Book Review: A Golden Thread by Philip Sandifer

It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that I have been heavily influenced by Dr. Sandifer’s work; it would only be a slight overstatement to say that My Little Po-Mo is an outright ripoff of his TARDIS Eruditorum. So it should equally come as no surprise that I was quite excited by the prospect of a book by him at the intersection of two of my favorite topics, DC Comics and feminism. But A Golden Thread is not a feminist study of Wonder Woman per se; rather, much as TARDIS Eruditorum uses Doctor Who as a window through which to view British utopianism throughout its run, A Golden Thread uses Wonder Woman as a window onto the history of feminism in the U.S.

This is not, however, Themyscira Eruditorum; rather than in-depth analyses of individual Wonder Woman issues or story arcs, it takes a high-level look at different eras of the comic, studying how these eras respond to the issues of previous eras in ways that reflect or reject the feminist currents of the time. Of particular note are the early chapters on Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, which identify, and then explicitly avoid, the usual approach of identifying him as the sexually deviant inventor of the lie detector, as if that explains all that need be explained about Wonder Woman. Instead, the book explores his professional writings and other projects, building a case that Wonder Woman was simply the most successful of multiple attempts to express Marston’s peculiar brand of utopian, gender-essentialist feminism and his vision of a matriarchal society defined by willing, loving submission rather than coercive, forceful domination.

That this vision failed, while the comic based on it succeeded, is key to the book’s premise regarding feminism, that social progress is a matter of “making new mistakes.” For example, the chapter on the “I Ching” era of Wonder Woman, in which she was depowered, becomes a chronicle of the mistakes of second-wave feminism in general and Gloria Steinem in particular. The book never quite reaches for the claim, but the suggestion that the I Ching era was foreshadowing the third wave is an easy one for the reader to fill in.

Therein lies one of the major differences between this book and Dr. Sandifer’s other work: restraint. It is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, there is nothing in this book remotely as gloriously outré as the Blakean take on “The Three Doctors” in the third volume of TARDIS Eruditorum, let alone the Qabbalistic Tarot “Logopolis” Choose Your Own Adventure in the upcoming fourth volume. On the other, it is more accessible by far than TARDIS Eruditorum or especially The Last War in Albion, his ongoing study of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

Which is not to say that the usual Sandifer flavor is absent! His distaste for organized fandom shows up strongly here, as he blames the emergence of such (probably deservedly) for the post-World War II decline of the comic. He also, as usual, does not shy away from mounting strong defenses of indefensible positions, in this case trying to argue that the animated Wonder Woman movie is inferior to the David Kelly-produced television pilot. His criticisms of the former are accurate and cutting—it is a far from perfect film—but he defends the latter against a strawman, ignoring the strongest criticism of the pilot, that it depicts Wonder Woman as a remorseless and unhesitating killer.

Nonetheless, the book stands as an excellent microhistory of Wonder Woman, accessible even to a reader who knows little of her comics (such as myself—I know her mostly through the DCAU, her appearances in crossovers, and the Gail Simone run), highly informative, and engaging. It is worth the price for the fresh take on Marston alone, but the rest of the book has much to offer as well.

Heheh. Who knows? (Ponyville Confidential)

Due to how late this post went up Monday, there will be no Tuesday post. Regular updates resume Wednesday.

Sweetie Belle has just discovered the awesome power
of coffee. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo are unimpressed.

It’s March 31, 2012, and the top song is still “We Are Young,” as it will be for the remainder of the season. The top movie is also unchanged, as The Hunger Games has its second of four weekends at number one. In the news, in the wake of a scandal surrounding wealthy donors paying for access to him, Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron publishes a list of the donors who did so; Visa and MasterCard have a massive security breach which potentially compromises more than 10 million credit card numbers; and the London Metropolitan police make a scandal of their own when a black man they arrested uses his cell phone to record them abusing him and using racial slurs.

On TV we have “Ponyville Confidential,” the antepenultimate episode of Season Two, written by M.A. Larson going unusually light on the outside references and directed by Jayson Thiessen. A Cutie Mark Crusader episode, it returns to their core motivation–where in their last episode they were motivated as much as or more by concern for Cheerilee as getting their cutie marks, here the cutie marks are their primary concern once more.

On the surface, this appears to be a fairly typical story of the “journalism is a corrupting and invasive industry that ruins lives for profit” ilk. (Are there any industries that don’t?) However, it contains a distinct oddity that makes it stand out both from other, similar stories and from the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusader episodes: at the end of the story, the CMC are still on the student newspaper, which neither collapses or continues on in villainy, but instead has a change of leadership and increase in outside guidance.

If not about the evils of journalism, then, what is this episode about? Generally speaking, a work can be said to be about (among other things) whatever it is that the core conflict is fought over and with. In this case, there are two major conflicts: first, between “Gabby Gums” and the townsfolk who are hurt by the stories she tells about them, and second between the CMC and Diamond Tiara, who blackmails them into continuing to work for her. In that light, it becomes rather clearer, since these are essentially the same conflict, between those who wish to establish their own identities and those who wish to control them–in other words, it is once again a conflict between freedom and power.

The descent of Gabby Gums begins innocently enough, with a funny, embarrassing story about Snips and Snails that the two foals are happy to have shared–indeed, they even try to recreate the incident later in the hopes of being at the center of attention once more. Some people seek out attention, whether by taking public office, pursuing fame, or committing crimes, and by so doing give up some of their right to privacy and self-definition. 
Most people, however, do not. Gabby Gums is soon revealing irrelevant stories about public figures (the mayor’s hair-dying “scandal”) and, worse still, exposing the secrets of private individuals (publishing Rarity’s diary, for example). Eventually, Gabby Gums crosses the line into outright making up stories about the citizens of Ponyville.
This may seem an odd choice at first. While they are both classic examples of journalistic malfeasance, there is not an obvious progression from invasion of privacy to libel. However, the inclusion of the second conflict makes the connection more clear. Blackmail, libel, and invasion of privacy all have something in common: they are all violations of the right to define oneself. Libel is the most obvious–publically lying about a person obscures the truth I who they are. However, blackmail or privacy violation is equally a violation of self-definition; what a person chooses not to reveal defines their public persona just as much as what they choose to reveal, and so blackmail is as much an attack on their public persona as libel. In this context, whether or not the information is true is secondary to whether it disrupts one’s ability to create an identity for oneself.
That is why this had to be a Cutie Mark Crusader story as opposed to, say, Twilight or Rarity getting involved in the local paper: because the CMC’s own quest is to figure out who they are, they are the perfect characters for a story about how easy it is to gain power by defining for others who they are allowed to be. 
Of course, like any rights, there are limits to the right of self-definition, determined by where it comes into contact with other rights. Printing that the mayor dyes her hair to look older than she is may be justifiable if she ever used he apparent age to imply greater experience in a campaign. Rarity snooping in Sweetie Belle’s bag early in the episode is unjustifiable, but once she has reason to suspect that Sweetie Belle may have stolen her diary, it becomes a more reasonable course of action. There is such a thing as too much freedom to self-define.

We live in an age where, paradoxically, privacy is increasingly difficult to maintain in the offline world, yet most of the social ills to be found online can be traced to an excess of anonymity. Given an unlimited freedom to define an identity, a small but virulent minority choose to define no identity at all, instead reveling in the ability to lie, troll, and generally disrupt any community in which they find themselves. This is known as the online disinhibition effect, and one of its major causes is precisely the dissociative anonymity that Gabby Gums provides the CMC: she is an invention, a cipher, that enables the CMC to engage in toxic activity they never would have dare undertake in their usual identities. The cure for such behavior, as the CMC themselves experience, is light: stripped of their anonymity, they come clean, apologize, and endeavor to do better going forward.

The balancing act, therefore, is between the need for privacy to create a space within which people can define themselves, and the need to shine light on people who abuse that privacy and anonymity. Consider the three news stories with which I began this article: neither the Prime Minister nor any of those credit card holders wished their information to get out, and I doubt the London police knew they were being recorded. All three involve taking away from someone the power to define what information about them is presented to the world. Yet instinctively we recognize that exposing malfeasance by those in power is a good reason to take that power, and stealing credit card numbers a bad reason.

The Internet has intensified both sides of the equation, creating both new ways to communicate anonymously and new ways to discover information about others. Ultimately, however, it is an equation that has already been solved. It might not be as simple as replacing the editor-in-chief and bringing in more teacher supervision, but the answers are out there.

Next week: Didn’t we already do pony Rashomon? Oh well, this is closer to pony Murder on the Orient Express anyway.

Snarky Supernatural Saturday (S1 E6-8)

Episode 6: Skin

 Previously on Supernatural, lightning sound effects! And we still have made a new Previously On! Or gotten opening credits!

Oh look. A women being held prisoner by a guy with a nasty knife. How original, show. Women depicted as helpless and endangered, nobody’s done THAT before.

Surprise! The cops are incompetent and let a criminal get away. I sure didn’t see that coming.

The SWAT team, of course, is all male.

Oh hey, Dean is a serial killer. I find this development equally unsurprising.

(And yes, of course obviously this’ll be a doppelganger story or something, but let me hope.)

Dean is giving a lecture about lying? What a fucking asshole.

Okay, look: People kill their significant others. And EVERY TIME there are friends and family who say “They didn’t do it, they’re not the type.” Dirty little secret of humanity: there is no “the type.” There are no monsters and no angels, only people being people.

Once again I find myself spending the early part of the episode DESPERATELY HOPING that there’s nothing supernatural going on. I want a series about two brothers traveling the country meddling in Supernatural problems and ALWAYS BEING WRONG. Of course, that’s what I wanted the X-Files to be, too: The Scully is always right but Mulder never stops believing show.

Basically I want this show to be a dramatic, violent Scooby-Doo.

30 seconds after I mention Scooby-Doo, a dog shows up. The dog saw everything. IT KNOWS ALL. BOW BEFORE YOUR CANINE MASTER.

Yep, shapeshifter monster. Turns into men and kills their girlfriends.

You know, what made Buffy great was that the monsters, as they are in all the best monster movies and stories, are reifications of things within the characters, their fears and hopes and traumas brought to life. Supernatural’s monsters are just kinda… there. Like, this would be a great monster if there were some identity issues in play for our characters, or trust issues… but there’s diddly squat here.

5:30 in the morning!? Man, I don’t care how good a friend you are, I’m not investigating your murder case before 10 at the earliest.

Oh crap, Dean shares my opinion. Time for seppuku.

Now they’re ambulance chasers.

Thanks episode, for reminding us that people who abuse and murder their loved ones are all easily spotted by their maniacal laughter and monocles, and anyone who seems like a nice guy must be one.

“Every culture in the world” Dean? Really? Dean (and by Dean, I mean the writers) really needs to knock off that bullshit, this is at least the second time he’s had a line like that. MANY cultures have shapeshifter lore, but many is not every.

Chasing a creature into the sewers. weird goop, things that transform… *cues the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme*

But… if it’s a shapeshifter… how do they know where its heart is?

Oh FOR FUCK’S SAKE, we get it! Them lying about their identities backfires!

Also: STFU Dean, you’ve been caught lying in EVERY OTHER EPISODE.

…huh? I don’t get his perks line. Is he talking about the gun? Because… yay? It’s a gun? I dunno about you, I’d rather have a Game Boy or something. 

I wonder how much silver bullets cost. That’s probably like $40 of bullets Sam just shot into the pipes.

I guess we’re supposed to think the shapeshifter is one of the folks who passed them, but actually it’s EVERYONE. ALL OF ST LOUIS IS SHAPESHIFTERS! What a tweest!


Oh joy, another episode for Dean to save the day.

Okay, it’s moderately nifty that it gets the memories of the people it copies.

Oh god the monster actually IS Envy. Jealousy demon or something, which is why it goes after girlfriends I guess?

“Hmm, I hate you and don’t trust you. Let me set up a romantic fire and we’ll have a drink.”

Oh god no please no not Hollywood biology.

If he wants someone to love him, he is REALLY BAD AT IT. So, yeah, basically, just like Dean.

Shouldn’t there already be an APB out on Dean for impersonating a police officer?

So wait, if they didn’t call the cops, who did?

Pretty impressive that he manages to shapeshift and tear off his old skin without removing his pants.

Oh, okay, I was assuming the Rebecca in the sewers was the shapeshifter, pretty cute that it’s not.

Dang, Rebecca keeps her knives SHARP. Either she’s real serious about her cookery, or she never cooks at all.

I will take a full point away if this degerates into either of the brothers having to play “but which is the real one” With the other brother.

Okay. Good. Does it keep Dean’s face? Because otherwise he’s still going to have to go on the run.

Wait, so… that’s it? Dean’s legally dead and a murderer? And they just drive off and it’s fine?

That’s what makes this show so boring for me; nothing has any consequences, so I don’t care what happens. How much you want to bet that next episode has the same Previously On as this episode?

It’s getting really hard to be funny about this. It’s just tiresome. Next episode better be something SERIOUSLY RIDICULOUS. Like “the killer’s in the house!” or “bug bite EXPLODES INTO SPIDERS” urban-legend type ridiculousness. It won’t be any better, but at least it would be more mockable.

Characters so far (characters appearing in this episode are in italics, characters who have not been seen or mentioned in three episodes not included):

  • Drunken, absent father
  • Jerkass bully who insults everyone he meets, and we’re expected to find him charming And now he’s a dead serial killer, not that that’ll ever be referenced again
  • Milquetoast who is secretly evil-baby with evil-baby fiery lady-fridging powers he can’t control
  • Disposable woman who exists solely to die in a horrible, painful way to create drama for the male characters and further the plot (deceased)
  • Other disposable woman who exists solely to die in a horrible, painful way to create drama for the male characters and further the plot (deceased)
  • Assorted evil-babies
  • Finn’s Fear (in Hell and/or Finn’s stomach)
  • Guy possessed by Finn’s Fear (deceased)
  • Various white people on an airplane (deceased)
  • Guy who knows Winchester pere, he had a poltergeist once, he got better
  • Pilot Chuck (deceased, boring)
  • Amanda Walker, is afraid to fly and doesn’t mind if you pour acid on her coworkers, I’m just saying she’s maybe not the world’s best flight attendant
  • Various white people and one WOC on an airplane
  • Lily, has evil-baby friends, also it is all her fault
  • Charlie, she is the best, why couldn’t she have been played by Amy Acker?
  • Jill, who existed to be not very nice and then die to further the plot (died to further the plot)
  • 80s face girl
  • Woman who is so disposable we never even find out the truth about how she died and no one cares (deceased)
  • Bloody Mary, who somehow died decades after her own legend started (died, ripped off The Ring, died again)
  • Zach’s girlfriend (not pictured or named)
  • Zach, who totes didn’t murder his girlfriend because murderers never have friends who are main characters (except in season finales)
  • Rebecca, Zach’s sister (because every male character on this show is defined by their actions or job and every female character by a relationship)
  • Monster who is basically the incarnation of Nice Guy Syndrome, wish they’d done something with that (ha!)
  • My boredom, which is increasingly overwhelming my hate

Disposable women who exist solely to die in horrible, painful ways to create drama for the male characters and further the plot counter: 6

Women who kiss Dean: 2

Average disposable women who exist solely to die in horrible, painful ways to create drama for the male characters and further the plot per episode: 1

Average women who suffer horrible fates no one should have to endure per episode: 1.33


Episode 7: Hookman

Previously, on Supernatural, oh for fuck’s sake.

Sorority girls? Peer pressure to be more sexual? I smell slasher flick.



Also, do people seriously make out in cars? I don’t drive, so I’ve never done it, and it always seemed really uncomfortable?



INVISIBLE hook-hand?

Oh my god, is it the GHOST of the hook-hand guy?

No, the girl said no, you’re supposed to kill the guy and let her go DAMMIT BUSTER HAVE YOU NEVER SEEN A SLASHER FLICK?

Okay, I guess he actually has

Also, yes, I am going to assume this is the ghost of Buster Bluth.

No duh your dad doesn’t want to be found, he is playing THE MOST EPIC DAD-PRANK EVER on them

Okay, seriously, Sam? You’re not Scully, stop trying. We all know you believe in all this shit.

Oh come on, the rape club fraternity doesn’t even have a secret handshake?

Wow, way to be subtle Dean. That guy totally doesn’t think you’re investigating.

Dean is so totally me the two or three times I’ve been in a church. “Wait, why’s everybody looking down? Is there something on the floor?”

Dean pretending to be churchy is actually pretty funny?

I was actually starting to like this episode, but then Dean’s “Yeah, I think she’s hot, too” threw me right back out. STOP BEING DOUCHY MCMACHO, DEAN.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the ghost of Buster Bluth, but I can dream


Oh, drinking. I thought Preacher Dad assumed the sorority was all lesbian sex.

You just know all his ideas about them comes from Cinemax

Okay, the rock salt shotgun IS clever

Kinda hard to shoot an invisible dude

Ghost Buster better not kill Taylor

She is the first black character in the entire show and a woman who am I kidding OF COURSE she’s going to die

Thank you door for telling me her name, by the way


Lori is descended from Ghost Buster, isn’t she? That’s why the detail about him being a preacher.

*facepalm* Ghost Buster I DIDN’T EVEN INTEND THAT PUN

Unsurprisingly, Dean’s knowledge of sororities is also derived entirely from Cinemax

Okay it is NOT an accident that she has a “gob” poster

Buster is haunting her because Gob always picked on him

So it isn’t the ghost of a 19th century preacher, but something that haunts angry preachers and murders women? So it’s either Ghost Buster or Jack the Ripper. He’s supposed to have escaped to the U.S., isn’t he?

WAIT. Episode 5 established that ghosts can travel in time, since Bloody Mary’s legend predates her death. Maybe Ghost Buster IS Jack the Ripper!!!1!

Shacking up with a married woman? Oh, you are a CLASS ACT, Father Dad.

Yes, dig up the angry ghost, disturbing graves makes everything better.

Salt and fire, yeah, that’ll take care of most supernatural stuff.

It’s actually Lori summoning the ghost, isn’t it?

Okay, wait, what? Why is she kissing Sam? There’s like at least two scenes of bonding between them missing before this scene works.

Yep, it’s Lori.

Okay, there’s actually something vaguely resembling a logic to the thing with the hook? I like this. It’s neat.

Wait… doesn’t “St. Barnabas” imply a Catholic church? Aren’t Catholic preachers not allowed to have kids? *confused*

But Lori’s not literally descended from him, just closely associated with his church.

Okay, destroying the ghost’s hook IN HIS CHURCH may not have been a great plan?

Hey, Lori actually figured out this is connected to her! I kinda like her. She has something to her character besides a relationship, namely a strong moral code! That’s rare in this show.

I meant “woman having something to her character besides relationships,” but “moral code” works too. Most of the characters are kinda assholes? Lori takes it a little too far, though.

Of COURSE she’s the final target.

Ghost Buster isn’t scary, but he’s pretty cool, and has a neat death effect.

Can you even melt silver in a regular fireplace, though?

I like how NO ONE gives a fuck about Taylor. And by “like” I mean “dammit.”

Characters so far (characters appearing in this episode are in italics, characters who have not been seen or mentioned in three episodes not included):

  • Drunken, absent father
  • Jerkass bully who insults everyone he meets, and we’re expected to find him charming He’s less of a bully lately, but still Macho McManlypants de la Anxiousmasculinity
  • Milquetoast who is secretly evil-baby with evil-baby fiery lady-fridging powers he can’t control He and Lori were made for each other, weren’t they?
  • Disposable woman who exists solely to die in a horrible, painful way to create drama for the male characters and further the plot (deceased)
  • Other disposable woman who exists solely to die in a horrible, painful way to create drama for the male characters and further the plot (deceased)
  • Lily, has evil-baby friends, also it is all her fault
  • Charlie, she is the best, why couldn’t she have been played by Amy Acker?
  • Jill, who existed to be not very nice and then die to further the plot (died to further the plot)
  • 80s face girl
  • Woman who is so disposable we never even find out the truth about how she died and no one cares (deceased)
  • Bloody Mary, who somehow died decades after her own legend started (died, ripped off The Ring, died again)
  • Zach’s girlfriend (not pictured or named)
  • Zach, who totes didn’t murder his girlfriend because murderers never have friends who are main characters (except in season finales)
  • Rebecca, Zach’s sister (because every male character on this show is defined by their actions or job and every female character by a relationship)
  • Monster who is basically the incarnation of Nice Guy Syndrome, wish they’d done something with that (ha!)
  • Lori, secretly an evil-baby who unknowingly summons Ghost Buster, so clearly Sam’s soulmate
  • Taylor, disposable woman who exists solely to die in a horrible, painful way to create drama for Lori and further the plot (deceased) Yes I am counting her
  • Reverend Dad, who likes adultery but not sororities
  • Lori’s date, needs to learn that no means no, kinda deserved to have something bad happen to him but probably not death by Buster (deceased)
  • The Angry Time-Traveling Ghost of Buster Bluth, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper
  • A can of beans
  • A can of Manwich They’re not actually in the episode, I mixed them and ate while watching

Disposable women who exist solely to die in horrible, painful ways to create drama for the male characters and/or Lori and further the plot counter: 7

Women who kiss Dean: 2

Average disposable women who exist solely to die in horrible, painful ways to create drama for the male characters and further the plot per episode: 1

Average women who suffer horrible fates no one should have to endure per episode: 1.28


But seriously though, it’s like someone pointed out that this show is whiter than Friends and they went UH-OH BETTER KILL A BLACK WOMAN TO PROVE WE’RE NOT RACIST 

Episode 8: Bugs

 Previously, on Supernatural, I ran out of ways to say that this previously on is the same every damn time.

Phat? Seriously? No one actually says that! Not even in 2003 or whenever this was.

Sinkholes and excessive misquitoes? Is this episode about urban blight?


Still not scary, but pretty gross. I think one of my problems is that this show doesn’t seem to know the difference.

Okay, Dean watching Oprah is hilarious, him refusing to admit it moreso. Did this show gain a level or something?

How come nobody ever catches on that they talk like investigators instead of grieving nephews or whatever they’re posing as this week?


Man, I could totally go for some free barbecue. Or any barbecue, really. Good barbecue’s hard to find around here.

Dammit this is two episodes in a row where Dean is channeling me. Suburbia is a nightmare hellscape and I’m so glad to live in a real city now. I DO NOT LIKE HAVING ANYTHING IN COMMON WITH DEAN


Calling it: The realtor guy is sleeping with the head of sales and wife knows.




Calling another thing: Pheromones. No psychic powers, no angels, this is a mad scientist type deal because we’re 8 episodes in and haven’t ha one yet.

Oh what a surprise, first woman defined by something she DOES rather than who she KNOWS and she’s dead. Not counting as a fridging, though, she’s a regular victim because she’s not being used as an excuse for a more important character to emote.

Ooh, that’s a pretty stick bug. 

I am MASSIVELY disappointed that he’s apparently not an evil-baby after all. There need to be more evil kids in media, the child-industrial complex has had its way for too long!

Is it a demonic temple of bugs?

Nope, just a clearing and sound effects.

Yes, everyone walk into the place full of killer doom insects, that is a good plan.

Did Dean just—he is seriously poking it with a stick! This isn’t a metaphor, he is LITERALLY POKING THE EVIL BUG NEXUS WITH A STICK


Fuck you Dean. Some families suck! If your family doesn’t work, you find a better family.

Dean is totally lying about their dad visiting Stanford.


Oh gods I’m already cringing at how they’ll depict Native Americans

I just hope it’s not as bad as the buffalo in My Little Pony


Well, at least we’ve got an entire town in danger this time.

“You don’t break a curse.” Well… that goes against basically every story about curses ever.

Of COURSE the kid Sam was bonding with is in danger.


…how the fuck do they have Matt’s cell phone number?

I’m still sad it wasn’t mad-scientist evil-babies. 

Sure, 10,000 years of recorded history and we’ve never figured out a way to keep out bugs, but Dean can figure it out in an evening, right? They are SO BONED. What are the next eight seasons about?

A can of bug spray. That’s your brilliant plan? ALL THE LULZ FOREVER


Yes, because BURNING the bug spray so it makes a LIGHT that ATTRACTS BUGS is a great way to help get away from them. YOU ARE THE SMARTEST DEAN CLEARLY.


I like how the room is ALREADY FULL of a BILLION BUGS but they’re all fine.

WAIT WHAT? They were in the house for like TEN MINUTES how is it already morning?

So… all Dean and Sam did, in the end, was tell the realtor family to hide from the bugs. I THINK THEY COULD HAVE FIGURED THAT OUT.

“Well, this has been the biggest financial disaster of my career, but somehow, I really don’t care.” Except that, traumatized and triggered by the only thing he enjoyed before, Matt desperately needs therapy, and after being fired for this disaster, the family has no insurance. Yay?

The moral of the story, based on Dean and Sam’s conversation at the end: If your dad is unrelentingly horrible to you because you don’t fit into the narrow frame of his expectations, that’s your fault, and you should change or at least apologize to him for it. Fuck you, show. 

Characters so far (characters appearing in this episode are in italics, characters who have not been seen or mentioned in three episodes not included):

  • Drunken, absent father
  • Jerkass bully who insults everyone he meets, and we’re expected to find him charming He’s less of a bully lately, but still Macho McManlypants de la Anxiousmasculinity
  • Milquetoast who is secretly evil-baby with evil-baby fiery lady-fridging powers he can’t control He and Lori were made for each other, weren’t they?
  • Disposable woman who exists solely to die in a horrible, painful way to create drama for the male characters and further the plot (deceased)
  • Other disposable woman who exists solely to die in a horrible, painful way to create drama for the male characters and further the plot (deceased)
  • Zach’s girlfriend (not pictured or named) 
  • Zach, who totes didn’t murder his girlfriend because murderers never have friends who are main characters (except in season finales) 
  • Rebecca, Zach’s sister (because every male character on this show is defined by their actions or job and every female character by a relationship) 
  • Monster who is basically the incarnation of Nice Guy Syndrome, wish they’d done something with that (ha!) 
  • Lori, secretly an evil-baby who unknowingly summons Ghost Buster, so clearly Sam’s soulmate 
  • Taylor, disposable woman who exists solely to die in a horrible, painful way to create drama for Lori and further the plot (deceased) 
  • Reverend Dad, who likes adultery but not sororities 
  • Lori’s date, needs to learn that no means no, kinda deserved to have something bad happen to him but probably not death by Buster (deceased) 
  • The Angry Time-Traveling Ghost of Buster Bluth, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper  
  • Matt, likes bugs, secretly not an evil-baby or mad scientist at all (disappointing)
  • Construction worker guy, brain eaten by beetles I guess (deceased)
  • Other construction worker guy, totally fell for the old “nephews” trick
  • Woman who actually has a job and life of her own, died horribly but it didn’t particularly advance the plot or give another character something to emote over (deceased, technically not fridged)
  • 1x Magical Native American (presumably returned to Central Casting whence he came)
  • Matt’s parents (apparently have the power to fold time and space)

Disposable women who exist solely to die in horrible, painful ways to create drama for the male characters and/or Lori and further the plot counter: 7

Women who kiss Dean: 2

Average disposable women who exist solely to die in horrible, painful ways to create drama for the male characters and further the plot per episode: 0.875

Average women who suffer horrible fates no one should have to endure per episode: 1.125


Fullmetal Alchemist: Blutherhood

One of the other commenters on Mark Watches Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, who goes by rin-chan-san on Tumblr, created some truly hilarious screencaps combining images from FMA with dialogue from Arrested Development. My personal favorite:

But there are loads of other good ones.

Race, Redemption, and Revelation

The rather pompous title of this post refers to a panel I gave on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood a couple of years back. I no longer completely agree with what I say here–in particular, the section on race at the beginning is appallingly naïve, simplistic, and, dare I say it, demonstrative of massive unexamined privilege, but still I think it’s a reasonably interesting panel.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

Part Six:

Fullmetal Alchemy

Apologies for this being a few minutes late. It is, as you may note, rather a bit longer than the typical Wednesday Whatever (in word count, it is more than ten times the minimum length I shoot for on the Sunday articles).

So, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’m a regular commenter at Mark Watches. Today, he finished Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the anime adaptation of my favorite manga. Throughout his reviews of the series, I’ve been posting what I call Episode-Specific Alchemy Lessons, quick mini-essays on the history and practice of alchemy in the real world, tied in to the events of the show. I didn’t do them for every episode (not by a long shot), but they were a lot of fun to write and hopefully will be interesting for all of you. All of them are behind the cut, with the rot13 I used to hide spoilers removed.

Episode One: Chinese Alchemy

Alchemy most likely originated in China. There is some evidence for India as well, and Indian and Chinese alchemy cross-pollinated heavily, but China is where we find the oldest documents talking about mixing chemicals to make gold or create life-extending elixirs, dating back to about the second century BCE. The peak of Chinese alchemy was around 400 to 800 CE, and a literal golden age–this was when the Chinese alchemists were most interested in creating gold, while later alchemists were more interested in immortality.

It might seem weird to see alchemy treated like bending–the Western image is mostly of people making potions or mixing hot metals in a lab–but Chinese alchemists often claimed magical powers, because alchemy was as much a spiritual, religious, and magical pursuit as a practical one. The Chinese word for alchemist, fangshi, can equally well mean magician, wizard, monk, mystic, or technician. In particular, many Chinese folktales refer to alchemists—once they have performed the correct rituals to give themselves the power—being able to transmute materials at a touch or with very short, simple rituals.

Al is an interesting case. There are Western precedents for what he is, but we’ll talk about those more later in the series because it has better examples of the Western equivalent to Al. In Chinese alchemy, however, there’s that branch concerned with creating elixirs, and that ultimately evolved into a quest for Immortality. The capital “I” is important, because this was not about extending the lifespan of one’s physical body indefinitely, but rather a quest to transcend the limitations of flesh and become a perfect, eternal spirit being without dying. Al is a sort of parody of this idea, someone who has become a spirit being without dying and desperately misses having a body.

Episode Two: The Sephiroth

The diagram which appears near the beginning of the explanation of alchemy at the episode’s beginning is known as the Sephiroth, and originates in the Jewish mystical tradition of Qabbalah, which influenced medieval European alchemy. The ten Sephiroth represent several related concepts: they are the component parts of the soul, each representing a different aspect of self. They are the body parts of the primordial Man of Light, about whom possibly more in a later alchemy lesson. Read from top to bottom, they are the creative process from initial inspiration to the creation of the physical work, and therefore also the path from God to humanity. Read from bottom to top, they are the stages of progressively more challenging meditation and enlightenment that lead from humanity to God. They are also the Tree of Life, the source of immortality which humanity lost in the expulsion from Eden, which in alchemy represented revealed truth (while the Tree of Knowledge represents truth acquired through reason and experience).

In other words, the Sephiroth are Truth, the world, the universe, God… and they are also you.

Episode Three: Religion vs. Science

Religion (a better term might be mysticism) vs. science is an old debate in alchemy. In the West, alchemy originates in Roman Egypt. Alexandria was one of the world’s greatest centers of learning, and alchemy was no exception. Khemia, as it was called (probably derived from the Chinese word chim, meaning gold), mixed spiritual and practical pursuits just as in China, but instead of Taoism it was rooted in a blend of Aristotelian and Archimedean natural philosophy, Jewish mysticism, and Christianity. As time went on, the center of learning shifted to Byzantium (modern Istanbul), and became much more focused on the mystical and poetic aspects than practical applications.

Following the conquest of Egypt by Muslims, the center of alchemical thought moved to Baghdad. The next few centuries were the golden age of Islamic science and culture, and an enormous outpouring of scholarship and research into the sciences occurred that would later form the foundation of the European Renaissance. Alchemy (Arabic al-khimia, literally “the khemia”) was no exception. While the Egyptian alchemists were more interested in gold, Muslim alchemists focused primarily on the medical applications and secondarily on transmuting metals.

This is where the debate arises; many scholars argued over whether transmutation of metals was real or a metaphor for spiritual and medicinal transformations. (Some even argued with themselves. Ibn Sini, known in the West as Avicenna, both wrote that transmutation is impossible and wrote instructions on how to accomplish transmutation, though modern scholars believe that the latter was actually written by someone else using Ibn Sini’s name to get attention.) A cottage industry of debunking alchemists as frauds grew up, with many scholars (even some who acknowledged that transmutation might be possible under rare circumstances) warning against fake elixirs and philosopher’s stones (though they didn’t use the term).

By the twelfth century, Jewish and Muslim scholars in Cordoba, Spain were translating alchemical works into Latin, making them available to European scholars. Many were quite popular, and less than a century later Roger Bacon was making the argument that ignorance of alchemy and the practical techniques and empirical approach developed by the Muslim alchemists were impeding the progress of natural philosophy and medicine in Europe, an argument which has been frequently cited as one of the first statements of something resembling the scientific method.

Early European alchemists focused mostly on the production of gold, because that’s what their state sponsors wanted. Interestingly, the first religious condemnation of alchemy, by Pope John XXII, was not on grounds of resembling witchcraft but because alchemists were getting involved in making counterfeit coins.

In other words, throughout the early history of alchemy there is a tension between mystical/religious and practical/scientific approaches, and this tension is intimately intertwined with fraud.\

Episode Four: Putrefaction
Western alchemy has a peculiar relationship with death. Chinese alchemy, as I believe I mentioned back in Lesson #1, was based in part on Taoist beliefs, and as such put heavy emphasis on balancing the opposing principles of yin and yang, usually by having a husband-wife team perform the ritual. This in turn led to a surprising (for the ridiculously sexist ancient Near East) number of women among prominent Egyptian alchemists, and it also interacted curiously with the Christian and Gnostic undercurrents in Egyptian thought of the time, particularly the Christian focus on death and resurrection. The result was the concept of the alchemical wedding, which was later elaborated by the medieval and early modern European alchemists.
The alchemical wedding is the key process and spiritual core of Western (which, since I’ve never defined what I mean by that, includes Egyptian, Arabic, and European alchemical traditions) alchemy. I will most likely go into more detail about it in a later lesson; for now let’s just say that it is a process of death and rebirth that involves the fusion of opposites: male-female, sun-moon, gold-silver, mercury-sulphur, matter-spirit.
The first stage of the alchemical wedding is associated with the process of putrefaction, which in alchemy is a technical term that refers not only to death and rot, but to the way in which death and rot bring forth life. Consider a rotting piece of fruit. It is revolting to human senses, black and ugly and foul-smelling, but it is also a riotous explosion of new life such as mold and maggots. These in turn serve as nourishment for “higher” forms of life (remember that European alchemy takes the Aristotelian Great Chain of Being as a given), until ultimately even the most exalted creatures depend on rot for their existence.
This is more than just the life cycle of biology, it is one of the most profound spiritual teachings of alchemy: Death brings forth life. Rot and creation are one and the same. Decay is evolution.

So yes, a little girl has died, and that is a tragedy. It is revolting to the senses. But perhaps something can come of this death, so that even though it remains tragic, revolting, it nonetheless can bring forth good. Maggots might grow to flies that are eaten by birds, that they may sing of Nina forevermore.

Episode Five: Nigredo
The first stage in the magnum opus—the alchemical “great work,” the production of a philosopher’s stone and/or elixir of life—is nigredo, “blackening.” In this stage, the prima materia, the substance from which the stone will be made, is burned or dissolved into an indistinguishable black mass. This is the phase of chaos, the primordial state from which creation emerged. It is death and destruction, putrefaction, and its associated humor is melancholia, black bile, which represents depression and despair. It is the black night of the soul, the lowest point.
Everything is awful. Everything hurts. Fire burns everything in its path. Nina is dead. Ed and Al are in despair. Their bodies are broken. The people of Ishval are dead. And yet… always something is left. That little black lump, that pile of ash that not even fire can destroy. Broken, ruined… but needing only to be washed clean–but more on that when we get to the next phase.

One of the most fascinating things for me, both as a writer of fiction and as someone who dabbles in the study of alchemy, is that FMA:B is not structured like a traditional story, where things get steadily worse and worse until we reach a climactic catastrophe. There is a climax, and bad things happen at it, but the tone by that point in the series is triumphant; emotionally speaking, the most awful parts of the series are here at the beginning: The revelation of how the brothers lost their bodies, Nina, Hughes. That’s because the series is structured alchemically, and we’re now at the heart of the nigredo phase.

Episode Six: The Philosopher’s Stone
The first traces of the philosopher’s stone as an idea can be found, like much else in the Western alchemical tradition, in the work attributed to the Egyptian alchemist Maria the Jewess (first century CE?). She is said to have devised a process by which copper was transformed through four stages, first turning black, then white, yellow, red, a process equivalent to a cycle of corruption, death, and rebirth. Another alchemist, Kleopatra (first to third century CE? Not to be confused with any of the queens of the same name) wrote of a similar process of death and rebirth whereby lead-copper ally is “killed” by heating, creating an inert black “corpse.” Sulphur water poured over it turns it white, a “marriage” which leads to the mass turning yellow as the “spirit of gold” in the sulphur causes the mass to be reborn as “gold.”
Centuries later, the Arab alchemist Al-Razi (ninth and tenth centuries) wrote of a four-stage process similar to those of Maria and Kleopatra by which an elixir could be created that could transform base metals into silver or gold. His four stages were cleansing/purifying, reduction, dissolving and recombining, and finally coagulation.

Move forward to 1266 and the publication of Roger Bacon’s Opus Tertium, in which he argues, among other things, that an elixir capable of perfecting metals ought also to be capable of extending life–that medicinal alchemy and transmutation have the same ultimate goal. More on his theories tomorrow.

The process of creating the philosopher’s stone, at least in Europe, was eventually canonized as four stages: nigredo, blackening, which I wrote about yesterday; albedo, whitening, in which the material is washed clean of its impurities; citrinitas, yellowing, in which the marriage of opposites sparks inner light and the material becomes gold; and rubedo, reddening, in which the opposites achieve full unity and the material becomes a philosopher’s stone.

Later authorities dropped the citrinitas stage, presumably because it sounds like an energy drink. If only they’d gone with the Greek name, xanthosis! That’s way cooler. (More seriously, it was probably a result of alchemy become more a Protestant thing than a Catholic one after the Thirty Years War. Citrinitas was associated with Mary, while the other three were associated with aspects of the Trinity, so…)

Episode Seven: Assorted Miscellaneous Symbols
I know, I said I’d talk more about Bacon, but I’m actually going to put that off another day or two. Instead, I want to talk about a hodgepodge of random symbols, mostly because of a comment Mark made in the video about all the wind. It actually does mean something! Specifically, remember I mentioned there are four stages to making the Philosopher’s Stone? Well, in addition to each one having a color, they also each have their own humor (as in the four humors), moods, metals, seasons, and elements. Guess which element goes with rubedo, the final stage in which the stone is created? Yuuuuupp: Air. All those characters in the opening are being buffeted by the element most closely tied to the Stone, which also symbolizes life itself and especially rebirth.
Speaking of the four stages, remember the four colors associated with them? Black, white, yellow, red? Look at Ed’s color scheme. Black shirt, boots, and symbol on his back. White gloves and accents. Yellow hair and eyes. Red coat. And he’s *real* insistent on fixing that coat every time it’s damaged, isn’t he?

Which in turn brings us to the symbol on Ed’s back. It’s actually two symbols superimposed: A cross and a curve wound around it. The cross, of course, is a symbol of resurrection and rebirth, recalling Ed’s sin of resurrecting his mother. The curve is most likely meant to be one of the two snakes twining around the caduceus, the staff of Hermes. Legend attributes the founding of alchemy to Hermes Trismegistus, who is both the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. The caduceus, in a simplified form, is also the symbol for both the planet and metal mercury, which is extremely important to alchemy as the symbol of changeability and transmutation. Thus, Ed’s symbol represents resurrection and transformation, appropriate for the poor kid.

Speaking of snakes, the symbol on Lust’s chest is an Uroboros, a snake eating its own tail. This is an ancient symbol of alchemy that goes back to the Egyptian period, and represents the way the base material devours itself and is reborn in the alchemical process. It is, in other words, another symbol of resurrection, but Ed’s is both aggressively masculine and rather spiritual, while the Oruboros is more feminine and material. Ultimately, though, they mean the same thing: transformation and restoration. [Ed.: Another commenter at Mark Watches, who goes by vicemage, pointed out that Ed’s symbol (which of course is actually Izumi’s symbol) is a variant of Flamel’s Cross, as in Nicholas Flamel the real-life alchemist. Its meaning is not entirely clear, but is most likely a messianic reference.]
Episode Eight: The Philosopher’s Stone, Part II
I mentioned Bacon a couple of days ago. He is basically the originator of the idea of the philosopher’s stone in the West, or more specifically the idea that the elixir of life and the secret of transmutation were one and the same. He believed this purifying elixir was most likely made from human blood, which is the closest I can find to any historical precedent for Arakawa’s idea that philosopher’s stones are made of people.
Among its many names, the philosopher’s stone is said to be the Quintessence, the fifth element, the one which permeates all things and grants them life. It is variously referred to as Aether, Spirit, or (in Japan) Void. Note the five blood-stained circles on the perimeter of the transmutation circle Ed finds. Speaking of which, while I don’t find much record of magical circles being used in alchemy, Chinese alchemy labs were designed to be microcosms of the universe, arranged in a ring with the central apparatus where the actual transmutation occurred representing the creative spark at the heart of the universe. The circle here is something of a dark parody of that idea.
Episode Twelve: As Above, So Below
One of the core principles of alchemy is “as above, so below,” or as it’s stated here, “one is all, all is one.” The principle is that the universe is effectively fractal; the macrocosm of the universe and microcosm of the body reflect one another. This is expressed in many ways: The process of perfecting the physical Philosopher’s Stone is the process of perfecting one’s soul and the process of redeeming the universe, for example. Astrological factors are of vital importance in many scholars’ formulae; it is not enough to mix the right materials in the right proportions, but it must also be at the right times according to the motions of the stars.
This all derives from the Taoist principles of Chinese alchemy, where the internal balance of the alchemist’s body and spirit, along with the geomantic arrangement of the laboratory, had to reflect the cosmic forces being tapped into. For the Chinese alchemist, transmutation was a matter of accelerating a natural process, and therefore as much a part of the holistic flow of the universe as the alchemist’s own life processes; for the European alchemists centuries later, transmutation reflected the divine process of Creation, and was a method of achieving oneness with both that creation and the divinity behind it.
[Ed.: Added later in response to another commenter asking about the relationship between AASB, equivalent exchange, and contagious magic.] Equivalent exchange is not actually a principle of traditional alchemy. Arakawa sorta made it up? Though it’s obviously based on the principle of conservation of mass, by the time that shows up alchemy and chemistry are already starting to diverge. It’s possible that Newton’s alchemical writings discuss it (he’d be the likeliest place, anyway), but it’s hard to say because Newton’s alchemical work has never been indexed and is scattered between libraries on three continents.
That said, what you’re describing is actually contagious magic, or “once together, always together.” AASB is a related concept, but not identical–the idea with contagious magic is that anything that was once connected is still connected, so you can influence a person by using, say, a toenail. The idea of AASB is that EVERYTHING is connected with EVERYTHING ELSE, and thus you can tap cosmic forces by mucking around with solvents and rocks.

Another way to put AASB is that it’s a total denial of the signifier-signified distinction. The relationship between a symbol and the thing symbolized, according to alchemy, is not only non-arbitrary; the two are one and the same.

Episode Thirteen: Homunculi
The interest in creating life through alchemy first appears in the Muslim period, but may have been influenced by the occasional invocation of demonic or spirit-being assistants in Chinese alchemy. Regardless, Muslim alchemists did research the possibility of creating living creatures, even humans, through alchemical processes.

Later European alchemists made similar claims. The homunculis was a thinking, speaking creature created through alchemy who, rather like a witch’s familiar, served as an assistant and a repository of alchemical knowledge. Although artificial humans, homunculi were not necessarily human in appearance; usually they were described as much smaller, rather doll-like creatures. What made them humans was their capacity to speak and act, not their physical shape.

As a general rule, homunculi had a father but not a mother, being made from the blood or semen of the (almost always male in the European period) alchemist and processed through various stages. By the nineteenth century and the fusion of alchemy with other magical traditions to form the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the homunculis was fully fused with the concept of the witch’s familiar, and served as an alchemically created shell which a spirit–either a soul taken from a deceased human or a demonic spirit–can possess and animate in service to the alchemist.

There is thus a case to be made that Al (or Hohenheim) is as much a homunculis as Greed, but within the mythology of the show the term seems to apply specifically to the Uroboros Gang (spoiler: and Father).

Episode Fourteen: Greed
Greed was a recurring problem for alchemists, but also a major boon. On the one hand, in basically every culture that had alchemists there were cases of frauds who exploited the belief in alchemy for personal gain, as well as people crusading against alchemy with the claim that it was all fraud. On the other hand, there’s some evidence to suggest that the reason Muslim scholars started translating Greek philosophy and alchemy into Arabic was because of a shortage of coins—they were looking for secrets of metallurgy and transmutation they could use to make coins more cheaply, and they largely succeeded since among the first texts translated were basic techniques for gilding. Greed, commerce, and monetary policy are thus arguably the reason we had a European Renaissance, since the spark for that was in large part the release of Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek philosophy.
In a broader sense, alchemy, as a highly syncretic tradition, has an odd tension with the Christian concept of sin. By the time European alchemy hit its height, there were a few major threads running through alchemy (chronological order by when they started influencing alchemy):
  1. The original Chinese magical tradition, which shares a common origin and many features with Taoism.
  2. Jewish mysticism.
  3. Neoplatonic mysticism and Gnosticism (an early alternate form of Christianity).
  4. The Arabic experimental/pragmatic tradition, which ultimately split off to become chemistry and metallurgy.
  5. Christian mysticism (which is really more neoplatonism).

This creates a tension between, on the one hand, Taoism, Judaism, and Islam, and on the other hand Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Christianity, in terms of their conception of good and evil. In the first three traditions, matter is fundamentally good and (particularly in Taoism and Judaism) the stuff reality is made of—we live in a material universe, and while spiritual affairs are important, they are necessarily expressed through material experience. The universe in which we live is fundamentally good, but flawed, and our job is to fix it. To put it in Jewish terms, the most important part of the creation story is God looking at the world and finding it good.
In Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Christianity, on the other hand, matter is fundamentally evil, and gets in the way of our experience of the true spiritual reality. We are spiritual beings suspended—trapped, even—in a material prison, and the sooner we can transcend or escape it the better. The universe in which we live is fundamentally evil and corrupt, and our job is to find salvation from it. To put it in Christian terms, the most important part of the creation story is the Fall.
Which brings us to the question of human impulses, and a major split between the Jewish mystical tradition and the Christian, both of which feed into alchemy. Jewish mysticism views humans as having two major inclinations, the positive and the negative. The positive inclination is toward God and obedience to the Law; the negative inclination is toward pleasure and self-indulgence. However, they are both a necessary and good part of being human. One comparison I’ve heard (and quite like) is that the negative inclination is the engine, the positive inclination is the brakes and steering wheel. Sexual desire unchecked is destructive, but properly channeled creates romantic love and new families. Anger unchecked is destructive, but properly channeled creates justice.
Which brings us to Greed, who channels his desire for possessions into rescuing people from being experimented on by the military and forging them into a family. He opposes the Homunculi! He defies Father to the end! He is, frankly, awesome!

Ever since its Taoist roots, alchemy has been about balance. A key part of any alchemical ritual is finding the right balance, both in the material and in the self. Part of that is accepting and embracing one’s own drives and motivations, at times in opposition to Church teachings that rejected some impulses as being inherently sinful. There was only occasional tension between the Church and alchemy, but nonetheless alchemists often sought alternative paths to the salvation the Church offered, seeking to blend the material and the spiritual rather than reject the material.

Episode Fifteen: The Alkahest
The alkahest (like most scientific and protoscientific terms starting with “al,” like “algebra,” “alchemy,” and “Aldebaran”) originates in the Golden Age of Islam. Muslim alchemists believed the alkahest would be the ultimate solvent, capable of dissolving any substance, which in turn meant it could be used to transmute anything into anything else. (The question of how you would keep it from eating through every container you tried to put it in was never, to my knowledge, addressed.)

Xingese alkahestry doesn’t actually seem to have much to do with the alkahest, since they’re explicitly more focused on medical applications and the search for immortality, but remember something I brought up back on (IIRC) episode 3:

One of Roger Bacon’s big contributions to alchemy was suggesting that the alkahest and the immortality-granting elixir of life were the same thing, originating the idea of the philosopher’s stone. The search for the elixir of life, in other words, IS the search for the alkahest, and completing it necessitates finding the philosopher’s stone. It all hangs together.

As for Xingese alkahestry itself, as near as I can tell it’s as accurate to Chinese alchemy as Amestrian alchemy is to European. In other words, it gets enough right (including fairly obscure stuff) that you know the deviations are due to artistic license, not ignorance. Geomancy was extremely important to Chinese alchemy—among other things, it was vitally important to make sure that your alchemy lab was correctly laid out, with the room aligned according to the compass and various equipment placed at precise points around it—so it makes sense that alkahestry is based on the flow of geomantic energy.

In Taoist belief and Chinese alchemy, that flow is equivalent to the flow of chi (life force, more or less) in the body. It’s that “As Above, So Below” idea of the microcosm: the flow of energy through the Earth IS the flow of energy through the body, and therefore someone who has mastered control of the former can use it to heal the latter. It’s quite interesting, actually, that Izumi introduced this idea to the Elrics—where did she learn it? Is it related to the fact that she has Xingese-style eyes and black hair? Amestris *is* something of a melting pot, we’ve seen that already. Is she part Xingese? Did she learn some philosophy from her Xingese grandma or something?
Episode Nineteen: Fire
Let’s talk about fire. This was a very important element for alchemy, because so many alchemical processes involved it–not just in the obvious sense that heating, burning, and melting materials all require fire, but in the sense that corrosive chemicals and rot (remember my previous discussion of putrefaction?) were seen as kinds of fire, usually referred to as potential fire as opposed to the actual fire we think of as fire.

Fire has many associations: It is defined as being the hot, dry element, and associated with the East, Summer, yellow bile, the choleric personality, and the xanthosis stage of the magnum opus.

Note that several of these associations work well for Mustang in this episode or the series as a whole: He arrives in Central from a post in the East, has the same eye shape as characters from the Eastern Empire of Xing, and as for being choleric, well…

The choleric personality is described as ambitious, domineering, passionate, quick to anger, not dealing well with setbacks, fiercely protective of others… any of this sound familiar?

As for xanthosis, we’ll talk about it more much later in the series, but for now let’s leave it that xanthosis is the third stage of the alchemical process, yellowing. It is the stage in which gold is produced–a valuable product but not the true Stone. The material is transformed, but not itself capable of causing transformation. Contrast end-of-series Mustang with end-of-series Ed, I think you’ll see why this is appropriate for him. There is a reason Mustang will be the last Fuhrer rather than the first leader of the new democratic order.

Xanthosis is the clash of opposites, where the opposing principles within the material–usually the masculine and feminine–meet and unleash energy. That’s definitely happening in this episode, but it’s not the true xanthosis stage of the series–that’s a long way off.

Rather, the process here is something much earlier in the magnum opus: The use of fire to reduce the raw materials to ash, the end product of nigredo. The phase of darkness and despair is drawing to a close–albedo is nearly upon us, bringing with it blankness, purification, the washing away of past sins, and the discovery of potential–as well as the emergence of the opposing forces that will clash in xanthosis.
Episode Twenty-Three: Arms
In Qabbala, which as I’ve mentioned before is one of the major mystical traditions that fed into European alchemy, the two arms have very specific significance. The right arm signifies the sephirah Chesed, which means love, compassion, or kindness. It is the giving of gifts freely and without expectation of reward. In the journey to enlightenment, it is the kind of love that God feels for humans and vice versa; in the creative process, it is the inspiring vision. It is the sword-arm, which protects that which is good, and draws it close in an embrace.
The left arm signifies the sephirah Gevurah, “Severity,” also commonly known as Din, which means power and judgment. It is the ability to discern between good and ill, the rejection of that which is harmful or dangerous. In the journey to enlightenment, it is the awe that humans feel toward God; in the creative process, it is the will to better that which is inadequate. It is the shield-arm, which rejects that which is evil and pushes it away.

So: Scar, Scarbro, Ed, Lan Fan; the last couple of episodes have been LOADED with characters gaining arms, losing arms, giving their arms to one another… there’s an enormous amount going on here with arm symbolism, too much for me to record it all.

So, in a slight twist on the usual alchemy lessons, I’m leaving it to all of you: Given the significance of arms I outlined above, what do YOU think is going on with the different characters? How do the events that happen to their arms reflect their characters and their relationships to the others around them?

Episode Twenty-Five: Da’at, the Abyss
More Qabbalah today. Last time we talked about arms and the associated Sephiroth; today let’s talk about the Sephiroth that isn’t.
If you look at a traditional arrangement of the ten Sephiroth into the Tree of Life, you’ll see that there’s a square near the top with a gaping hole in the middle—a point where paths cross, but no Sephira. This bugged people, so medieval Jewish scholars proposed a new Sephira in the center of the square, Da’at, “Belief.”

To these scholars, Da’at represented the ten-in-one, the unity of all Sephiroth into a single shining light. Da’at is not a true Sephira, but rather a space within which all the Sephira can coexist. We’ll talk more about Jewish interpretations tomorrow, because spoilers.

Non-Jewish interpretations of Da’at generally depict it as a full Sephira, but remove one of the other Sephira so that there are still ten. Most commonly, a Tree with Da’at will lack Kether (“Crown,” divinity and enlightenment, the uppermost Sephirah) or Malkhuth (“Kingdom,” matter and the divine creation, the lowest Spehira). One common depiction was a pair of Trees, one with Da’at but not Malkhuth, representing the primordial state before the Fall, and the other with Malkhuth but not Da’at, representing that the Fruit of Knowledge has been removed and replaced by the Abyss, and the material world created.

By the 20th century, Da’at and the Abyss were identified with one another. Da’at is the gateway beyond which the Sephiroth are inverted, becoming the dark and terrifying qlippoth of the Abyss, which Aleister Crowley (not an alchemist per se, but an influential occultist who did include alchemical concepts in his writings) describes as “the gap… between the Real, which is ideal, and the Unreal, which is actual.”

In Crowley’s belief system, only the spiritual is real, and material things are unreal and illusory, so to put it another way, the Abyss is the crevice between the Truth and the world. Add in that the Abyss is where the spiritual seeker must confront the shapeshifting demon Choronzon, and it seems difficult to believe that this is a coincidence—it seems near-certain to me that Arakawa is familiar with and intentionally referencing Crowley. But more on what happens to the traveler in the Abyss tomorrow…
Episode Twenty-Six: Ed and Al’s Gates
(I know I promised Da’at/Abyss part two, but I realized I could make that relevant to next episode, while the Gates are relevant to this episode. So, sorry, that’ll be Monday.)

This is one of the first times in the series where it becomes really noticeable that different people have different Gates of Truth. Al’s was shown a dozen episodes ago, but it’s easy to miss that it’s different from Ed’s until they’re shown together here.

Ed’s Gate:

This is the Sephiroth of medieval alchemist Robert Fludd. It’s a variant of the Tree of Life depiction, and a particularly mystical, religious, ethereal one. Unlike most Trees, in which Malkhuth is depicted as the material realm, this has no connection to Earth at all. Each of the branches ends in a fruit that is labeled with the name of a Sephirah and one of the names of God–the one Ed punches is Malkhuth, which is here associated with the name-of-God Adonai (usually translated as “Lord”), and has ten feathers coming out of it. Each of the feathers is labeled with one of the Sephiroth (so they’re each on the chart twice) and the name of an order of angels. So basically, an army of angels holding the Tree of Life aloft, away from the world and human reach.
Note that the roots on Ed’s version of the tree are at the top, and the feathers at the bottom could equally well be leaves. The tree is rooted in Heaven and growing down toward Earth, in other words. That may be the real reason it’s associated with Ed, given that his final triumph consists of telling Truth “Screw enlightenment, I’ve got friends.” His motion is downward, from thinking of himself as a godlike alchemist to thinking of himself as what he actually is, an ordinary man.

Fun fact: In one of the other ways of drawing the Sephiroth besides a tree, as the primordial man of light Adam Kadmon, Malkhut is the genitals. So Ed just dick-punched the Lord.

Al’s Gate:

Okay, I don’t know much about this one, and I can’t find a decent-quality image [Ed.: Here’s a better one!] so I don’t know most of what the text says. It’s clearly not the Sephiroth, but it does appear to be a Tree of Life… it might be showing some alchemical process? Maybe even the making of a Stone?

I do know it’s an illustration added in the 17th century to a manuscript from the 15th century, George Ripley’s The Marrow of Alchemy. I have no idea where in the manuscript it went, and I haven’t read the manuscript, but there’s a translation here: (I think it’s the whole thing? It inexplicably starts with chapter 61, so I’m not sure.)

One thing I can read on it, though, is that at the bottom, the set of roots on the left are labelled Corpus (“Body”) and on the right Spiritus (“Soul”). So we have the Tree of Life (that is, the Gate) separating Al’s body from his soul… works for me.

Episode Twenty-Seven: Da’at, the Abyss, Part II
So, in Jewish thought Da’at eventually evolved to be regarded as two gateways. One, the higher gateway, lies within the Sephirah of Kether, and is the gateway that connects the two halves of the human intellect (Wisdom and Understanding, represented by the Sephiroth of Chokhmah and Binah) with the divine consciousness of Kether. The lower gateway lies in the Abyss, and is the gateway between the intellect and the emotions. This form of Da’at functions as a way of integrating the truths one learns into one’s determination and will—it is what enables us to change course when we receive new revelations. Such as, say, Ed re-emerging from despair upon realizing what the Xerxes transmutation circle did? Or discovering that Al’s body still exists, and revitalizing his purpose?
But as I’ve already said, it seems like episodes 25 and 26 were heavily influenced by Crowley’s interpretation of Da’at and the Abyss, so it is perhaps worth considering what happens in the Abyss in Crowley’s beliefs, namely that the soul encounters Choronzon, a shapeshifting demon who represents those aspects of the ego unwilling to face the divine—the resentment and stubborn self-centeredness that is the ultimate obstacle to Enlightenment. Oh, hi there, Envy.

Once in the Abyss, the traveler must battle with Choronzon, but not with the goal of defeating him, because Choronzon is formless and shifts endlessly, being not really an individual but rather a chaotic amalgamation of potential entities. Rather, the ultimate victory here is for one’s ego to be destroyed; broken and dissolving, the self is able to integrate into the cosmic, shedding the illusion of individual existence to become One with the All.

It’s rather like the experience depicted as the passage through the Gate of Truth… but then why I am talking about this as being relevant to episode 27?

Because Hohenheim’s dream is serving the same function for him. His self is dissolved, divided into at least four separate voices: Hohenheim A, that-which-chooses, Hohenheim’s identity; Hohenheim B (possibly Father?), the cynical, despairing side that is only interested in other humans as far as he can use them, and regards them as beneath him; Pinako, his conscience; and Trisha, his hope and idealism.

So we have in these three episodes four characters entering and confronting the Abyss: Ed’s is the most literal, while Al descends deep underground in the company of Gluttony and Mustang confronts the Fuhrer in his lair and thereby loses the most important part of himself, his connections to his underlings. But it is Hohenheim who has the most mystical and hallucinatory journey into the Abyss, who truly allows himself to dissolve and fragment so that he can confront and overcome himself.

There’s more than just mystical traditions tangentially related to alchemy here, too, because Hohenheim’s dream falls rather neatly into three parts. In the first, he and Pinako come to understand humanity and his relationship with them. In the second, Father challenges and deconstructs the idea of humanity, depicting them as worthless and weak. But then Trisha reconstructs the humanist ideals of the series, with the rather astonishing “we have to be weak so that we can grow.”

This is once again a spiritual alchemy, a process of death and rebirth through the marriage of opposing forces (indeed, multiple such marriages, Hohenheim/Pinako, Hohenheim/Hohenheim, and ultimately Hohenheim/Trisha, which unsurprisingly is the one that resolves the dilemma). It will hardly be the last.

And the alchemy doesn’t end there. Hohenheim’s dream was brought on, it seems, by drinking himself to sleep with whiskey. The significance there is that whiskey is one of a great many distilled spirits named “water of life,” in this case the Gaelic uisce beatha. The “waters of life” are also a name for the philosopher’s stone in its form as the alkahest/elixir of immortality.

Hohenheim is washing himself clean, in other words; purifying himself in the mystical waters of life—the function of the albedo phase of the magnum opus, which has been starting to emerge in the last few episodes of the first season and is now fully upon us.

The Abyss has been braved, the lowest depth achieved—now we are starting to climb back into the light. The reduction to ash is ended; now the washing-clean begins.

Episode Thirty: Albedo
Hey, an actual lesson about alchemy, as opposed to a mystical tradition tangentially related to alchemy! Woo!

Albedo, “whitening,” is the second phase of the magnum opus, the process of creating the philosopher’s stone. At the end of the first phase, nigredo, we are left with a burnt and blackened mass, the destroyed remains of the original material. In the albedo stage, this mass is washed, dissolved, and processed to create a uniform white substance. Albedo is associated with the element of water, the season of winter, the bodily fluid phlegm, and the phlegmatic personality, which is to say calm, quiet, observant, kind, and passive.

According to Paracelsus, there are three basic substances through which the four elements are expressed; all things are made from these three substances, namely salt, mercury, and sulfur. The nigredo stage expressed the salt within the original material; the albedo phase is about presenting the mercury. Mercury has a number of qualities symbolically important to this stage, but the most important are that it is fluid, and that it is silver in color and highly reflective.

The latter property represents one of the most important elements of this stage. Where nigredo was the Earth, albedo is the Moon, one step higher and brighter. Like Earth, it creates no light of its own, but unlike Earth it can reflect back light from other sources. It brings a cold, pale light to the night, but it is light nonetheless. Unlike the product of nigredo, which is just useless muck unless processed further, the product of this stage (if the alchemist should abandon the work of pursuing the stone) is silver, a substance valuable in itself.

The Moon is notoriously inconstant, however, and so it is with albedo. This is a fluid stage, an unstable and ever-shifting state. It has no true identity or properties of its own—it is a blank that reflects its surroundings. It is empty. It has infinite potential, but actualizes none of it.

Finally, this is the stage in which the opposing principles within the material—the masculine and feminine forces of the alchemical wedding—become defined; in the next stage they are brought together.

In Jung’s model of alchemy as a spiritual process, albedo is a phase of introspection and coming to terms with oneself. After the despair of nigredo, albedo is not yet hopeful, but it nonetheless recognizes the possibility of change. It is a time of facing past sins and acquiring self-knowledge, a time of spiritual cleansing and absolution in which one faces, and accepts, the demons and errors of the past.

For Ed and Al, this process began with learning that they never truly resurrected their mother, but it continues here with Ed learning the truth about the monstrous past of his country and his allies. Scar is in a similar place, discovering the truth about why his people were killed. Mustang, meanwhile, doesn’t get any self-discovery; nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that he’s in the albedo stage because he is suddenly in a position of being able to do anything, but having no clear idea what to do next—infinite potential and blankness. All three of Ed/Al, Scar, and Mustang are in a similar position—we have no idea what any of them are going to do or where they’re going to go, and it seems clear that they don’t either. At the same time, all three now have a clear sense of who the enemy is—Father—so the opposing principles are beginning to form. We are beginning to get a clear sense that the opposing principles will be Father and his allies against the good guys—but we do not yet have a clear picture of exactly who is on each side, or what form the clash between them will take.
Key to the albedo phase of the alchemy of the self is the emergence of the Shadow. This is the opposing principle within the self, but in fiction it is usually depicted as a separate character. It is not yet clear who the Shadow of the characters I’ve discussed is—Mustang because of an abundance of choices, including Wrathley and Greedling, and Scar, Ed, and Al because no clear option presents itself. But as the series continues, it will become more clear:
Ed: Pride
Scar: Wrathley
Mustang: Envy [Ed.: In the original post on Mark Watches, I named Wrathley, but later realized this is a mistake. Wrathley is Mustang’s foil, but not his Shadow.]
Ling: Greed
Hohenheim: Father
Al: Pride, also Kimbley [Ed.: In the original post on Mark Watches, I named only Kimbley, but later realized Pride belongs here as well.]
Episode Forty: A Philosopher’s Stone in the Form of a Human (Jung)
By the twentieth century, alchemy was basically dead. Its scientific aspects were absorbed by chemistry, and in particular the mantle of transmutation was picked up by nuclear chemistry. Meanwhile, its mystical and magical aspects were absorbed by other occult traditions, mostly the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its descendants among mostly British and American mystics.

But then Carl Jung came on the scene. A student-turned-rival of Sigmund Freud, Jung’s rather complex views can mostly be summed up as a belief that stories were the key to understanding people–that the stories we tell ourselves and one another contain fundamental truths about ourselves. He was particularly interested in stories of the fantastic, as these (in his view) contained the purest expression of the universal symbols of the human psyche. (This is back during that brief period between the discovery of the signifier-signified distinction and the realization that it was insurmountable, so the idea of “universal symbols of the human psyche” was not immediately dismissed as nonsense.)

Jung’s belief was that folklore and magic were symbolic systems for grappling with the great psychological truths in ways “primitive” minds and philosophies could handle. He thus argued that the claims of the alchemists were neither fraud nor error, but rather that they underwent a mystical self-realization, and mistakenly attributed their new perspective on things to a change in those things, rather than a change in themselves.

He thus tied the process of alchemy, the magnum opus, to what he saw as the transformational process of self-actualization, and used it as a central metaphor for his entire understanding of the process of psychological development. The first stage, nigredo, corresponds to the realization that one is inadequate–it is the mental illness that compels one to seek treatment, feelings of failure and guilt, or simply a realization that one is not achieving one’s full potential. This leads to “blackening,” psychological darkness and self-hatred. In the second stage, albedo, one is cleansed. This can be in the form of confessing and performing recompense for past sins, or facing and accepting one’s dark side (symbolized in Jung’s system of archetypes by the Shadow). As in alchemy, this is an acceptable stopping point for some people, but not the complete process; it is only “silver,” and both “gold” and the “philosopher’s stone” await.

In the third stage, xanthosis or citrinitas, the true underlying conflict emerges between the Animus (the conscious self and masculine principle–in addition to being kind of a privileged dick about “primitive” cultures, Jung was sexist as fuck) and Anima (subconscious self and feminine principle). As with the Shadow, the two cannot truly defeat each other, but must rather understand one another and find a way to come together in harmony, the “alchemical wedding” that gives rise to the fourth and final stage, rubedo, in which enlightenment is achieved and the full potential of the self unlocked.

Jung believed that, historically, attaining rubedo was a rare thing accomplished only by a select few, the great alchemists and mystics of history, such as Jesus, the Buddha, Avicenna, and Paracelsus. The key feature of rubedo is that, like the philosopher’s stone, the one who attains it not only transforms themselves, but gains the power to transform others, to help them along the path of self-discovery. Jung’s goal was to find a way, through psychology, to understand this process better and make it more accessible, so that most or all people could eventually achieve self-actualization.

Obviously, he failed, because this is all a bunch of mystical nonsense and real-life alchemy was more complex–the key historical fact Jung missed was that the alchemists did not draw the same distinctions he did–the material and mystical were not separate categories for them, and in addition they did not distinguish between solid gold, gold plating, and yellow substances, considering all to have some element of gold in them.

Like pretty much all of Jung’s theories (and unsurprisingly so, considering he was more interested in stories than people), it makes for very interesting literary theory but is largely twaddle as psychology. (Oddly, many of his techniques prove useful despite the theories on which he based those techniques being nonsense–yet another thing he has in common with the alchemists.) Still, as literary theory it’s particularly interesting here, since FMA:B is one of the few series I’ve encountered actually structured on the magnum opus.

Hohenheim, interestingly, doesn’t follow the pattern, even though he is described here as a philosopher’s stone in the shape of a man. He doesn’t go any particular journey of self-discovery that we see, and he is not self-actualized, based on his severe personal issues depicted in the other flashback episode or inability to talk to Ed when they met. The two characters who do seem to be on journeys of personal growth are Ed and Scar, so it’s perhaps interesting that they both have signature items (Scar’s eyes, Ed’s coat) the same color as a philosopher’s stone. Both are also in the albedo phase of development at the same time that the series is–both confronted and attempting to redeem past crimes by way of their interactions with Winry.

Episode Forty-Five: Xanthosis
I have mostly used the Latin names for the stages of the magnum opus, rather than the Greek equivalents favored by the Muslim alchemists. However, the Latin, European name for the third stage is citrinitas, which sounds like an energy drink, while the Greek name, xanthosis, is badass and has an “x” in it. Regardless, xanthosis is yellowing. It is the phase at which gold is created, and therefore where a lesser opus ends–the true magnum opus, however, continues on into a fourth phase in order to make a philosopher’s stone.
Xanthosis is, as I wrote way back when (I think it was when Mustang killed Lust), associated with fire, summer, the sun, and yellow bile. It is also, in the mapping of the phases of the magnum opus onto the Trinity, associated with the Virgin Mary, which is probably why it was increasingly skipped in descriptions of the magnum opus after the Hundred Years War. Alchemy was increasingly a Protestant rather than a Catholic thing, you see, and they’re not huge fans of anything that could be read as ranking Mary on the same level as the parts of the Trinity. (For the record, since I don’t think I covered it back when, nigredo is God the judgmental Father and albedo is the Holy Spirit that washes away sin.)
Ever since its Chinese origins, the union of yin and yang, the masculine and feminine principles, has been a key element of alchemical transformation. This was then imported into Egyptian alchemy in the form of the alchemical wedding, the fusion of different substances dissolved in liquid or melted together in a crucible, from which a new substance is born. That European Christianity is institutionally afraid of sex changes nothing; the coming together of the opposites is still the core of the alchemical process. This is xanthosis: when the masculine and feminine principles become one, the water of albedo meets fire, and the inner light is kindled.
As I said in my review/recap/rewhatever, this episode is an incredibly clear dividing line between the albedo and xanthosis phases. There is one coming together in the episode itself, and at least three more heavily implied to be coming in the following episodes. (Gurer’f gjb zber jr qba’g xabj nobhg hagvy gurl unccra: Fpne if. Jengu, naq zbba zrrgvat fha va gur rpyvcfr.) First, in the episode, we have Ed joining Greed. Ed is human and Greed is a homunculus, of course, but there are other senses in which this is a coming together of opposites as well. We’ve seen some reason to view Greed and Pride as oppositional: Pride looks down on humans, Greed is part human, Pride is the oldest and Greed arguably the youngest, Pride the most offensively dangerous and Greed the strongest defensively, and of course Pride is the most loyal to Father while Greed betrays the homunculi in both his lives.
Ed, meanwhile, is in many ways equivalent to Pride (to the point that one can make a case, no pun intended except possibly by Arakawa herself, that Pride is Ed’s Shadow archetype), most obviously in that pride is Ed’s primary sin. (Not wrath–Ed gets angry a lot, but it’s his pride that gets him in trouble and his pride that he’s shown slowly overcoming, including in this episode.) Also, Ed and Pride both the shortest members of their respective families. 😉

Bringing Ed and Greedling together has already had some interesting results, in the sense that it’s driving the development of both characters forward. Greed is starting to reflect on his loneliness and need for companionship (and as others have commented, I love love love that the greed for personal connections is a huge part of his character), while Ed is forcing himself to put aside his pride and work for a (former?) “bad guy.”

We also have a literal bringing together of masculine and feminine principles in the form of the northern and eastern armies coming together, and by extension Olivier, the icy unbreachable wall, the immovable object who plays at being soft and feminine to manipulate Raven, and Mustang, the fiery destroyer, the irresistible force who plays at being a ladies’ man to hide his spy network and alchemy research. They’re perfect opposites, fire and ice, offense and defense, man and woman, yin and yang–and on the Promised Day they and their armies will be working together. (Okay, technically the East is Grumman’s, but screw that old pervert, we all know Mustang is the real character we’re supposed to associate with the East.)
One of the functions of the albedo phase is to separate out the opposing principles within a substance so that they can be recombined in xanthosis, and that’s definitely happening with Ed and Al. They’ve been contrasted throughout the series, with Al the calmer, quieter, and probably smarter of the two, while Ed is more energetic and impulsive, but also more proactive and better suited to leadership. They’re a traditional pair from anime, the Red Oni (Ed) and Blue Oni (Al), which is also identified with yin and yang. Since they’ve been together all series and we love them, the show is priming us to anticipate their eventual reunion, which Ed outright announces will be on the Promised Day–that will be when these essences recombine, and the results will no doubt be spectacular. And the fact that Al is possessed by Pride when they meet just means we get two combining oppositions at once for extra fun.
The final coming together of opposites we’re teased for is Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, represented by Hohenheim’s declaration of war on Father. These two are literally one blood, separated with what we can only assume is the intent of recombining them explosively. Hohenheim’s story always had to culminate in a showdown with Father, while for Ed that’s a stage in his journey but not his ultimate goal–fighting Father is important to him, but only tangentially related to getting his and Al’s bodies back. It’s really Hohenheim that has the nemesis relationship with Father, and so the battle we see coming in the next phase really amounts to Father and his allies against Hohenheim and his. That, ultimately, is the main thing the montage ending this episode succeeds in doing, is clearly defining the two forces that will clash in that battle: on the one side we have Father, the Homunculi, Central Command, and an immortal army. On the other, Hohenheim, Ed, Al, Greedling, the chimeras, the Curtises, Team Mustang, Armstrong, Olivier, Briggs, and the Eastern army.

Day of Reckoning indeed.

Episode Sixty: The Alchemical Wedding

Although there are intimations of it as early as the first century Egyptian alchemists, the alchemical wedding originates as a coherent concept with the Rosicrucian hoax, a set of three documents purporting to be the founding texts of a secret mystical society of great knowledge and power, the Order of the Rosy Cross. Said society did not actually exist at the time, though of course in the centuries since people have occasionally started societies with that name or claimed to be the “real” Rosicrucians.

The third document, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rozenckreutz, is a lengthy allegory about spiritual enlightenment that combines Christian and a little bit of Jewish mystical thought around the central image of a wedding taking place at Easter, and the usual interpretation of it is as an argument for rejecting the Pauline epistles and all the gospels except John from the Bible.

This use of a wedding as a symbol of enlightenment, however, resonated quite a bit with alchemy, and in particular with the bringing together of male and female that characterized xanthosis, while Easter recalls the principle of Putrefaction, of life emerging from death.
This gives us a new way to look at the alchemical magnum opus, as a life cycle (returning to the Chinese origins of alchemy, in which it was seen as a way of accelerating the natural processes of evolution that were believed to occur in all metals). Nigredo becomes a death, albedo the mourning and cleansing of the corpse, following which there is the wedding of xanthosis and the birth of new life in rubedo. By the early 17th century, when the Chymical Wedding was published, the stages were already identified with the Trinity (except, as I mentioned before, xanthosis, which was identified with the Virgin Mary or Mary-Magdalene, or increasingly dropped outright). The alchemical wedding added a new mapping onto the crucifixion of Jesus: nigredo is his death, albedo the three days he spent dead, xanthosis the appearance to Mary-Magdalene and return to life, and rubedo the ascension to Heaven. Plus, by making the entire process about a fusion of masculine and feminine principles, it restores that element, which was starting to be lost as xanthosis began to be dropped from the process.

This bringing together of long-separated opposites and counterparts is all over these last few episodes, especially this one, which opens with the reunion of Denny Brosch and Maria Ross, continues with the violent bringing together of the perpetrator of genocide Wrathley and the survivor of that genocide Scar, and concludes with the merging of Father, our devil-figure, and Truth, the closest thing we see to a God. All of this has at its center the merger of the Sun and Moon, which in alchemy represent the masculine and feminine principles respectively (though they sometimes share those functions with Mars and Venus, which is why the alchemical symbols for those two planets, not the symbols for sun and moon, have become known as the masculine and feminine symbols).

The masculine and feminine, you see, are both inherently incomplete. To have a gender is to not be the other gender; to be a man or a woman is less than the totality of being human. Bring the two together, however, and the infinite potential of humanity is unleashed, and it becomes possible to create life. (To paraphrase Ed way back when, “Alchemists have been trying to create life for years, but we still can’t do what a mother can.”) This can refer to a sex act or hermaphrodite, but in alchemy the symbol is the thing; bringing together symbols of the masculine and feminine principles can be just as (or more) powerful. Also we’re talking about European alchemy here, so it’s heavily influenced by Christianity’s massive sex-negativity. (And yes, I’m aware of how immensely heteronormative this all is. It’s Renaissance Europe, what can you do?)

An eclipse is one such marriage of masculine and feminine principles, and Father uses it to create a twisted parody of the alchemical marriage. He uses the mass deaths of the Amestrian people to create a featureless, blank Gate the size of the country, from which he emerges so that he can drag Truth down. He forces a marriage between the Mother Goddess of the Earth and the Allfather of Heaven, from which there is a burst of light. But far from creative, it is destructive; Father is an inversion of Chronos, a Titan born from the Earth who (rather than devouring his children) consumes his own heavenly father.

And of course there are other examples of this alchemical wedding in the episodes left to the series: there is the union of Mei and Al to bring back Ed’s arm, the union of Mustang and Hawkeye working together perfectly to fight Father, and of course finally the actual wedding of Ed and Winry and their resulting babies.

Episode Sixty-One: The Shadow Archetype

Jung, whom I’ve occasionally discussed before, is an important figure in the history of alchemy, as he is almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing it out of occult obscurity and into the realm of serious scholarship. He is one of the first people to study alchemy not as an occult art or science that works in a material sense, but as a social, cultural, and psychological phenomenon that worked in a spiritual sense. He approached it, in other words, as a belief system, not a source of power.

As with most of his theoretical work, Psychology and Alchemy is more useful and interesting as literary theory than as sociology or psychology. (His practical techniques, on the other hand, remain an important part of talk therapy to this day. Kind of like alchemy, when you think about it.) Regardless, he described the alchemical process as a spiritual process, in which the product appears to have changed because the alchemist’s entire worldview has changed.
One of Jung’s most interesting ideas, from a literary standpoint, is the Shadow. The Shadow comes from Jung’s theory of archetypes, rather than his ideas about alchemy, but nonetheless fits into them well, as the Shadow is a part of the self that is split off and later confronted, much as opposing principles are divided and then recombined in xanthosis.

The Shadow, as a psychological or philosophical concept, is a part of the self that has been rejected. One creates a Shadow by declaring a part of oneself as being unacceptable, usually because one sees it as weak, immoral, frightening, or painful, but sometimes just because it conflicts with one’s self image, and then burying, suppressing, or isolating that part. An essential part of achieving one’s full potential and psychological growth, therefore, is to confront the Shadow.
The Shadow, in other words, is a symbol of everything you hate about yourself. The thing is, the Shadow is created by rejection, and thus it is impossible to overcome it by fighting it. The only way to defeat the Shadow is to accept it and become one with it. Put another way, you cannot change something about yourself until you accept that it is a part of your self, and only then can you make the choice to either channel it to positive ends or grow beyond it.
As a literary concept, the Shadow is closely related to the foil. A foil, remember, is a character who is exactly like the protagonist in some ways, and their exact opposite in others. If a story has a big enough scope for multiple protagonists, it is not uncommon for a character to have multiple foils, and some protagonists may even be foils to each other. Ed, for example, has foils in Al, Mustang, and Hohenheim, while Mustang has foils in Ed, Hawkeye, Olivier, and Bradley. The Shadow, on the other hand, is the dark reflection of the protagonist, the character who personifies everything they reject in themselves. This can be the same person (Ling’s foil and Shadow are both Greed), but isn’t necessarily (Father is Hohenheim’s foil but not his Shadow; Envy is Mustang’s Shadow but not his foil.)

Mustang’s Shadow, as I said, is Envy, the one opponent he cannot burn without losing a part of himself. Envy is a shapeshifter, a deceiver, a trickster who revels in making people dance to his tune, much as Mustang pretends to be a frivolous womanizer to hide his true ambition and truly enjoys the game of feeding false information to the Central forces when Ed and Al try to draw out the homunculi by fighting Scar. Mustang also covets that which others possess, namely the throne of Amestris, and has a furious temper, much like Envy. He tries to separate himself from these truths, but ultimately he cannot; he must accept how close he has come to straying off the path and becoming the monsters he fights, and the only way to do so is by not killing Envy. It is a textbook confrontation with the Shadow.
Another major confrontation with the Shadow occurs in this episode, as Scar faces Wrathley. Last episode, to fight Wrathley Scar had to embrace an aspect of himself he’d long denied, namely that, like his brother, he is an alchemist. Wrathley, however, is in many ways the person Scar began the series as: a human being transformed into a creature of pure anger and violence by Amestrian alchemists, a nameless being who cares about nothing (not even survival) except destroying the enemy in front of him. Scar has tried to reject his rage and violence for some time now, and the result has been subtle but clear: he went from one of the most terrifyingly effective combatants in the show to being almost entirely ineffectual against the Immortal Legion and Wrannabes. Once Wrathley begins insultings Ishvala and suggesting that Scar has abandoned his faith and people, however, Scar once again strikes out in anger. His final speech on activating the alchemy circle makes this clear; he accepts that he is still full of anger and hatred, but that this does not have to be all he is. As he puts it, within him the positive and negative streams are one.
The most literal Shadow in the show, of course, is Pride, who serves as a Shadow to both Elric brothers. Pride represents a host of things Al rejects about himself—that he is an empty shell, a soul devoid of any real flesh, a created thing superior to normal humans. Al’s fights with Pride are all inconclusive, but note that once Al rejects the chance to get his body back—accepting, in other words, that he is living armor and that this does have its advantages—he does not fight Pride again. (Last episode he almost did, but got distracted by Mei’s injury.)

That leaves the main confrontation with the Shadow this episode, the fight between Ed and Pride. Pride is, of course, Ed’s defining sin—his hubris that led him to try to revive his mother in the first place—and Ed has attempted to reject pride from time to time, but never succeeded. He’s still basically an arrogant person, quick to gloat and prone to getting in trouble as a result of underestimating his opponents. He’s gotten better about the last, but note that just one episode ago he was gloating that he could easily beat Pride because he “knows how short people fight,” and now he comes within a hair of being killed.

There are other traits Ed tries to deny about himself that Pride embraces, such as sadism. Pride enjoys making his enemies experience intense physical and emotional trauma, true, while Ed restrains himself to pranking and trolling, but isn’t that just a sanitized form of sadism? The underlying principle—pleasure at making others suffer—is the same. Ed is also, like Pride, a very angry and violent person, but Ed tries to reject this side of himself with his strict taboo against killing, while Pride embraces violence wholeheartedly.
But probably the biggest aspect of Ed which Ed rejects and Pride embraces is the one Ed specifically calls Pride out on: Pride has been abandoned and betrayed by his father, and continues to work with him, continues to feel love and loyalty toward him.

Because for all that Ed hates his father, refuses even to call him that… Ed’s anger is rooted in loss. Ed hates Hohenheim for taking Ed’s father away from him, a loss Ed still feels keenly because Ed still loves his father.

And so, with only a few episodes left, if Ed is to have any hope of completing his growth as a character he must become one with Pride, which he does literally, by becoming a philosopher’s stone and entering his body. Ed strips away everything Pride is, leaving only an infant pleading for its mother—strips it away and takes it into himself.

Because one more feature Ed and Pride share in common, one they have both embraced throughout the series, is the ability to absorb the powers of others. Pride ate Gluttony’s sense of smell and Kimblee’s knowledge of alchemy, just as Ed copied Scar’s deconstruction attacks and Greed’s Ultimate Shield. So as Ed walks toward the final battle, he has taken from Pride the things he rejected from himself: Now he accepts that he is proud, which means he is capable of being humble. Now he accepts that he loves his father even as he hates him. And now he accepts that his hands are not for healing or building like Winry’s, but for fighting.

Within Ed, the opposing forces are at last aligning. He has been largely sidelined the past dozen episodes, one of many equal protagonists… but there is a reason this show is named for him. It’s time once more for him to step into center stage.

Episode Sixty-Two: In the Beginning

This lesson is actually more related to episodes 60 and 61, but there is SO MUCH going on in those two episodes, alchemically, that I moved it here. Plus, there’s a little bit of it happening.

One of the fundamental principles of alchemy was “As Above, So Below,” and one of its major focuses was on the process of creation. It should come as no surprise, then, that alchemical thinkers were interested in the origins and destiny of the universe. In Europe, alchemy was primarily practiced by Christians and so the dominant origin story was the Christian account familiar in our own culture.

However, alchemy drew heavily on two traditions that had Creation myths of their own, and alchemy made frequent use of their symbolism and iconography. The first of these, and less important of the two where FMA is concerned, was the Gnostic account. Gnosticism is generally regarded as a Christian heresy, but historically speaking it is more accurate to say that it was one of many competing Christianities that proliferated in the first three or four centuries after Jesus, of which one happened to get a big-name convert in Constantine and aggressively wiped out the others, establishing itself as a root religion from which most modern forms of Christianity descend. That one wasn’t Gnosticism, but because Gnosticism was a mystery religion (that is, a religion whose rites and beliefs are supposed to be secret to outsiders, and only revealed bit-by-bit to worshippers as they advance in a spiritual hierarchy—Scientology is a good modern example) practiced in secret, it took longer than most to wipe out, and traces of it remained in occult lore down to modern times, when the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library (a veritable treasure trove of ancient Gnostic texts hidden in an Egyptian monastery for centuries) brought it back into the spotlight.
By its nature as an often-persecuted, deeply mystical, secretive belief system, Gnostic beliefs varied quite a bit, but the most common and influential begins with the perfect God, whose divine light trickled down in a series of emanations called Aeons. The Aeons come in male-female pairs, and each pair is lower and less perfect than the last, but still divine, until at last one reaches the lowest and least perfect pair, Sophia (Greek for “Wisdom”) and Christos (Greek for “Messiah”; of course this is the English word Christ, but I’ll use the Greek name because the concept is rather different from modern mainstream Christianity). Sophia has a desire to create, and tries to make a divine being, but because she is the lowest of the Aeons she fails and instead creates Ialdabaoth, the Demiurge, who is variously described as being evil, mentally unbalanced, or simply massively incompetent. The Demiurge believes itself to be the supreme divine being, and creates the material universe, an utterly corrupt place of pure evil and darkness. However, he unknowingly traps Sophia within it, and she becomes the sole source of light in that darkness; specifically, she becomes the human soul. The Demiurge becomes the God of the Old Testament and tyrant of the universe (why yes, Gnosticism DID start as one of the Hellenistic, anti-Semitic branches of Christianity, how could you tell?) until finally Christos comes to try to rescue Sophia. Working through a purely human mouthpiece, Jesus (and helped by Sophia’s human mouthpiece, Mary-Magdalene), Christos spread the secret knowledge (Greek gnosis) that grants Enlightenment and salvation, allowing those who fully comprehend it to escape their material shell and become pure soul, merging back into Sophia—and when everyone is free, she will be free and this corrupt universe of darkness will collapse.

(Fun thought: Christos is an alien being who works through human agents to spread occult knowledge and secret rituals that cause those who know them to die, with the ultimate goal of wiping out humanity and destroying the universe. The only difference between him and Nyarlathotep is whether or not you like material existence.)
Truth seems rather inspired by Sophia, a divine being of light and knowledge who does not take any active role to govern the universe or claim to have created it, and who exists both as an independent entity and within every human soul. Father also seems quite demiurgic; he is a tyrant who pretends to godhood but is actually pathetic and corrupt, the creator of Amestris, and responsible for trapping both Truth and countless human souls. However, there really doesn’t seem any parallel to Christos; Hohenheim and Ed are, ultimately, human, while the Christos stand-in would be on the same order of being as Truth.

This Gnostic creation myth is basically a dark retelling of the rather more positive Qabbalistic story of creation. This story is a parallel of sorts to the Genesis accounts, meant not as a correction or replacement (as the Gnostic story explicitly is) but rather as an alternative view of events that are ultimately beyond human comprehension anyway.

The Qabbalistic myth begins slightly before the Genesis account, with a perfect, infinite, omnipresent Light, the chief Qabbalistic metaphor for God. Because this Light is omnipresent, nothing else except perfect Light can exist. Since God wishes to create, he must first make a space that isn’t him, so he retracts his light from the universe, creating the primordial darkness, the chaos of Genesis 1.

But God wants more than just darkness, so he trickles a little bit of Light into the dark, creating the universe. This Light is gathered into ten vessels, the ten Sephiroth, but it is too much for them to contain; they shatter into a multitude of tiny sparks of Light, scattering the Light throughout the universe. This is no accident, however—God is perfect, and makes no mistakes. Rather, this is intentional, to give the universe purpose—the sparks must try to gather again together, and restore the universe to its primordial perfection.
The sparks are fractal—each contains the complete Sephiroth within itself, albeit in a fractured and imperfect form—and of course they are the souls of humanity. Through meditation and spiritual practice, this inner Sephiroth can be ascended, reconnecting with the Source of the Light, the Aur Ein Soph, God, but it is an enormous challenge that few achieve in their lifetime. Ultimately, however, everyone will manage it, and the original state of the universe be restored in tikkun olam, the healing of the world and fulfillment of its purpose and promise.

The alchemists saw in both Gnosticism and Qabbala mystical systems based on knowledge and scholarship. In Gnosticism, the material world is an illusion and a trap, and the spiritual is real; in Qabbala the spiritual reality and material reality are one. In either case, the gathering of knowledge is a spiritual quest, and the immortality promised by the philosopher’s stone could be considered the same immortality as that of the soul, a way to ascend and connect to the source of all things.

The Qabbalistic Tree of Life, one of the ways to depict the Sephiroth, was thus identified with the process of creating a philosopher’s stone, and we see this in the progression of Gates of Truth, which we can now understand as fragments of the primordial vessels of the Sephiroth. The first Gate we see, Ed’s, is a purely spiritual Sephiroth, rooted in the heavens and borne up by angels. Al’s is a hybrid, a process of making the philosopher’s stone depicted as a Tree of Life. And finally, Mustang’s has no trace of the Sephiroth or Tree of Life, a purely alchemical diagram that nonetheless depicts a path from Earth to Heaven.

The ultimate goal of the process is thus not merely to make an elixir that maintains physical life or a stone that allows unlimited, perfect transmutation. It is a spiritual transformation, a union with the Divine… but that discussion is for tomorrow.

Episode Sixty-Three: Enlightenment

There seems to be a pattern to alchemy, where in a given culture it starts out pragmatic and exploratory, then gradually turns inwards and becomes more spiritual, after which its cultural relevance fades. It happened in China with the increasing pursuit of the immortal, spiritual self rather than making medicine and transmuting elements. It happened in Egypt, where it coincided with the shift from Alexandria to Byzantium. And it happened in Europe, where it formed one branch of the split between alchemy and chemistry.

In Europe, the quest for physical immortality and the transmutation of the elements became a quest for spiritual immortality and enlightenment. But what is enlightenment?
Literally, of course, to be enlightened is to be illuminated, to discover or release light. There are, very broadly speaking, two ways to go about doing this, the inward-pointed and the outward-pointed. The inward-pointed involves private study and meditation with the intent of finding light within oneself; the outward-pointed involves going out in the world and working with the intent of finding light within others. The former is what we usually mean by little-e enlightenment, but the latter is the kind found in the big-E Enlightenment, the rise of modern science, humanism, and democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Alchemy, like Qabbalah and Gnosticism, largely pursues an inward-pointed enlightenment. In the case of the latter two traditions, the goal is to reach inside oneself and find the part that connects to the divine. In alchemy, the goal is to create a perfect substance, and by dint of having created perfection, become perfect oneself.
But what is the point of linking in and up if you do not also link out? What is the point of finding your own light if you don’t find the light in others?

FMA:B is not kind to those who turn inwards for their enlightenment. The clearest example is Father. He does exactly what the medieval alchemists were trying to do: he uses alchemy to perfect himself, to attain oneness with God and yet remain on this Earth. But in so doing he sacrificed any possibility of connection to others, and found no light at all, only more and greater darkness. His Gate is blank.

My own theory on Father, based on the blankness of his Gate and his pleading not to go “back” when Truth pulls him through it, is that he is a fragment of the darkness behind the Gate. What, then, is that darkness? It is the stuff of which the universe was made, the primordial, chaotic darkness from which God withdrew his Light before trickling it back in. That is why the Gate contains infinite knowledge of alchemy, because it contains the makings of the entire universe.
And it’s also why Father craves to absorb God so very much. The darkness remembers that once it was full of Light, and it wants that Light back.

Father contains no Light, nothing for his Gate to depict. He has no trace of the positive inclination. But he’s tried to sever all of his negative inclination instead of channeling it, and as a result he is nothing but negative inclination. Put another way, all seven homunculi are Father’s Shadows, aspects of himself he has rejected, and because he is never able to accept any of them, he is never able to escape the flaws they represent: arrogance, an instrumental approach to others, a desperate craving for recognition and power, a tendency to react rather than act and let others do the work for him, jealousy of the light within humans, the desire to consume and absorb that light, and vicious, raging hatred. He insists that he has severed these things from himself, and so of course as a result he is incapable of seeing that they control and define him; that’s how it always works with the Shadow.
Had he confronted himself, accepted and embraced these aspects of himself, he might have put aside his anger and his arrogance to see that the light he envied, wanted to possess and devour was in others all along. He might have put aside his reactivity and passivity and instrumental approach to others, worked past his hatred, and attained the second kind of enlightenment, the kind you get by connecting to others. As Truth says, he saw the answer, but he rejected it.

Ed, on the other hand, embraces it. He realizes that the enlightenment offered by alchemy, the inward turn, is inherently self-centered and selfish. It cannot transcend, only send someone deeper into a cycle of sacrifices that ultimately ends up rejecting the world and becoming like Father. But who needs alchemy, anyway? All the light he needs is in other people. He can see the light in himself reflected in them, and reflect their light back at them.

Mark asked, “Is he transmuting himself?” Yes, Mark. Yes he is. The question is, into what? But that’s for tomorrow’s discussion.

Episode Sixty-Four: Rubedo

The final stage in the creation of a philosopher’s stone is rubedo, reddening. This is the stage in which the stone itself is produced. If nigredo is the black night of the soul, albedo moonrise and xanthosis sunrise, rubedo is the bright new morning. It is the new life created by the alchemical wedding, associated with the element of air, the humour blood, the sanguine temperament (cheerful, impulsive, creative dreamers), God the Son, and spiritual enlightenment.

The power of rubedo is the power to transform. Throughout the magnum opus, the material has been acted upon, transmuted—but the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, can transmute other things. It is the reification of change, a perfect substance that transforms and elevates everything around it.

To Jung, the magnum opus was a purely spiritual process. He believed that the alchemists, on attaining rubedo, thought the material was perfected and exalted because they were looking on the world with new, enlightened eyes. This appears not to have been the case; Jung underestimated the cultural differences between himself and the alchemists (who regarded as fundamental changes in materials we would dismiss as superficial), as well as their capacity for wishful thinking and, occasionally, outright fraud.

But the creation of the philosopher’s stone is, nonetheless, a deeply spiritual process, because the core principle of alchemy, “As above, so below,” means that the symbol is the thing, the spiritual is the material. No less notable an alchemist and occultist than Sir Isaac Newton gave us his third law, “for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.” To transmute something is to yourself be transmuted.
This series, I’ve noted more than once, is structured like the magnum opus. It begins with darkness and horror and death: the Elric brothers transmuting their mother, the death of Nina, of Hughes, the revelation that the homunculi control the state, the descent into Gluttony’s abyss. It continues into a cleansing phase, all white snow and the revelation of sins past—Briggs, the Ishbal flashback, Hohenheim’s flashback, Scar’s slow turn away from vengeance. Then there is the clash of opposing forces and rapid transformation of the Promised Day. And here, in the final episode, we have the product, the new day.
But have we gained a philosopher’s stone? This episode makes a point of showing to us, in two separate scenes, two moments of characters pulling out trump cards: Knox pulls out Marcoh, and Ling pulls out the stone Marcoh showed the Elrics in Episode 6. Remember that episode? Marcoh explained that the stone, like all the stones produced by the Amestrian researchers, is incomplete. It is not a perfect substance; it can be used up. Nor are Father’s and Hohenheim’s stones complete, for the same reason. Up until this episode, we have never seen a true philosopher’s stone, only an incomplete, fake stone.

And of course they’re incomplete! They are not created via the magnum opus, but by consuming human lives as a shortcut, a cheat. They’re all false stones, full of blood but without the breath of life. But the show, the show has followed the recipe. It is a magnum opus, a true and traditional one. So there should be a true philosopher’s stone, here at the end. Something which has been transformed, something which has been broken down, cleansed, tried by fire, and emerged with the power to create transformation.
“You can’t gain anything without losing something first. Although, if you can endure that pain and walk away from it, you’ll find that you now have a heart strong enough to overcome any obstacle.”

That is the true philosopher’s stone. It is Ed, who finally, by uniting with Winry, has the power to create life. It is Al, who, returned from the dead, journeys to the east to find a cure for chimerae. It is Scar, who has left the path of destroying his people’s enemies and instead works to use those same hands rebuilding his people’s culture. It is Mustang, who helped destroy Ishbal, and now helps restore it.

The magnum opus is a material process with a spiritual product. The true philosopher’s stone can take many forms: it can be an elixir, a crystal, a gel, a stone… or a heart.

“Yeah, a heart made fullmetal.”


I haven’t let my inner science nerd out to play in a while…

Rewatched several of the Marvel movies yesterday (Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, and as of writing I’m considering whether to watch an Iron Man, though that will be difficult seeing as Netflix doesn’t have them), because it’ll be a little while before I can go see Thor 2. I have to say, at first I thought the Tesseract was just a bit of technobabble, throwing out a science-y sounding word, but the more I think about it, the more it works for me.

The key is, there are a couple of mentions of “dark energy” in The Avengers in relation to the Tesseract. Like a tesseract, dark energy is a real scientific term; it refers to a hypothetical form of energy that is causing the observed expansion of the universe (hence “dark”–we can deduce its existence from observing its effects, but have yet to detect it or confirm its source). Dark energy appears to permeate all of space and act on space itself, causing it to expand. It is very weak, which is why it hasn’t completely shredded the universe; even as space expands, gravity is strong enough to hold structures like galaxies, stars, and planets together, let alone the much stronger electromagnetic and nuclear forces holding together smaller structures such as atomic nuclei, molecules, and people. Despite this weakness, because there is just so much space, dark energy ends up being the majority of all energy in the universe.

Which brings us to the Tesseract, which appears to draw on dark energy to generate power. Of course, the amount of dark energy in a region of space as small as that cube wouldn’t be enough to run an EZ Bake Oven, let alone power a Nazi super-science army, but the name gives a clue to how it could work.

In real life, a tesseract is a four-dimensional cubic prism; that is, it has the same relationship to a cube as a cube has to a square. If you do the math, you’ll find that it has a total “surface volume” eight times that of a single cubical “face,” but still, eight times that tiny cube is only slightly less tiny. However, thanks to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time, in science fiction “tesseract” has a second meaning: a four-dimensional fold in space that connects two points that are very distant three-dimensionally. Given what the tesseract does when Red Skull activates it at the end of Captain America, and that it enables the opening of a gate for the Chitauri to invade Earth in The Avengers, it seems pretty likely that this is the definition meant.

At which point it makes total sense that it is able to tap vast amounts of dark energy. We have no idea how much space it’s capable of folding up, but given that the Chitauri expect to conquer the universe, we can assume it’s a lot. Now it can access the dark energy of vast swaths of interstellar space, folding them up so that they can all be accessed through that one little cube.

Which leads to another fun thought: what if someone mass-produced them? As it stands, there is enough dark energy in the universe to keep it expanding forever. If the “quintessence” theory of dark energy is correct, then the amount of dark energy in the universe is actually increasing over time; eventually there will be nothing else, and space will shred itself completely. Using up the dark energy of interstellar space seems like a good idea, to keep the universe from flying apart. On the other hand, use up too much, and you eventually hit a point where there’s more gravity than dark energy, and the universe starts to collapse in on itself. You could set a pretty interesting story in a universe where that’s starting to happen, and people are faced with choosing between giving up their main energy source or dooming the universe–but obvious as the answer is, it isn’t easy, because it’s a very slow doom that none living will see.

Too on the nose, perhaps?

Manatees with Memories

Okay, yes, I’m watching Arrested Development and Supernatural for the first time. It’s 2003 in my house. It’s awful; Bush is still President, everybody’s getting shipped off to war, and Fullmetal Alchemist is a dark, cynical series with an absolutely terrible left-field final twist and a seriously small-potatoes villain.

Anyway, as I’ve gotten into the second season I’ve noticed something interesting the show does structurally. Much like Family Guy and the comedies it inspired, it relies heavily on cutaway gags, but where most of the cutaways in Family Guy and its ilk are non sequiturs, in Arrested Development they are quite frequently references to past episodes.

This is a very interesting way to use the growing emphasis on continuity in American television (which is largely a product of the increasing availability and accessibility of archives of past episodes via first home video, then DVD, and especially the rise of on-demand streaming services). Most reference-heavy shows use references to past episodes to enhance the appearance of dramatic unity (not quite in the Aristotelian sense, but close enough) and reward dedicated viewing, but Arrested Development does something quite different. By using them as cutaway gags, which by their nature are disruptive and jarring, the references simultaneously create an appearance of dramatic unity to reward dedicated viewers, while also creating a non sequitur joke to amuse more casual viewers who don’t catch the reference.

It’s honestly quite a clever way to combine current fads in both dramatic and comedic television to get something that feels fresh and original. I can see why people made a big deal about this show, and why it’s still remembered so fondly a decade later.

Don’t worry, old Fluttershy’s back for good. (Hurricane Fluttershy)


It’s March 24, 2012. The top song is still fun. and Janelle Monae with “We Are Young,” and the top movie is The Hunger Games. I think that’s the first time the top movie and song have both been good since I started this project.

In less good news, fighting continues to escalate in the Syrian civil war, and Rick Santorum wins the Republican primary in Louisiana. On the other hand, unemployment hits a four-year low in the U.S.

“Hurricane Fluttershy,” directed by Jayson Thiessen, is one of writer Cindy Morrow’s weaker episodes in Season Two, which says quite a bit for how much she’s improved since Season One. In that season, she was reliably mediocre, but her baseline in Season Two is a solid notch above that, with her best work of the season, “Read It and Weep,” one of the show’s true gems.

It is another character study of Fluttershy, and returns to the pattern of Fluttershy’s first focus episode, “Dragonshy,” by having her encounter a situation that involves one of her many fears, slowly learn to overcome that fear, and then save the day. However, in this case the enemy Fluttershy must overcome is not an externalization of her anxieties in the form of a monster, but rather completely internalized anxieties in the form of crippling flashbacks.

It’s thus important that Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle be the other two main characters featured in this episode. Twilight Sparkle needs to be here, albeit primarily as an observer, because this is a companion piece to “It’s About Time.” In my article on that episode I wrote that the season’s study of time is largely over, but that’s not actually true. That episode completes the season’s study of time as a phenomenon, which means here, as well as in one other episode remaining this season, it can examine what happens when time is removed as a factor, when the past leaks into the present or the present rewrites the past.

In the case of this episode, it’s the former, which is why Rainbow Dash needs to be present. Fluttershy is held captive by her past, and specifically by an experience we have already seen she shared with Rainbow Dash, attending, and being teased, at Flight Camp when they were young. Notably, we’ve seen little sign that Rainbow Dash even remembers the teasing–her namecalling by the jock/bully ponies occurs only in Fluttershy’s flashback in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” while Rainbow Dash’s begins after the teasing has already occurred. It appears not to have been a significant for her.

For Fluttershy, on the other hand, the teasing that occurred at Flight Camp was psychologically shattering, to the point that engaging in any kind of competitive flying–even one where all the competitors are trying to beat their own best wing power ratings, not competing against one another–functions as a flashback trigger for her, causing her to relive the pain she felt as if the event is still occurring, and this trigger is compounded if she is laughed at or criticized during the event. Indeed, both her flashback (in the literary sense) to the event and her flashbacks (in the post-traumatic stress sense) depict the ponies laughing at her as genericized masks. The teasing has ceased to be a specific event in her mind, if it ever was an isolated event; there is every reason to believe it occurred repeatedly, since once children find that a peer is easily cowed by mass teasing, that peer tends to become a favored target.

The masks show that the teasing is no longer a particular memory of an event perpetrated by specific ponies, but an icon, a defining moment. Fluttershy has internalized the way she felt in that moment, made it a part of who she is, and so her fear that it will return becomes self-fulfilling. Overwhelmed by her terror of being laughed at, she locks up and is unable to fly well, even though we have at least once seen her outrace Rainbow Dash, in “The Return of Harmony.” As a result, she performs poorly and is laughed at, confirming her fears, triggering a flashback, and making it still harder for her to handle competitive flying.

For Rainbow Dash, this is incomprehensible. She has been shown confronting her fears before, most recently in “Read It and Weep,” and her approach has always been, well, confrontational. She deals with fear by meeting it head-on and getting to the other side, because Rainbow Dash’s self-image is that she is brave. When she is afraid, she instinctively responds (as most people do) in a way consistent with her self-image, and thus when she makes it through the scary experience this confirms to her that she is brave, making her even more confident the next time she encounters something that frightens her.

Rainbow Dash thus naturally assumes that the thing to do is to build Fluttershy’s confidence by forcing her through the frightening experience. Unfortunately, post-traumatic stress doesn’t work that way. It is a psychic allergy, in which a normally harmless stimulus becomes associated with trauma and therefore triggers an overreactive psychological defense that does more harm than good. Forcing Fluttershy to participate in the pegasi’s drills and eventual water funneling is not helpful for her any more than forcing someone with a peanut allergy to eat a Snickers bar would be. Rainbow Dash may mean well, but her behavior toward Fluttershy in this episode is quite aggressive and borders on the abusive.

What Fluttershy really needs, if she is to heal, is a safe and supportive environment in which to explore her fear in her own terms, allowing her to take back the control she lost to her childhood bullies. And of all people, it is Angel, leading a contingent of Fluttershy’s animal friends, who provides this for her. They comfort Fluttershy when she flees the training ground, hug her, groom her, and allow her a space to rest and recover, before they begin working with her in a way designed to specifically simulate not the triggers for her flashbacks, but the results–not the sound of laughter or the feeling of being mocked, but the laughing masks themselves. This is clearly uncomfortable for Fluttershy, given her expression during the training montage that ensues, but it is not itself a trigger–she does not (as she did at the training or when originally teased) see the faces multiply, look down on her, or laugh. The icon itself has no power; without the triggers and associated feelings they provoke, it is simply an image.

Fluttershy is thus able to put a crack in her negative self-image, and open the possibility of success. Unfortunately, her self-image is still that of a poor flyer. She soon learns that, despite massive improvement, she still has the lowest wingpower of the adult pegasi by a significant margin. She registers this as failure, where someone with an attitude like Rainbow Dash’s might see it as success. As I said, self-image tends to be self-fulfilling; evidence that confirms what we already believe tends to be more persuasive than evidence that contradicts it.

Only an overwhelming success that garners unanimous approval is enough to overcome Fluttershy’s belief in her poor self-image, and so it is only once she provides the critical final few points of wingpower needed to complete the water transfer to Cloudsdale that Fluttershy’s self-image shows signs of changing. Even then, it will need a lot of work to truly improve in the long term.

Fluttershy’s past invades her present, rendering her unable to clearly separate the now from the then; she was the filly who flew poorly and was picked on, and this leaks into and overwrites her present as the filly whose flying ability saved the day. Self-esteem cannot be built on anything other than genuine, meaningful accomplishment, but Fluttershy’s past reality overrides her present, erasing her accomplishments almost as soon as they happen. This is as much a time-loop episode as “It’s About Time,” and the only thing which can break Fluttershy out of the loop is love, support, and constant reminders that she does have accomplishments, until perhaps she can begin to accept and internalize them.

The episode, in other words, functions as a bridge between the two dominant themes of the season, a way in which love can triumph over time. The transcendence of love is not in the nonsensical, cliche sense of lasting forever–no feeling can exist without a mind to feel it, and as such love cannot outlive the lover. Rather, it is that Fluttershy is empowered by the love and support of others to recognize that she is not who she was, that her present can redefine her past rather than her past always defining her present. In that sense, we are (fittingly for one of the last few episodes of the season) returning to the season opener “The Return of Harmony,” when the love and shared experiences of the ponies defeated a returning ancient evil.

In the end, the episode is hopeful but inconclusive; Fluttershy seems happy, but we know as savvy viewers that future episodes will return to her timidity and low self-image. Like most of us, she needs to learn her lessons many times, in different ways, to have any hope of real change.

Next week: We haven’t had a CMC episode in a while. Satirizing the news media hasn’t been this adorable since Network. (Note: Network is not actually adorable. It’s cynical and depressing and vicious and very, very good.)