As always: spoilers ahead.
The Yin-Yang “Abuse Survivor” Dynamic Between Amalia True and Maladie
First and foremost, let’s talk about the big reveal that dropped this episode: Amalia True and Maladie actually know each other. We don’t get to learn exactly how they know each other (yet), but we do get to learn that Maladie’s given name is actually Sarah (something I think is particularly meaningful that I will discuss in more detail below). During their confrontation at the end of the episode, it is strongly implied that the two women knew each other when they were much younger, and True essentially “snitched” on Sarah in some way. After The Great Snitchening, Sarah was sent off to an asylum where one or more of the staff proceeded to repeatedly abuse her and turn her into the Maladie that she is today.
I say in the title of this section that there is a yin-yang abuse survivor dynamic between these two characters because:
- It’s pretty obvious that both women have been abused
- They’re both alive, so they have both clearly “survived” their abuse
- Although they have gone through similar experiences, their respective journeys – and the results – are very, very different
It’s not explicitly stated, but it’s strongly implied when True visits Inspector Mundi at the police station that her late husband was physically abusive towards her. This not only sheds some light on True’s character, but explains both how and why she got so good at physical combat. It also sheds some light on where her PTSD comes from, and why she may have attempted suicide at the beginning of the pilot episode. During that scene in the Inspectors office, True and Mundi also discuss Maladie’s past and the very high likelihood that she was physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused during her many years of asylum confinement.
The yin and the yang, from Japanese culture, represent balance. They represent the light and the dark side of life in general. In this sense, True and Maladie are two sides of the same coin. True – even though she herself might argue otherwise – represents the light side of surviving abuse; despite her trauma, she doesn’t let it motivate her to act out of hate. In fact, she tries to use her powers for good, to gather together other touched people and to help them survive and navigate a world that is hostile towards them.
Maladie, on the other hand, is obviously the dark side of the abuse survivor coin. We find out the specific nature of her turn in this episode: (physical) pain makes her stronger. She is, in both the metaphorical and literal sense of the phrase, fueled by pain. Her pain causes her to lash out to the extreme, sending her on the murderous rampage that has her racking up a body count on par with Jack the Ripper. She is London’s most wanted murderer and her name instills fear in everyone who hears it.
Both of these women started out on the same path in life. But at a very specific point, their paths took wildly different turns. The disparity between where they both started together and where they’re both at now is mind-boggling. You can almost hear True’s thoughts in the inspector’s office when she’s looking at pictures of Maladie and thinking to herself …that could have been me. Or maybe even that should have been me, since she’s personally responsible (in part) for putting Maladie in that situation in the first place.
On a lesser yet tangentially related note, isn’t Maladie kidnapping Mary Brighton a bit like Jack Skellington kidnapping Santa Claus in The Nightmare Before Christmas? Maladie is all about pain, hate, and rage. Mary Brighton is all about healing through the power of love and hope. So how is that dynamic going to play out through the rest of the season? I have no idea, but I’m eager to find out.
White and/or Rich People Can’t Handle “Real Talk”
Not too long ago, I saw a tweet that really hit home for me. In case you don’t have time to click the link and read it for yourself, it’s a long and engaging thread about how there are certain demographics of people in this world (the tweet specifically calls out white people) who cannot handle “real talk”. What does that mean? Let’s start with pointing out the exact opposite of real talk:
The opposite of real talk is asking your racist uncle to “pass the rolls” at Thanksgiving dinner instead of calling him out on his bullshit when he starts ranting and raving about how the election was stolen from tr*mp.
It’s telling someone “I had a nice time tonight, I’ll call you” instead of just admitting that you don’t want a second date with them.
It’s telling your boss “thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention” instead of expressing your concerns that your boss is being unnecessarily hypercritical.
It’s Miss Chattoway complaining that the ribbons they’re required to wear at the party “doesn’t go with my dress at all” when what she wants to say is “it’s bigoted and unfair that we have to brand ourselves with these ugly blue ribbons just to make the toffs feel less afraid of us.”
To be clear, not all white people are incapable of real talk; those from a lower socioeconomic status or a marginalized group (Lucy, and Augie to an extent due to his ASD) have no problem speaking their minds. Sometimes, though, this swings to the opposite end of the spectrum and they say things that cause willful harm in the name of “brutal honesty” or “speaking the truth”.
Rich people (and/or people from a higher socioeconomic status) are the worst offenders when it comes to favoring “diplomacy” instead of real talk. That’s because rocking the boat and upsetting the established power structure could cause them to lose everything. But when you’re white and upper class? Boy-howdy, you’re more likely to win the lottery than to have an open, honest conversation with anyone in your whole life. Mrs. Bidlow is the perfect example of this, pausing only briefly during private conversations to speak truth: once with Penance and True while discussing the party with them, and later on with Augie in order to discourage his budding friendship (and potential romance?) with Penance.
It’s appropriate that Desiree’s character shows up in this episode amongst a disgusting abundance of “diplomatic talk” seeing as how her turn is to force real talk out of people. Whenever anyone who’s under duress is around Desiree, it passively forces them to start rambling about what’s really on their mind, consequences be damned. I have one question about her power though: does she actually not remember the confessions people make after their time together is over? Or is she playing coy in order to avoid getting murdered (as she did with that one John who confessed he was going to have her killed)? If she forgets every time, then how does she even know she has this particular turn? Personally, I think she’s bullshitting in order to save her skin. I don’t know if she’s going to make another appearance this season, so my questions may end up going unanswered. But she is a very compelling character and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of her.
Slips of the Tongue
When True and Desiree meet for the first time, and True is first influenced by her turn, True starts talking about Mary’s power. Right before True realizes that Desiree’s power works on everyone – not just men – she says “Mary is the voice of the Galan-” before she stops herself. WHO IS SHE TALKING ABOUT?! Obviously, “galan” isn’t the full word. The English subtitles are very clear about the spelling: “galan-” which rules out words like “gallantry” or the like. So who the hell are the “galanXX?” What does True know about them?! And will they play a bigger part in the show later?
Then there are a few subtly obvious slips of the tongue from Lavinia Bidlow that are worth exploring. Three in particular:
Slip #1: “Right now, everyone of us – everyone of you – is suspect.” Yup, Mrs. Bidlow says this while talking exclusively to True and Penance. Don’t think we didn’t notice that, Lavinia.
Slip #2: When Mrs. Bidlow confronts her brother during the party, she is uncharacteristically emotional after hearing her peers gossiping about him and Penance. And then she tells him that the “reports of this event could be disastrous for us and possibly dangerous for [Penance].” Is she using the word “us” because she feels as much a part of her charity as she would if she were touched? Is she using the word “us” because she’s talking to her brother, and she’s concerned about the family reputation? Or is she using the word “us” because…she’s hiding a secret?
Jane Espenson herself even says in a behind the scenes interview: “certain people [during Mary’s song at the opera] are off camera and you don’t know whether there’s a light on them or not, they’re purposely kept ambiguous.” It’s super sus, yo. It’s sus.
Slip #3: This one is a bit more convoluted and confusing. “Gilbert Massen and I agree on almost nothing. It is the Bedrock of our friendship.” In episode 1, Massen declares the touched “an attack on the empire”. In this episode, Bidlow sees the alien(?) orb glowing for the first time and insists that “this is war”. Where do Bidlow’s allegiances lie? Is she with the touched? Is she with Massen in protecting the empire? Or is she just looking out for herself and her family name? Speaking of…
What’s in a Name?
We find out in this episode that Maladie’s given name is actually Sarah. Sarah is a Hebrew word that means “princess”. Not only is Hebrew one of the original languages the Bible was written in – a book of particular importance to our dear Maladie – but I believe the name was chosen on purpose by the writers to reflect the fact that she believes herself to be God’s chosen little princess. Or maybe I’m overthinking it and they just chose the name Sarah because they liked it.
But let’s also take a moment to talk about Maladie’s chosen name – more specifically, the spelling of it. In the dictionary, a malady is an affliction or ailment – a theme which the entire show revolves around. In the show, however, they spell Maladie’s name with an “ie” instead of a “y” – changing the final syllable to the word “die”, which is something that frequently happens to people who are near her. The first two syllables of her name, mala, is a Spanish word that means “an evil woman”. So if you really wanted to overanalyze and overthink it the way I often do – with everything, and constantly – you could translate her name to mean “an evil woman who makes people die”.
That Which Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
Between the Frederich Nietzsche name drop and the fact that Maladie’s turn is literally triggered by pain, the symbolism is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face. Some may feel like it’s a little heavy-handed, but I actually really like it – especially the way Maladie’s character plays it off, arrogantly taunting True, asking her “would you like to beat me some more?” with a smug, malicious cheshire-cat-grin on her face. Chills, I tell you. Chills.
This revelation exposes a serious problem for True. Amalia’s ripplings take a backseat to the fact that her real power is in her ability to fight. And in a very literal sense, she cannot defeat Maladie by fighting her. True only knows how to fight by wielding pain. She has no clue how to use love to win her battles, and her conversation with the Inspector highlights this when she says the following:
“Mary makes you feel love. Feel loved. Which is terrifying. For someone who…someone like [Maladie].” That pregnant pause spoke volumes. My personal theory is that the sentence which almost popped out of her mouth was “For someone who’s been abused”. And anyone who’s ever experienced that type of pain knows exactly what I’m talking about.
So how, exactly, is True going to take down her adversary? We have four episodes left in this first half of the season to find out how she’s going to conquer this cleverly constructed plot point. And I can’t wait to see what this show is going to give us.
- Elisabetta’s story arc is Shakespearean levels of tragic. Her family kicked her out and disowned her when they found out she was touched; she gets sexually harassed by her boss; she gets betrayed by her best friend; caught by the wrong people while trying to run away to safety; and in the end, she’s lobotomized and turned into a mindless zombie. But I’m sure Lord Massen would still look at her and refer to her as one of “the employed”.
- Natural feminine restraint: gag me. But I think Inspector Mundi might have a touch of feminism in him, both by the way he had sympathy for the murdered woman that the railroad workers were trying to “bury” in episode 1 and by the way he looks physically uncomfortable saying those three words to Amalia’s face.
- People of influence: I love Mrs. Bidlow’s line about “men of influence, with wives of actual influence”. It not only perfectly describes how the patriarchy worked back during that time, but reminds me of the speech from My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the mother explains that the man is the head of the household, but the woman is the neck and she turns the head whichever way she wants.
- I play a lot of squash: how is this the least-threatening sounding threat in the history of time? It made me giggle.
- Hugo’s father: so we find out in this episode that Hugo’s father was not only physically abusive, but possibly as big of a douchebag or bigger than Lord Masson himself. Interesting.
- Mrs. Bidlow, Pageant Coach: back in the day, when I was fifteen, I attended my one and only beauty pageant ever. It was a mind-freak. The most traumatic memory of the whole experience was when one of the pageant coaches was trying to prep us for our interviews with the judges. She literally told us – and this is a nearly verbatim quote – “if you’re in an interview with a judge, girls, and they ask you a question like ‘what is your favorite song?’, and you answer ‘God Is Watching Us’…that may not be your favorite song all of the time, but if it’s your favorite song in that moment, then it’s the right answer.” When Lavinia is coaching the touched girls on how to behave at her party before it starts, it took me back to that moment and creeped me out so hard. Seriously. Fuck beauty pageants, and fuck Mrs. Bidlow at this moment in particular.
- The Star of David: although the Star of David is a proud symbol of Jewish heritage, Jews in Nazi Germany were forced to wear them in order to identify themselves among the German populace. The blue ribbons that the girls are forced to wear at the party feel like a version of that, but for the touched. I’m pretty sure the writers are also familiar with WWII history, and used the blue ribbons in that way on purpose.
- Stone Cold: in episode one, True is not just not intimidated by the beggar King putting a razor to her face, but even leans into it. When Inspector Mundi pulls a loaded gun on her, she rolls her eyes at him. I envy this woman’s big, swingin’ brass ovaries.
- Callbacks: is Augie’s “turn” a callback to Game of Thrones? Hmm…
- Multiple turns: is it possible for the touched to have more than one turn at the same time? In episode 1, when True is confronting the beggar King, she tells him “this isn’t my face”. In episode 2, Maladie refers to True as “a demon who sheds her skin”. Are the characters just speaking in metaphors, or is there something more literal to this? Also, in the final scene of Ep 1, Some of the touched only have one unicorn sparkle settle on them; but others get 2-3 sparkles. Will that come into play later?
- Mic drop line of the night: when Augie accuses his sister of “always assuming the worst of everybody” and she replies with “they seldom disappoint.”
- Continuity errors: during True and Maladie’s fight, at one point, True is wearing her fancy glasses – and in the very next shot of her face, they’ve mysteriously disappeared. The audience doesn’t get to see how or why they’re gone, they’re just spontaneously not there anymore. It broke my immersion too much not to mention it.
- Curse Bonfire Annie and her sudden but inevitable betrayal: this was foreshadowed in episode 1 when she just stood there on the steps watching True beat the crap out of her boss/lover. Sure, you could say that Annie knew Maladie could handle herself, so there was no need for her to step in; but when I was originally watching episode 1, it struck me as odd that she would just stand there doing nothing while somebody she had an obligation to (both romantically and professionally) was getting her ass handed to her in a fight. While some viewers might be confused by Annie turning on Maladie, it honestly came as no surprise to me. Annie is a PoC and female and trying her best to survive in a sexist, racist society; if she’s smart, she’s going to do whatever she has to do to look out for #1. And who knows? Maybe she has some secret dealings with Hugo or the Beggar King (or some other unknown entity) that alleviated her obligation to Maladie.
- Foreshadowing: This show is so good at foreshadowing, you could write a dissertation on it – and we’re only two episodes in, y’all! Elisabetta’s friend foreshadows a couple of things with her line about having a turn that could make Danny Kent fall in love with her. Not only is she foreshadowing her inevitable betrayal of Elisabetta, but in a small way, she also foreshadows Lavinia’s accusation that Penance might be using a turn to manipulate Augie into falling in love with her. Also, when Maladie randomly blurts out “they say you shit when you hang” to Mary, the line feels random and wildly out of place on a first watch of the episode. But when you go back and watch it again, it almost crosses the line from foreshadowing into blatantly monologuing her supervillain plan. So far, this show is a master class in subtle and not-so-subtle foreshadowing. And I can’t get enough of it.