actors I didn’t recognize, who you might, like Natalia Tena (whose roles include Nymphadora Tonks from the Harry Potter films) and Matt Lanter (whom I did not recognize in his small though crucial part as a scared security guard in this episode, and who voiced Anakin Skywalker in The Clone Wars).

But I remember how I felt during the first part, when Mando fills in the last spot of a five-person job to bust a target out of a New Republic prison ship. During those opening moments, our hero (or antihero) felt more like a silent video game protagonist than usual. As we were introduced to characters along with Mando, we learned that some knew him and some didn’t, some hated him and some liked him; the other characters traded verbal jabs, made jokes, and eluded to shady pasts. Meanwhile, Mando did a whole lot of staring silently through his helmet. We’ve seen this plot many times before too, in television episodes (not to mention series) and films and video games and books: a group of undesirables gets together for a job that should be simple, and then things go wrong. The episode doesn’t set the characters up much–they’re archetypes. The boss putting the job together has seen it all and is too old to go out on jobs himself anymore; the point guy is agitated and arrogant; the pilot is an aloof and brilliant droid that no one else fully trusts; the muscle is exactly that, big and mean; and then there’s the acrobat archetype, who is also the only female in the episode, written as a “sexy psychopath” like Harley Quinn. At first, they felt like unlikable versions of characters in The Fast and the FuriousGuardians of the Galaxy, or Suicide Squad–though one of the things I liked about the episode is that the second half shows that they are supposed to be unlikable, that they’re not good people.

More than anything else, the biggest flaw of this episode is that it doesn’t really progress the show in any way. The show in general is slow-paced in addressing its overarching narrative concerns, more focused on episodic adventures. This episode attempts to demonstrate that the Mandalorian is a changed man now (while also showing how much he hasn’t changed), but we’ve really already seen this in all of the previous episodes. Perhaps he hasn’t had to directly confront his past since turning his back on the guild, but it still felt superfluous, thematically covering content similar to that of the immediately preceding episode. Other than that, we know that others will still betray Mando to get the kid, that Mando has no safe harbor, and that the kid won’t be safe until the bounty hunters’ guild is dealt with. These are things we already knew. I had fun watching the episode, and I was stoked by the end of it, but I’m a little disappointed that it feels like the full eight episodes of the first season are going to be spent simply tying up loose ends with the bounty hunters guild. I’m happy to see Mando taking on odd jobs and dealing with political and interpersonal spaces directly altered by his decisions at the start of this season, but I’d like to get through some of the central conflicts left unresolved from the beginning. At the same time, with only 8 episodes averaging just over a half-hour in length, compared to a traditional action-drama with perhaps 13 (or even 22) episodes running 45 minutes to an hour, I recognize that I must seem impatient with what has in fact been fairly economical storytelling. At some point, though, the show has to do something else other than telling us the same thing over and over again.

Returning to Vampyr

Vampyr came to Switch, so I got it and played it. This time around, with technical issues reduced, I was able to complete the game. That said, there were still a lot of technical issues present, which felt shocking on a console. There were still often lengthy load times, including screen-freezing loading in the middle of combat on several occasions. Sometimes, it appeared that the game became slightly sluggish with a slight frame-rate drop. These were annoying and disruptive problems, but not fatal. Even worse, the game crashed on at least three occasions, with at least a couple times where I got a Switch system error telling me the software had to be closed and at least one time where the game indefinitely froze in the middle of a battle, becoming unresponsive (even in that situation, I could still easily return to the Switch Home menu and quickly close out the game, which is a testament to the reliable nature of the Switch). On top of all this, the game has been ported to Switch with what appear to be the lowest graphics settings–fair, I get that sacrifices have to be made for this little, under-powered console, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when the game still doesn’t perform consistently.

I’m glad that I finished the game, though. It has a fun take on vampire lore. The story advances in jagged steps, and the dialogue doesn’t always flow naturally, but it still lands more than it misses. In fact, I suspect that Dontnod had a better story here that was stymied somewhat by English-language localization efforts. Still, this feels like an odd explanation, given that Dontnod, while a French developer, has typically produced games with good-to-great writing, like Life Is Strange and Remember Me, which both precede Vampyr.

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I enjoyed roaming the streets of this version of 1918 London. I enjoyed uncovering secrets and unlocking hidden lore. I enjoyed learning little hints about people and then using my vampiric influence to persuade them to share more about themselves, their motivations and their fears. I enjoyed healing people when they were sick. I enjoyed crafting treatments for them and serums for myself and upgrades for my weapons. And I enjoyed the combat, so much of it, combat outside of every safe district hub, combat between vampires and vampire hunters of all shapes and sizes. I enjoyed a focused approach to leveling my character, locking in on specific offensive and defensive abilities rather than going too broad with my skill selection and wasting valuable experience points on dead-end development. I enjoyed applying skill advancements that boosted my combat strategies and that sometimes made me adapt new strategies. I became a huge fan of hurling myself forward from the shadows across vast distances to damage and stun opponents, drawing blood and vitality restoration from them by biting them when they fell, and using a combination of vampiric claws and melee weapons (upgraded so that they, too, would draw little bits of restorative blood for me with every hit) to whittle down the health of tougher opponents in quick flurries of strikes between bursts of dodging. Combat stayed fun and fresh during most of my time in the game, and it kept the frequent backtracking across the game map more lively, but the boss fights were less fun and more frustrating, presenting the same sorts of challenges and requiring the same sort of maneuvers in basically every battle. And combat as a whole, especially at the scale in which it appears within the game, feels antithetical to the spirit of the core game, which is more focused on balancing your character’s thirst for blood with his impulse as a doctor to help people, to save lives, to be better. The narrative focuses on the latter so much that it feels increasingly disconnected from the active fighting and killing you’re doing most of the time.

[Huge spoilers about the end of the game follow. Stop if you have interest in giving the game a try without any reveals about the alternative endings.]

I hadn’t realized how close I had been to the end of the game before. I was well into the last third when I gave it up previously.

I made slightly different choices playing through this time. Chiefly, I found that I had little desire to choose to take the life of others. Something about my mental and emotional state at the time of this play attempt made me even more reserved about killing. Even when I encountered characters that are easy to hate, like a violent street gang leader or a sleazy slumlord or an actual serial killer, it didn’t seem right for me to be choosing to take their lives. At best, it would have been a brutal vigilantism, and at worst it was little more than an extrajudicial lynching, I felt. And so I spared characters I had previously killed.

It appears that this pure-hearted approach, wherein I refused to “embrace” any character, netted me the most “good” ending for the game. It was pleasant to attain that good ending, but I can imagine how frustrating it would feel to play through the game, choosing to feed and gain power only through enacting street justice against a few of the worst of the worst, only to find that this led you to being irredeemably corrupted. This insistence on remaining pure, avoiding the temptation to become a predator, feels especially silly given that the game actively encourages you to embrace people to gain power (and choosing who to kill and who to spare was part of the meta-narrative discussion around the game), while you’re also involved in a lot of fighting against and killing of the various types of vampires and vampire hunters. You can even choose an option, as I did, that led to a good person becoming a mindless lesser form of vampire (though not your intent), and you can return to their location later and kill their corrupted form, and this does nothing to hurt the ending. I had the protagonist feed constantly; using a vampire bite in battle was one of my major combat tactics, and there were plenty of rats drained of blood along the way. The distinction between the piles of bodies I drank from and killed along the way and this idea of abstaining from the thirst for blood as presented by the “good” ending narrative is contradictory and left unresolved and unaddressed in that narrative.

Still, the Gothic atmosphere and diverse cast of characters made it rewarding to explore (and fight through) the world all the way up until the end.

Old Western Classic: The Mandalorian 1.5

In this episode, the Mandalorian finds his ship once more in disrepair after the opening scene, requiring a pit stop on one of the most familiar worlds of the Star Wars galaxy. He needs funds to cover the repairs, so he takes on a job acting as a mentor of sorts for a hotshot young guy eager to join the bounty hunters’ guild. This youngster (played by Toro Calican) is more hustler than professional, though, and their target is a hardened mercenary with a dreaded reputation (played by Ming-Na Wen). To round out the new characters, the backwater mechanic (played by Amy Sedaris) hired by the Mandalorian also picks up baby duty while he’s out trying to bring in the credits.

Much of the episode was a classic western bounty hunter story, culminating in a clash between young gun and old, and the setting of the episode encourages a Wild West vibe.

[Spoilers follow]

That said, not everything has to end up on Tatooine. I do get the impression that the Mandalorian has some background with the planet, between his familiarity with Jawas in an earlier episode and his easy ability to communicate and negotiate with the Tusken Raiders in this episode (nice to see the Tuskens treated as rational sentients instead of mindless, violent savages). It makes sense; a lot of seedy types with underworld connections would have had reason to spend time on the planet at some point. And I can hardly begrudge the use of the planet, and so many familiar vistas, when it really allows the episode to feel like a gritty episode of some forgotten Western.

I do hope that we get some story momentum soon, though. At this point, nothing’s happening too quickly, even though each episode remains individually entertaining.

A final question about the ending: who do you think the figure is who comes across Fennec Shand’s body? The usual suspects seem convinced that this is a hint at a Boba Fett reveal. I’d rather Fett not show up; there are already enough real Mandalorians in the show, thank you very much. Plus, dropping him in would almost necessitate considerable explanation, re-focusing at least one episode around the figure previously presumed dead. And to have him suddenly reappear, years after the rescue of Han Solo and defeat of Jabba the Hutt, would feel bizarre if without some sort of explanation. Anyway, if it is an existing Star Wars character, and I suspect it’s not, I would hope that it’s Cad Bane. The jingle of the spurs fits in with his cowboy aesthetic. And while Bane may have been intended to be killed off in a canceled arc from The Clone Wars, for now I think his fate is ambiguous. Either way, it seems easier for a Duros to bounce back from a blaster wound than anyone recovering from being eaten.

Review: Disenchantment Part Two

The second season of Disenchantment introduces some new characters and settings, but it ultimately fails to disrupt the aimless wandering from the first season, and its first three episodes neatly resolve the massive changes to the world and the main characters left by the previous season’s cliffhanger ending, restoring the status quo for another round. That means that we have five episodes of Princess Bean, her boorish king and father, and her best friends Elfo the elf and Luci the demon getting up to more reckless antics.

I enjoyed watching most of the season, though I never had a burning desire to continue it. It still rested on a lot of excessive violence and gross-out humor, but I found that I cared a little more about the characters, as they had all softened somewhat. We saw this in Luci by the end of the first season, but he continues to grow and humanize, and while he still talks a big demonic game, he’s largely turned his back on the role of supernatural villain (even making some significant sacrifices for his friends), settling comfortably into the identity of sassy talking cat bartender (yes, that string of words does quickly make sense within the context of the show). Bean was deeply affected by the resolution of season one, and while she is still without a larger purpose, she seems more sentimental and slightly less selfish (though her royal upbringing results in an entitlement and self-absorption that she’s still not fully aware of and that often gets used for laughs). Bean’s relationship with her family is further complicated, and she finds more value and connection with some of her family members. Funny enough, Elfo, returning from death itself, has become slightly more hardened and jaded, though he and his elf friends are still a regular source of sweet naivete.

The season goes to some fun new locations, including an occult, Egyptian-influenced desert empire and a steampunk realm. But it still lacks a sense of direction–which the show acknowledges, as it is always willing to do with its flaws. Bean says in the last episode, “While I was growing up, I was completely lost, and then after I met you guys I was still lost, but at least we got lost together.” This sentimental moment is quickly followed by another cliffhanger ending that I’m sure just about everyone will see coming (though the particular details of its occurrence are still wild), setting up yet another season. Now I’m not so confident that the show will ever truly grow beyond what it is, but I’m enjoying what that is a little more now. Even if we only get incremental development of the characters and plot, I’ll probably keep watching. Still, for Part Two, I can safely suggest skipping the middle episodes. I previously recommended watching the first and final three episodes of season one. For season two, another ten-episode affair, you could easily get away with watching the first three and the last two.

Two Samurai: The Mandalorian 1.4

In this episode, our intrepid bounty hunter attempts to find safe haven for his young ward, leading him to accept a job protecting a small farming village in exchange for lodging. It doesn’t work out as planned.

The Mandalorian seems like a man hungry for connection. He didn’t seem to quite fit in with his fellow Mandalorians, even though they aided him in the end. (It turns out that he’s adopted into the clan.) He was betrayed by his fellow bounty hunters–or I guess you could say he betrayed them by breaking the rules of the guild, but he saved a small child from torture and death, and they were motivated by greed in hunting him down, so it’s clear to me that they wronged him and not the other way around. But he was so quick to find a connection with the kid, and with Kuiil, and now with Cara Dune and the capable widow of the farming village (do we ever learn her name? I didn’t catch it). We learn that the Mandalorians gave him a community and a family when he had none, taking him in after the death of his parents, but the burden to remain separate and apart from others, to always keep his armor on and to never reveal his face, weighs heavily on him. Perhaps he was just too old to become a good Mandalorian, just like Anakin was too old to become a good Jedi, but it seems like he is increasingly wearied by those cultural obligations.

The structure of the episode’s main plot pulls heavily from the Samurai/Western roots of Star Wars, serving up a variant of the plot seen in Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven and, more recently, the “Bounty Hunters” episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The structure is obvious, but the episode keeps its focus largely on the Mandalorian and his foster child; the adventure protecting the farmers is just one step in their journey, as the Mandalorian considers finding a safe place for at least one of them.

Another influence appears to be Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. The pirate raiders who live in the woods have a general aesthetic and purpose that appears to be half-Marauder, half-orc. The planet inhabited by the farmers and raiders, with its temperate forests and calm waterways, evokes Endor. Even the farmers’ residences are at least slightly reminiscent of concept art for the Ewok abodes in Return of the Jedi.

The raiders in the episode appear to be Klatooinian, but it’s hard for me to shake the impression of visual and thematic connectivity to that old Ewok movie.

We’re now halfway through this season, and I’m beginning to wonder if we ever will get bigger answers about just who and what Baby Yoda is. It’s seeming increasingly unimportant to the story being told here, where Baby Yoda is part MacGuffin and part softening agent for the protagonist. I could easily see the next four episodes telling a story of continued flight before the Mandalorian finally tries to take the fight to those who want this child so badly.

When the Joker gets serious

I saw Joker a few weeks back, and while it was a hard film to watch, it was an interesting film, especially when read as an homage to eighties-era Scorsese films. And of course Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the disturbed and isolated man who would become this version of the Joker, is fascinating. The combination of his delivery, the intensity and brutality and concreteness of the moments of violence on-screen, and the disconcerting music made watching it a rather distressing and memorable experience. It’s a good film, and there’s a lot to chew on about mental illness, societal responsibility, and the politicization of individual disaffection and violence. I don’t think it offers clear answers to these larger implicated questions; everything is complex, disturbed, and somewhat peripheral to Fleck’s awareness, and it is through Fleck, a very unreliable narrator, that we perceive his world.

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I’ve been meaning to say something, anything, about this film since watching it. But it’s been hard for me. Sam was very deeply affected by the movie, by its tone and its sounds and Fleck’s pathetic isolation and silent misery, his eagerness for approval even when perpetually faced with dejection. A particular moment hit us hard: when we see his notebook of stand-up material, with the page that reads, to paraphrase, that the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to act like you don’t. Sam’s mental health struggles are nothing like Fleck’s, but there are enough connections to be made in the broad strokes that she could, as a naturally empathetic person who tends to believe the worst about herself, see elements of her own life and mental illness in his experiences. She actually had to walk out of the theater within the first half. While Fleck’s condition might not look, in particular, like anyone else’s, his experience is nonetheless grounded in that of those suffering with severe mental illnesses. And it is impressive that Joker makes us, whether we want to or not, sympathize (or even empathize) with this man until we reach a point where we cannot any longer. He crosses a line, many lines in fact, lashing out violently, going further than necessary, delighting in that violence, embracing the darkness and chaos, finding humor and delight in the suffering of others. We can sympathize with him until he shows us that he has no sympathy or compassion himself, that he has been twisted into something tragically evil. Still, Fleck is a man who needs help, and the system fails him at every critical step throughout the film.

It’s sad that so much of the conversation around The Joker was focused on whether he emulated or idolized disturbed, extremist white men like contemporary “incels.” If incels choose to idolize him, they are very clearly missing the point. He is not a hero. But this is reflected within the narrative events of the movie. Fleck is disturbed and violent; he’s not an icon of the oppressed or impoverished or disaffected. And yet we see people rallying around him, taking on his clown identity as though wearing Guy Fawkes masks. They misinterpret his illness as inspiration, all evidence to the contrary. Fleck cannot understand the political ramifications of his actions; he cannot accurately interpret why people are choosing to use his likeness. He sees himself as apolitical–this isn’t quite true, but his actions are devoid of a political purpose, and the political is broader than his individual situation, which serves as a single anecdote to showcase the failings of Gotham (a very obvious New York stand-in here) in its care for its most vulnerable members. Even the mob-like activism that forms around Fleck seems unclear about what exactly it is for. They definitely don’t want a Mayor Wayne, and they think that rich people suck. We don’t see any solutions, except for anarchic violence. And that violence seems to mostly come from white men. White men unhappy with the perceived elite, lashing out any way they want, with the goal of causing pain and terror, tearing down rather than building up. On the one hand, we have the unconcerned wealthy, represented in the white male mayoral candidate of Thomas Wayne, and on the other we have other white men who would choose to blow everything up when they feel slighted. It feels as much a moment of the eighties in which the film is set as it does a moment for our modern era.

I want to make a hard pivot here to the Telltale Batman games. Joker prompted me to give the first five-episode game another try, this time on the Switch. I plowed through it over about a week, playing roughly an episode a night. Then I moved on to The Enemy Within, again moving at the rate of about an episode a night. These games really shine in their narrative, their characterizations, their willingness to do fresh and wildly divergent things with established Batman lore as contained within their pocket-universe continuity, and their ability to give the impression that your choices really matter and that those choices often cause as much harm as good. But for this post, I bring them up because they also portrayed mental illness in a mostly sympathetic way. It’s interesting, though hardly original, to reflect on just how many Batman villains suffer from a mental illness, and how those mental illnesses often are totally distinct, even as the villains (and Batman himself) might just get labeled “psychopaths.” In the Telltale games, you have some choice in how you play your Batman and thus how you respond to others, but it’s hard not to see, for instance, how much Harvey Dent suffers with his compulsions. He’s driven by a series of very traumatic events that finally drive him to a psychotic break and a spree of violence.  I tended to play my Batman as merciful and focused on justice, so my Bruce Wayne often empathized with his foes, acknowledging their suffering, pleading with them to seek help.

I don’t know if a harder, crueler Batman wouldn’t have provided as many moments to view the villains compassionately. But my Bruce never gave up on Harvey. And in The Enemy Within, he never gave up on John Doe, the nascent Joker. In Telltale’s Batman games, John Doe is a known entity in Arkham Asylum. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and eager to please his heroes. But he mocks and subverts authority figures (at first, just behind their backs) and delights in violence. Over the course of the games, especially the sequel, you have the option to influence how John Doe develops; you in effect determine what sort of Joker he will be. He has three key role models: Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Harley Quinn. If you show him trust and respect, he will reciprocate. And he quickly learns that Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same, but he doesn’t let on right away. Because I quickly grew attached to this outcast, so lost on release from the mental institution and so eager to find connection, I was determined to try to help him find a path of stability. The two main outcomes are either a cruel, unhinged villain or an excessively violent vigilante. Either way, he eventually becomes so violent and destabilized that Batman must defeat him. At the end of my experience, a vigilante Joker finally went too far, feeling betrayed by Batman and gruesomely killing several law enforcement agents. Batman and the Joker had a brutal fight. In the end, when Joker was finally subdued, I still chose to reinforce to him, when he asked, that we had been friends. The worst thing for the Joker was that he had to return to Arkham, back to the beginning, which seemed to be a denial of his development as a person, at least in his mind. But because I had treated him as a friend, the final scene of the game depicts Bruce, as Bruce, visiting an obviously delighted Joker in his cell.

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The games did so many interesting things with new and established characters, but I just wanted to focus on their depiction of the Joker here. It was impressive that the game could clearly show that he was doing vile things, for which incarceration and (probably permanent) removal from the public was appropriate, while still showing that he was struggling with a variety of mental illnesses that propelled him down his path. Joker should not have been out on the street, unsupported and unattended to. As a result, he did horrible things. He was still a human, regardless.

Of course, most people with mental illness are never going to be violent. And there are many types of mental illnesses, most not creating a profile of the “criminally insane.” But there are some people out there with severe mental illnesses, who could hurt themselves or others, and the existing mental health and justice systems just aren’t adequately helping to avoid disaster. Arthur Fleck and John Doe are not representative of someone suffering from bipolar disorder or anxiety. But it was refreshing to see these properties seriously wrangle with the troubled mental states of the Joker and other Batman characters, rather than taking it for granted that they were reducible to terms like “evil” or generically “psychotic.” Think of other big-screen depictions of the Joker: Nicholson’s prankster-gangster, Ledger’s chaotic force rejecting any single narrative or any ability to understand him, or Leto’s abusive and animalistic thug. Even though Leto’s Joker has a defined background as a mental patient who escaped via manipulating and dominating a psychologist, his mental state is of no concern to the events of Suicide Squad. He’s melodramatic and high-octane, a caricature. Nicholson and Ledger are foils and obstacles to Batman. Nicholson’s version creates Batman by killing his parents; Batman creates the Joker by knocking the murderer into a vat of chemicals. Joker emerges fully formed as a lunatic with a deadly sense of humor. And Ledger’s Joker defies characterization; as masterful as Ledger is in the role, his version of the character is more a philosophical conundrum, a challenge to Batman’s attempt to restore justice and order to Gotham. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and we are not allowed to understand such a man.

Works like Joker and the Telltale Batman games show us humanity in a deranged villain. We don’t need to defend his actions or provide excuses for his behavior; we don’t need to take his side (and we shouldn’t). But we should examine how our society allows these personalities to form, allows violence and bloodshed to be unleashed before we think to even get involved. And what of the many more who never become violent, who perhaps languish in poverty or homelessness, ignored by us all? The Joker forces us to see him, just as select offenders involved in sensational crimes force us to see them. But we so often choose to ignore the suffering of others, so long as they never redirect that suffering toward us.

Further Reading

Hoskins, “Justices sharply split on insanity defense case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 23 Dec 2010.

Mental illness and violence,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School, Jan 2011.

Odendahl, “Indiana’s struggle with insanity defense mirrors coming SCOTUS case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 5 Sep 2019.

Raphelson, “How The Loss Of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led To A Mental Health Crisis,” NPR, 30 Nov 2017.