The Importance of ‘Nancy Drew’

The Nancy Drew franchise has lasted decades. There have been countless books in a variety of different series, including a spinoff series about her as a kid. There’s been movies and video games and a TV show. Nancy is an icon, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss why that is.

I know a lot of girls who had a Nancy Drew phase. I didn’t exactly have that, because I kind of skipped over the children’s book section. I read a lot as a kid. I’ve always been a fast reader, and when I was younger, I had a lot more time to do it. I recall being given a boxed set of the books – I think 1 through 55, or something like that – and I blew through them in a week or two. I’d maybe read another on occasion, but for the most part, my “phase” lasted all of about two weeks. I never had a period of time where that was all I was obsessed with. That’s not the kind of book Nancy Drew is. The series doesn’t lend itself to an obsession. Maybe in the, rush to get every book you can get sense, but not in the need to gush with someone about them way. They don’t have interesting and well developed characters. They don’t have deeply emotional scenes. They aren’t where you go if you’re looking for well crafted prose. They’re formulaic. They’re essentially airport novels for kids.

People love series – you don’t have to think about what to read next, you just go down the list. Nancy Drew is one of those long runners people read to take up time, not necessarily because they’re good – even though it does have many devoted readers. But they stuck with me all the same, and that’s because of Nancy and what she represents.

The series resonated and appealed to girls since its conception because it was aspirational. Nancy was eighteen and never had to answer to anybody. She was a female character getting to have adventures with the romantic aspect of it barely even an afterthought. Ned – and the random other guys from when Ned wasn’t around – was her sidekick. Nancy casually dated throughout the series and that was never portrayed as something she shouldn’t do. She and Ned went out a lot, but there wasn’t any kind of commitment. The books were all about her and what she wanted to do.

She always seemed much older when I was reading the books. How could she not? Nancy at eighteen had fewer responsibilities and more freedom than I do now. She was out of school. She was independent, with a level of independence and autonomy kids dream adulthood will bring. Maybe it didn’t make much sense. She was a high school graduate and an amateur detective that never went to college or got a job or even got paid for the cases she solved. We never saw her learning a lot of the skills she had, but she always conveniently could solve every problem. She never cooked or cleaned or paid bills. Her housekeeper did the first two and her father the third. She seemed to just live off her father’s money.

When you read a Nancy Drew book, what you see is what you get. No matter how many times you read it, you won’t find new layers. They’re tailored for children and in a way that means you won’t get much – if anything – new out of it as an adult. Nancy Drew is a character that people grow up past. That’s not necessarily bad – the books have a specific purpose and they fill a specific niche – it just is. She’s a static character. The Nancy in the last book of the original run is the exact same as that in the first. That’s why people always outgrow her. But despite that, you’re not going to find many women out there that say, “oh, Nancy Drew is stupid and childish, kids should be reading better books” the same way people do about a lot of kids’ books. That’s because Nancy isn’t a character so much as she is a cultural icon.

She was a smart, tough woman that rescued herself, and maybe the versions of the books updated in the 50s or 60s washed some of that out and rendered her a more sweet, polite, milquetoast sort of person, they couldn’t erase it completely, because the very premise of the series is a competent woman that can solve crimes better than all the police detectives around. She has a place in history. Generations of girls have read about her and been inspired by her. She’s probably not a character that got many people into reading in the first place. She certainly wasn’t that for me. But at the time of her creation, she was revolutionary. She’s no longer unique, which is great. Modern children’s fiction has a lot more capable and independent female protagonists, many of whom are better written than Nancy ever was. But Nancy was a crucial step in the development of strong female characters in popular fiction, and one of the reasons we can now so easily criticize the idea of a Strong Female CharacterTM by pointing out that being able to do stuff isn’t the same as being a good character – partially because of Nancy, we now have an abundance of capable women, and now the goal is to make them more interesting. She’s not as necessary as she once was, but forgetting her would be like forgetting Anne Shirley, Jo March, or Hester Prynne.

There’s a lot of discussion to be had about the original versions vs the updated, the first run vs the later books and series, like how the original versions of the books were filled with unfortunate stereotypes about people of colour, and the updated versions “fixed” that by just removing all PoC completely, or the previously mentioned shift into sweeter, more accommodating, and less independent territory,  or how Bess and George are usually just portrayed as complete stereotypes rather than characters in their own right. None of that changes the fact that Nancy still matters. Maybe her books aren’t what we want now, and she isn’t the heroine that interests us, but for a long time, she was what we needed.

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The Best Parts of the X-Men Film Franchise

I whine about the X-Men movies a lot. I know, I’m sorry. It’s not that I think they’re bad movies so much as I’ve grown up on the X-Men, and since this film franchise is the only one, I’m sad that I’ve never gotten to see characters that aren’t Wolverine, Magneto, or Xavier – including my favourites – done justice. Despite that, I still recognize the importance of these movies and know that they do a lot of things right, and you know what, positivity is more fun than negativity. So, here’s a nonexhaustive and unordered list of things that are fantastic about them:

  1. Awesome casting. I mean, they have Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan as Xavier and Magneto. That’s pretty badass, and it resulted in the next item on this list.
  2. Wonderful performances. Enough said.
  3. In the original trilogy, Jean was played by an actress considerably older than the actor that played Scott. Sure, she didn’t really look it, because Famke Janssen is, like, whoa, and they were meant to portray characters pretty close in age. But in a world where so many young women play the love interests of men decades their senior, it’s nice to see the actress be older.
  4. The longest running superhero film franchise. Yeah, I’ve made quite a few snide comments about that, but still, it’s quite an accomplishment.
  5. Some of the fight scenes are phenomenal.
  6. That Nightcrawler in the White House scene in X2 is one of the reasons why X2 is my favourite movie in the franchise. Beautifully choreographed, excellent choice in music, and so on.
  7. They’re not afraid of letting emotional scenes breathe without needing to punctuate them with a joke to lighten the mood.
  8. For every visual effect that looks sloppy and poorly done, there’s an awesome one. It may have been a bit role, but Angel’s wings in The Last Stand looked great.
  9. On a shallow note, everyone was super attractive in X2, especially Jean and Storm. A+ job, makeup department. You guys are fantastic.
  10. Magneto killing people in creative ways is pretty awesome. The ripping the iron out of the security guard’s blood and using it to break out of his plastic prison was hardcore.
  11. The first movie opened in a freaking concentration camp. That was one of the boldest openings to any comic book movie ever.
  12. The last stand (no, not the movie) of all the mutants in Days of Future Past was super fun to watchespecially Blink’s use of portals.
  13. The best word I can think of to describe Patrick Stewart’s narration is relieving. I don’t know what it is, but even in DoFP, when it was super bleak, it was wonderfully satisfying because it felt so familiar. The same thing applies when other people are doing the voice over. I just love that voice over.

Anyone have any favourite parts of the movies? Let me know!

My Dislike For Breaks From Canon vs My Love For ‘Gotham’: Deciphering My Own Mild Hypocrisy

I absolutely love Gotham and its wild, unashamed love of comic books. Despite that love, it doesn’t follow any canon. It takes bits from different comics, from one offs, from cartoons and movies, and blends it with new material, capturing the spirit and feel of reading a comic perfectly as it does so. And even though I love the comics, I adore these changes. It makes the show feel fresh and new.

The X-Men movies, on the other hand? Not quite. For me, most of the X-Men movies don’t feel like they were made by people that even like comics, much less love them. They’re not the product of people that love the characters and respect all of them.

It kind of reminds me of something Guillermo del Toro said once about Pacific Rim: it was inspired by Kaiju movies, but by his memory of them, his nostalgia for them, rather than how they actually are. That’s how this feels, except minus the nostalgia. The X-Men movies feel like the product of someone that knows a little bit about the X-Men – that read a couple comics, or watched a few episodes of the cartoon, and has learned a bit through pop culture osmosis – that tried to recreate it in movie format. And while the resultant product is something that’s usually good for at least a watch, in the long run, they don’t do it for me. In my eyes, it’s very similar to The Dark Knight trilogy. Many of these are great movies. I’m not denying that. But something feels missing, and that’s the love and passion for comics.

It’s not even just about love and respect for the source material, it’s a question of what we’ve already gotten. Batman has had decades worth of adaptations, ranging from the dorky and cheap to the serious and high budget. He’s a pop culture icon whose place in our collective memory has long been determined. So I’m totally up for seeing changes, for seeing new and fresh takes on the heroes and villains. But that’s not  the case for the X-Men. They’ve had cartoons, yes. But they’ve only had one movie franchise, one that’s longer running than any other superhero franchise. It has been going on for nearly twenty years, and because of that, hasn’t really evolved in the same sense as other superhero movies have.

A lot has changed when it comes to superhero movies in the past several years. We can see that in the contrast between the Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy and the one in Batman v Superman, or the Superman in Superman Returns and the one in Man of Steel. People have learned how to combine realism with the sense of comic book come to life. Since the X-Men movies we get today are still an extension of the one from 2000, when the clear goal was making a statement of being different from other superhero movies. That movie was different and highly appealing at the time, but not so much anymore, and that goal resulted in the X-Men never getting a comics accurate adaptation. As a comics fan, it’s frustrating.

In July, the X-Men film franchise will turn eighteen. If it was a person, it could vote. But in all these years, in the nine (?) movies, only about four characters got real attention and development, with one of those four (Mystique) being absolutely nothing like her comics counterpart, to the point where I’m so sick of them, I kind of need to not see them again for the next decade. Other characters not only didn’t get development, they got their backstories actively erased.

Jubilee was at the school before Scott in the alternate timeline. Do you realize how crazy that is? That’s like…I don’t know, like Robin existing before Batman. And that’s minor compared to making Scott the younger brother that grew up in the suburbs with his parents alive. To cutting out all of Warren’s history with the X-Men. To ignoring the fact that the Dark Phoenix wasn’t just Jean going crazy and having more power than she could handle, but the Hellfire Club manipulating her and screwing with her head until she didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. None of these changes were necessary. None were a fresh take on a story that’s been done to death. All they did was make the incarnation of the characters that’s a lot of people’s introduction to them completely different from who they really are and have been.

I’ve watched the various cartoons, read the comics, watched the movies. I have a deep and undying love for most of these characters. But there are kids out there today whose exposure to them will just be the disrespectful treatment they’ve gotten in the movies. I hate it. I fully support exploration of the way characters would be if put in a different situation…but that doesn’t apply on the very first version.

Scott was Xavier’s first student, Alex’s older brother, the object of Sinister’s obsession, an abused child that grew up in an orphanage and on the streets, the leader of the X-Men, the first X-Man, a respected teacher, the ultimate good guy and biggest adherent to Xavier’s dream until years of losing made him realize that it was time to draw a line in the sand. Are all of those things really essential? All of them? No, probably not! What the hell do I care if he’s younger or older than Alex? But when all aspects of his character are stripped away from him and handed out to other characters on his first live action adaptation, I draw the line.

This same thing can explain my adoration for the DC Extended Universe: it doesn’t follow canon exactly. It interprets it creatively while still demonstrating both a love for and knowledge of the source material. It doesn’t change the core of the characters or stories. I don’t think it’s hypocritical, really, or a double standard, to enjoy some works that deviate from canon while being bothered by others. Because it’s not actually about deviations from canon. It’s about how knowing when to make changes is a sign of respecting viewers and source material. Gotham does. The X-Men movies don’t.

‘Gotham’: Going Out With A Bang

Before the announcement that Gotham was getting a fifth and final season that’ll probably be shorter than the others, I’d accepted that the show was probably going to be over soon. I’d half expected that this season would be the last, and we’d never get closure on the cliffhanger we’re supposed to be getting. I’m unbelievably relieved that I was wrong about that.

Prequels have expiration dates. I knew that going in. They have limits on how long they can exist and how much time they can span, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be prequels anymore. And I’m very glad that the show didn’t become a zombie franchise, going on for season after season, past the point of them having any kind of long arching story or plan. In the world where so many shows keep going after they should have concluded, it’s really nice to see something stopping. We’re going to get a planned ending, rather than being left hanging after a cancellation. The show is going to go out on its own terms, and that’s the best I could have hoped for.

It’s my absolute favourite comic book show, and I’ve watched a lot of those. Even if I’ve never finished them, I’ve watched at least a few episodes of all of them – from 60s Batman to Agents of Shield – so I think I can safely say, none of them are quite like  Gotham. That’s not to say they’re bad. In fact, many of them are very good. But none of them have Gotham‘s way of both respecting canon and completely tossing it out the window whenever they feel it’s necessary.

I’ve heard the show described as the love child of the Nolan and Burton movies, and while I think that’s true to an extent, I also think it does a disservice to the  Gotham writers and the show’s individual merits. Every new adaptation will be compared and contrasted with the ones that came before it. That’s a given. But Gotham is unique. So many different things come together to create something that’s consistently enjoyable to watch, like how:

  1. It’s aesthetically pleasingOut of all the comic book shows out there, this one most feels like it’s taking place in reality.
  2. It has interesting villains that are fun to watch and can be legitimately intimidating. Take Penguin – he’s an all around pretty terrible dude. He kills a whole bunch of people without even blinking. But he also has a few redeeming qualities, like his love for his mom, and enough pet the dog moments that we don’t completely hate him. And beyond that, he’s just likeable. He’s entertaining and funny, and whenever he’s on screen, I know I’m in for a good time. He’s terrible at being a mafioso, I’m pretty sure he’s lost and regained a crime empire at least once a season, and his tenure as mayor lasted, like, a week, but that’s the fun of it!
  3. It’s hilarious, while also having a lot of successfully emotional scenes. Those things coexist without overpowering each other.
  4. It’s true to the spirit of the source material. It’s a love letter to the Batman mythos. It’s filled with mythology references from every kind of Batman related media – the comics, the Burton movies, the Nolan movies, Batman: The Animated Series – while also being unafraid of trying something new. Every good adaptation takes some risks and tries new things. Gotham is no different.

I’ll admit, the show took a while to find itself. If you go back and watch a season one episode after seeing something from season four, the contrast is shocking. There’s been a major shift, both thematically and tonally. And I think it was almost certainly a shift for the better. But I – and clearly a lot of others – still saw something compelling there, even in that first season. For whatever reason, I kept watching, and I am so glad that I did. Gotham has gotten progressively better over the seasons, at least as far as I’m concerned. Season two was better than season one. Season three was better than season two. And season four? Season four is just awesome.

This season has been badass. Writers and actors alike have been outdoing themselves every episode. The performances have been outstanding. Especially David Mazouz – he started off good and has consistently gotten better as the show progressed so that he’s never been out of his depth next to any of the more experienced actors, but his work this season has been even more impressive than anything from before. The season has everything that I liked about the previous seasons with even better execution. When I thought that this season would be the last, the fact that it’s so good was my consolation – if it was going out, it was going out on a really high note.

We’ve been told that the season four finale will be a major shift in the premise of the show. Normally hearing that would make me worry they’re going to jump the shark and that the next season will be a drop in quality. But when it comes to Gotham, I’m not worried at all, because every time I think they’re not going to be able to top an episode, they do. Every episode has so much heart in it. I may not always agree with their creative choices, but they certainly know how to entertain. Whatever else happens, I’m sure I’ll at least have a good time watching.

Gotham isn’t just a Batman origin story. Partially, sure – one of the storylines that’s been ongoing since the beginning is about how Bruce got to a point where he felt he needed to dress like a bat and fight crime, expanding his backstory beyond deciding to beat up criminals after his parents were killed. But it’s also about how Jim Gordon’s evolution from detective to commissioner (even if we don’t see that full arc on screen). It’s about how Gotham itself went from a pretty ordinary city with a little more Mob violence and a slightly higher murder rate to wretched hive filled with super villains that needs the Dark Knight. The show is called Gotham, and that says it all – it’s the story of Gotham City.

Sure, maybe season five will be a bit of a let down. Who knows? But for its entire existence, Gotham has been worth watching, and I can’t wait to see how the show will be wrapped up in its final season.

The Evolution of Film Noir

For most people that know me, noir probably wouldn’t seem like my type of genre. I’m a sucker for a happy ending. Not all happy, mind – for me, bittersweet is always the safest bet. Not the same kind of cop out as a pure happy ending, but more hopeful than the downer. You wouldn’t think I’d get much of that in noir. But I don’t see noir as a genre so much as an idea. It’s difficult to define as anything, because works as different as The Killing and Blade Runner (though the latter is also the codifier for tech noir) both fit just as well into the category, while being vastly different movies. A noir film can have a happy ending or a sad one. It can be anything. Classical noir, neo-noir, pulp fiction – they blur together. Relatively inexpensive to make. Entertaining. “Low brow”. The tropes have influenced other genres and have had a lasting impact on storytelling.

Take Perry Mason. The books were written by a pulp author, even though they were never published in a pulp magazine and the influence shows. They take many of the same traits as film noir. Mason isn’t an antihero by any definition. He’s a lawyer, a crusading defence attorney, that is determined to do the right thing. This separates him from the modern definition of an antihero. He’s also confident and successful, preventing him from entering the classical antihero category. They’re set in California without particularly corrupt police or prosecutors. But the stories are filled with people lying, murderers with sympathetic motives, schemers and manipulators. It’s hard to define a written work as an example of noir, but I’d argue that the Perry Mason books are the closest written example just on the basis of how they feel. Several episodes of the television adaptation embraced that vibe and translated it into true noir through the use of the signature visual style.

The iconic visual style – with the bold contrasts, the heavy shadows, the interesting use of lighting, the chiaroscuro – is a great aesthetic. We can debate what makes something film noir, but as far as I’m concerned, the difference between something with noir elements and a genuine noir is that visual. The tropes matter, but it’s the aesthetic that makes a noir. That aesthetic along with the common musical themes that go along with it make a good film noir uniquely satisfying.

Today, we see a lot of parodies and homages – how many shows have done a noir episode? – as well as noir vibes in a variety of genres noir elements mixed in with another genre, but not as much straight noir stories. To an extent, it’s understandable – the idea of film noir is so iconic, to try to play it straight could easily veer into cliché, and beyond that, pretty much everything has been done already. It’s also a shame. Noir films (films noirs? We’ll work on that.) are great. They’re a reminder that movies are an art form, that the point of visual storytelling is to show rather than tell.

Film noir is one of the many things that helped blur the lines between “true art” and the type of things the average person genuinely likes to see and watch, beyond just appreciating the technical skill involved in  making it. The works that stand the test of time are those that are enjoyable. Meaning is great, but that alone will only get you so far. The classic noir films from the forties and fifties are interesting and suspenseful and make you want to know what happens next while also being visually appealing and exploring a variety of themes involving the psychology of man. They embrace film as a visual medium and use style to convey issues of substance.

I’d love to see more films embrace the noir tradition in a creative sense. Film noir is a style more than anything else. So why does that have to only apply to the same kind of city and people? Film noir was built off the idea of post-World War II cynicism, that much is true. Much of what we associate with noir is tied to the era that birthed the “genre”. But the state of the world is often pretty dire. There’s plenty to be cynical about that isn’t tied to a world war. Modernizing it further while never shying away from the fact that it’s noir may well annoy purists, but it’ll also bring in plenty of new fans by giving them something more relatable.

A noir film doesn’t have to be filled with jazz clubs, smoking, unique matchbooks from hotels, and old fashioned revolvers. I love films with those things, but they’ve been done, and I’d really like to see something else. Like, classic film noir is pretty sexist. Updating it to today – or further, even, placing it in the future – could be an opportunity to change that. The brooding anti-hero can be a woman. The femme fatale can be an homme fatal. Hell, those two roles could be merged into one character.

The idea of the femme fatale may have been progressive, once upon a time. After all, film noir pushed the boundaries of the Hayes Code, and femmes fatales (Okay, we really have to come to a consensus. How do you pluralize a loan word? Do you do it the way it would be in the language it comes from, i.e. films noirs and femmes fatales, or do you anglify (anglicize?) it, i.e. noir films and femme fatales? If anyone has an opinion on grammar, come talk to me.) gave actresses deeper and more interesting roles than they’d otherwise  get. A femme fatale has traditionally had more agency than many other female archetypes. She has her own agenda. She’s sexually independent and morally ambiguous. She’s fun to watch. But the context isn’t the same today, so while the femme fatale archetype will never be outdated, modern incarnations are inevitably going to be seen as sexist if they don’t get well thought out characterization.

Women today have a wider range of interesting roles, and while many are still presented in a sexual light that often verges on exploitative, that sexuality isn’t usually presented as a trademark of an evil character anymore. The traditional femme fatale that uses sexuality as her weapon of choice instills a fear of feminism and of strong women, pushing forward the idea of women that will lead to the downfall of man. She propagates the idea that sex is bad and wrong and that women like her are automatically morally ambiguous, if not outright villainous.

I like morally ambiguous characters and find them entertaining to watch. I’ve seen a lot of debate on the specific kind of moral ambiguity associated with the femme fatale. Is it sexist? Or is it empowering? I guess like with everything, that depends. There aren’t really all that many fundamentally sexist tropes. A good writer can make the most seemingly misogynistic ideas interesting and not gross. A wrong camera angle can turn something innocuous into something exploitative. I adore a well written femme fatale. I would never want to see that archetype die. But I would like to see examples that are better developed than just a hot chick in a tight dress that uses sex to get what shes wants.

Veronica Mars. American Hustle. Ex Machina. Jessica Jones. Even some parts of Orphan Black. Those can all be taken as examples of contemporary noir, and the list of neo-noir titles on Wikipedia has many more. All of these utilize film noir tropes, with the visuals perhaps downplayed, but still recognizable at least some of the time. Most of them have interesting takes on the anti-hero and/or femme fatale, takes that are real characters rather than stereotypes or caricatures. I live for this sort of thing. What I’d like even more is for the aesthetic to be embraced again more fully.

Cyberpunk and film noir have a lot in common, what with being heavily stylized stories about a grim world filled with poverty and exploitation under a glitzy surface. I consider cyberpunk one of the descendants of classic film noir, and I think it’s that genre more than the more traditional neo-noir (is that an oxymoron? It feels like an oxymoron) pieces – the crime dramas, the murder mysteries – that more directly uses the visual style I associate with noir. I adore the noir-esque crime dramas and murder mysteries. A lot of my favourite movies fall into those categories. But I get giddy and delighted when watching something cyberpunk, just for the sake of those familiar tropes and excellent visuals. To me, that’s the real modern noir, and I love it.

‘Quantico’ and the Disappointment of a Show Forgetting Its Roots

The first episode of season three of Quantico aired Thursday night, and you know what? Had that been the pilot of a new show, I’d have probably loved it. It would have given the impression of starting in the middle, with characters that have a history which each other and backstories that we’ll learn more about as the show progresses. Plus, there’s a WoC as the main character, a deaf woman as an experienced older agent, a black man as the team leader – it would have been so refreshing to see, had it been a new show. But it’s not. It’s the third season of an existing one, and put into context, it bothers me.

Romantic drama had always been a problem with Quantico. It’s always existed as an unnecessary drag on the story that did nothing to further the plot or develop. The plot itself managed to be pretty contrived. But despite that, I could enjoy it, because at its best, it also had well written and interesting characters. Sadly, though, a lot of them, despite starting off well, were increasingly mishandled as the show went on.

Quantico has been steadily leaking characters throughout the two seasons. Simon. Natalie. Drew. Nimah and Raina. Dayana. Leon. Sebastian. Miranda. Whether because they’re dead or put on a bus, none of them – all with either a lot of potential or interestingly developed – are appearing in season three. And aside from Simon and maybe – maybe – Drew, I think it’s a waste.

I still think Simon’s character arc was excellent. His death was gorgeously done, and I think he had both the best acting and the best writing behind him. His relationships with Alex, Raina, and Nimah were all different and interesting. And you know a death is handled well when even when you miss the character, you don’t want him back, because it would cheapen it. On the other hand, Dayana was just put on a bus with no satisfactory conclusion to her story. Miranda could have plenty more to offer. There’s been no explanation of where Nimah and Raina are, despite the fact they’ve been key characters from the get go. It bothers me that none of them are here when the writers are bending over backwards to make Shelby fit.

Unlike many, I don’t care about Caleb. I’m okay with him not being there. That feels like trimming the fat from the story. For me, he never added any actual value or substance. Maybe a few times, there was a hint of something more – the scenes of him with Raina or Claire or even Alex were all far more meaningful than those with Shelby or her parents – but nothing real, nothing that actually mattered, so I don’t mind that he’s not in season three. I don’t really mind the absence of characters like Lydia, Claire, or Clay either. The one I’ll really miss is Raina.

Raina is amazing. I found her season one arc fascinating. It was well acted. Her relationship with Simon was layered and well done, especially because the conflict there didn’t feel contrived. She was competent and also kind of absurdly impulsive in a way that provided an interesting contrast to Nimah. She was a genuinely great character. There were even traces of that in season two. But for the most part, she was sidelined for Nimah, especially after Simon’s death. When that happened, a lot of her interesting relationships – all platonic – were left unused. Now that she’s  not coming back, it’ll be the end of all of those.

Season two had certain aspects that were better than season one. Reduced focus on relationship drama. More diversity in the male cast and continued diversity in the female. It also had things that were worse, like more dumb subplots and less character development. Season three? It’s a weird, semi-reboot in that you can jump in anywhere, and there are good things about it, but it’s weird. Maybe it’s too early to really tell whether the differences are good or bad, but my instincts to say that I don’t like it.

It doesn’t have the two timelines that the previous two seasons did, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s missing great characters. It’s added even more relationship drama that’s just irritating. For whatever reason, Ryan and Shelby, characters with minimal interact at best before now, are married. It’s as if the writers got the memo that people didn’t like Ryan and Alex together, but instead of having that end in any kind of reasonable, adult, not weird way, they did this, which was basically, “two pretty white people who are mainly connected through Alex and are two of the characters with the least direct interaction? They should get together! Let’s assassinate everyone’s characters to make it happen.” I’d have bought it had they put Ryan and Nimah – or even Raina! – together. It would have served the same purpose in the plot, and they had way better build up.

I’d get Alex and Ryan breaking up. It’d be kind of annoying for it to happen again, sure, I’d prefer them to either stay together or permanently split up. But this? To have her just ghost him then him marry her best friend? To have Shelby marry her best friend’s ex-fiancé, then get weirdly prickly and defensive about it? It’s gross. It’s bad writing and characterization. The goal seems to be have Shelby sleep with every guy on the show. Caleb, Clayton, Leon, Ryan. I can’t remember if she did sleep with Clay but she had that whole thing going on with  him. In order to get her and Ryan to work, the writers had to turn their back on two seasons worth of characterization and growth for her, him, and Alex.

Season one was genuinely good. Yes, there was a lot of soap opera style drama, and some of the plots were pretty dumb and seemingly only there to give everyone something to do but aside from that, the character work was strong, the cast was diverse, and everyone had interesting dynamics. I can’t decide if season two was better or worse, it was just different. Maybe a decent plot and a couple new characters with substance, but several more without it, and flimsy motivations. I wasn’t much of a fan, but that’s okay. Season three, though? We’re talking less diverse, more soapy, and ignoring a well written friendship between two women in favour of adding contrived tension because of some guy.

As the writer of this post put it, Quantico was about women supporting each other and breaking through the glass ceiling, not tearing each other down.  And while season three hasn’t had Alex and Shelby at odds over Ryan yet, there is a newfound tension in their relationship because of him that I just don’t like. That’s not something I think I’ll ever be able to grow to appreciate. For all Quantico‘s flaws as a show, for all the inconsistency in quality, Alex and Shelby’s friendship was always a strong point because their disagreements were never about a man or romantic relationship. If that changes, I probably won’t be able to continue watching.

My 10 Favourite ‘Animorphs’ Books

Between the 54 main storyline books, 4 chronicles, 4 Megamorphs, and the two stupid “choose your own adventure” books where I think just about every choice ended up in you dying, Animorphs had a lot of books. Everyone that has ever spoken to me for more than five minutes probably knows that I love the seriesI often pick one up for a reread because they’re so short you can get through one in like twenty minutes and they make me feel a lot of things in a short amount of time. Picking favourites is all but impossible because there are so many awesome things about nearly all of them. So I made this list by thinking of which ones come to mind when I’m trying to describe why I love the series.

10.  The Reaction (12)

The book that spawned the “Cassie loves hard rock” meme. Also, my personal favourite of the stupid plot books. What’s not to love about a morphing allergy and uncontrollable morphing triggered by Rachel’s anger issues while they try to prevent some teen actor with, as Tobias put it, “Yasmine Bleeth power” from being infested?

This is by far the lightest book on this list and one of the lightest in the whole series. It’s just funny with very few heavy or serious moments, and it always makes me laugh, just because of how rare books like that are in this series. Friendship, hijinks, Xena jokes, Rachel starting to turn into a bear and passing it off as new boots, Rachel turning into an elephant and falling through her house, Marco as a llama, Cassie attacking a crocodile while in squirrel morph, Cassie morphing Rachel, and talk show hosts freaking out.

Note: Cassie being a bad liar that can’t think of anything to say is usually played for laughs, but here, when the word Andalite was barked at her to see if she’d react, she just agreed that “and a light” would be helpful and  kept walking. She claimed she had a hard time controlling Rachel’s morph and that Rachel’s brain kept trying to make her do dumb things, but maybe Rachel’s instincts also helped her lie better?

This book was a zany adventure that’s far closer to the usual use of the Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World trope than the rest of the series. While nearly every book has lighthearted, funny moments, entire plots that are light don’t happen often, making this one hugely refreshing and a nice reprieve from all the darkness.

9. The Pretender (23)

Toby’s intro! Well, not really. That wouldn’t make sense. Her real intro was at the end of Hork-Bajir Chronicles, but seeing as between that book and this one she wasn’t so much as mentioned once, this was where we got to see her as a character for the first time. That automatically gives this book bonus points, because Toby Hamee is freaking awesome. Even more bonus points because it’s a Tobias book, and he has fewer from his perspective than most of the others.

The story goes between trying to rescue a Hork-Bajir child that wandered off, a supposed long lost cousin of Tobias, and his upcoming birthday on which he’ll be read a letter from his father. All the while, Tobias is dealing with the fact that being a hawk is tough. It’s quite an eventful book for him. He uses the fact that he’s forgotten how to emote as a superpower while sitting in a room with someone he knows is Visser Three in morph and learns that Elfangor was his father, and that’s after a whole book of him having a really bad three days.

Lots of action, angst, good fight scenes, and Hork-Bajir. Basically, classic Animorphs.

8. Visser

This wasn’t labelled as one of the Chronicles, even though it essentially was one of them, and I can see why – while the rest of the Chronicles told stories about the past, about how the universe reached the place it was when book 1 (The Invasion) began, this one is told in the present and through flashbacks.

This book provided a lot of insight into the Yeerk Empire and its internal politics. Very cool. It was primarily about Edriss, her past, and her present chess game with Esplin, and all that was great, but what I was struck by more than anything was how badass Marco’s  mom is. Eva was fascinating in this book, because this basically the first time we got to see her.  Not her as filtered through the perception of her son’s memories from when he was eleven. Not her as a helpless little host that needs to be saved. Her as a woman with her own mind and thoughts, her as a smart, competent, experienced individual, her as the other side of the same coin as Edriss. And she’s awesome. 

In an earlier book, we see Chapman, who’s also spent years as a Controller. But where Chapman didn’t resist for his daughter’s sake, stopped paying attention to what was happening to the point where he had forgotten how to control his body when he had his head back, Eva kept fighting. She didn’t need time to figure out how to use her mouth and limbs again, she had control of her body again and immediately started thinking about what she had to do, what the smart thing to do was. This woman sacrificed everything – body and mind and freedom – for the sake of the planet, because she knew her freedom would come at a cost. Eva is the hero of another story.

7. The Attack (26)

Awwww, Jake defeated the Howlers with the power of love. But more than that – he looked at two nigh omnipotent beings and made them blink. You know how the whole series is about child soldiers? This book was about child soldiers coming to face with other child soldiers and deciding that they cannot kill children that don’t comprehend that the killing isn’t a game.

We see Erek again, which is nice. There’s a lot of questioning what it means to be an android that’s barred from violence and the true limitations of that. It’s not the focus – the Chee are minor characters – but it is there. Foreshadowing for later? Probably not intentionally, but interesting all the same. The characters meet the Iskoort, two species – the Isk and the Yoort – in a symbiotic relationship where neither can exist without the other, showing what the Yeerks could be at some point. It never came up again, but still, cool.

It’s a good character piece. Plotwise, it’s not really relevant, seeing as it’s pretty much a one off that doesn’t get referenced at all later, but it’s excellently written, delves into the  same kind of ethical dilemmas and such that Animorphs at its best always does, and has some great moments between the characters.

6. The Solution (22)

Also could be called: Nothing Brings A Team Together Like Plotting The Destruction Of The New Member.

The best written Rachel book, by far. Lots of heavy stuff, but they also ran into a drunk, pantsless G8 leader who I think saluted them while grinning wildly? (There was a recent debate on Tumblr over whether that was supposed to be Boris Yeltsin or Vladmir Putin. Help us out, KAA). Back on topic!

Animorphs is, for the most part, highly episodic. There’s an ongoing story, and everyone has a pretty consistent character arc throughout the series, but most of the books are written in a way that you could pick one up, starting in the middle of the series, and be pretty okay. Those loosely connected books are good. Some of them, put into context, though? Where specific plot points from one come up later, or the ones that carry out a tightly woven mini-arc, like the David Trilogy? Those are almost always great.

What’s interesting about this book is that it showed the team aspects of the Animorphs better than anything else. It’s not just Rachel getting a moment where she stands alone. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is the darkest book – how do you decide on that in a series that’s this dark overall? For heaven’s sake, the first one opened with an alien being eaten alive and a bunch of children crying as they listened to his screams – but I’d argue that it’s their darkest hour as a team, the first book where they’re really pushed to their limits together.

This book is messed up. If book 6 was the first time they’d ever come up with a plan, executed it, and wound up winning with no element of luck involved, just them and their skill, this is the dark side of that book. They come up with a plan. They execute it successfully. But it shows off the scary sides of all the Animorphs. Cassie’s sense of empathy and ability to manipulate people. Jake’s ability to make the hard choices. And above all, Rachel’s growing violence and ability to complete the plans others formulate.

Book 6 was hardly light and breezy. Jake spent the entire book trapped inside his own head. Cassie came up with the idea that they needed to send Ax to impersonate him for his parents. They dragged a sentient creature into the woods and starved him to death. But he was enslaving Jake at the time, we could see that he was indubitably a bad guy, and this was long before they met Aftran and started to see the Yeerks as people, so it felt justified. David is not a sympathetic character. He completely disregards Cassie and Tobias. But he’s still just a kid the same age as the protagonists that didn’t ask for any of this to happen.

Cassie’s potential to be the most dangerous Animorph was clearly illustrated through the fact that it was her plan to trap David as a rat. She wrote the script, anticipated every one of David’s moves, and successfully trapped him, because she didn’t want to kill him. Damn. Just three books before this, we saw the positive side of Cassie’s empathy – she convinced Aftran that enslaving Karen so she herself could be free was wrong. Here? She used that empathy to figure out every move David would make and how to beat him – trapping him as a rat and leaving him alone on an uninhabited island.

Jake’s major strength is his ability to adapt. And yes, that as at least partially innate, but it was honed by experience and, I’d argue, perfected here. David strengthened him and made him capable of the kind of things he does later in the series. In the book immediately preceding this one, Jake outright admits that David is an unknown. He spends the book trying to figure out what makes him tick, whereas he knows the others so well he doesn’t even need to think. He can make those decisions on how to use them, on what they’ll probably do, on autopilot. But David? Jake didn’t know how to handle him, handle people that are only nominally on his side that he neither likes nor trusts, or even people that he wasn’t sure would listen to him. The events of this book made him capable of dealing with Mean Rachel and Nice Rachel in 32, the Andalites in 38, the Auxiliary Animorphs in 50. The way he used Rachel in this book is why he was later capable of manipulating Tobias into volunteering to be captured and tortured in 33, why he could figure out every move Tom’s Yeerk would make in 53 and 54.

Of course, this was Rachel’s book, not theirs, and it showed off so much of how she’d changed throughout the series. Unlike many, though, I don’t think it’s how she stood watch for the necessary two hours that did that. Sure, maybe it’s not something Cassie would have been able to do, but it’s not that Rachel wanted to do it. She had a choice between that and killing him. And Ax was right there with her, even more emotionally detached from it than her. It’s how in the rest of the book, she veered into straight up sadistic, threatening David’s family while holding a fork to his ear, wanting to cause him pain, becoming just about the only fourteen (probably, somewhere around that age) year old girl capable of making a plastic utensil terrifying. She’s the one Jake wants by his side at a fight, that he automatically calls for without having to think. Everything with David made it dawn on her that her bloodthirstiness was actually scary.

(I love this book so much that I rambled on about it forever and had to cut out half of the points I made.)

5. The Sickness (29)

Cassie does awesome on her own, and this was a clear demonstration of why. This book follows 19, another amazing Cassie book, by bringing back Aftran. In this one, she morphs a Yeerk, visits the Yeerk Pool by herself, rescues Aftran, and gets home in time to figure out how to perform brain surgery on Ax, her other alien friend, in her barn with nothing but a hole saw and scalpel. Relatively low angst, lots of funny scenes, some cute ones, but mainly just Cassie, doing her thing and being awesome while her team is all down with the flu.

Cassie Middle-Name-Unknown, a high school student brave enough to go down to rescue a friend from a place that gives her nightmares and cut open another friend’s head, but not enough to not need her best friend/boyfriend’s cousin to tell him he’s taking her to a dance. I love her. Come on, Cassie. He literally stopped the Howlers by giving them the memory of kissing you three books ago. Pull yourself together.

4. The Departure (19)

This book celebrated hope. It celebrated optimism. There was some clumsy writing, what with the random bear and leopard serving as plot devices to herd the characters where Applegate wanted them and Cassie behaving uncharacteristically stupidly in a way that I’d need another post to analyze, but I love it anyway. There are a lot of books, shows, and movies that glorify the cynical characters or the “badass” ones that do the ruthless, necessary thing or stuff like that, but that’s not what Cassie is about, and it’s certainly not what this book is about.

This is about choices and sacrifice, about standing up against evil being hard, about not standing up being morally reprehensible. It’s about how not everyone in the empire the protagonists fight against is evil. It’s about trust. It’s about how it’s unfair that the Yeerks were born slugs, without sight or hearing, unable to see how beautiful the world is, but how it’s not right for them to enslave others to have it. It’s about peace. Not between all humans and all Yeerks and all Andalites, but between Cassie and Aftran. One human and one Yeerk.

Cassie’s morals are impossible to separate from her as a character. She jealously, maybe even selfishly, guarded her own soul and her principles, because she couldn’t live with not being able to look herself in the mirror, and that’s why she survived. She was determined to stay who she was. She fought to hold onto her sense of right and wrong, which was why she could move on with her life after. This book was beautifully written, with amazingly poignant quotes, and an amazing way of forcing the reader to empathize.

3. The Beginning (54)

Controversial opinion? Maybe. But I love this book. Sure, maybe it wasn’t what most people wanted. But it was what I needed. It wasn’t a happy ending. It wasn’t all miserable, either. It was bittersweet and dedicated to the aftermath, to hammering in the point that the lead characters had become child soldiers that sacrificed their souls for humanity, because there’s no such thing as a glorious war or a just war, but there may be a such thing as a necessary one.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a children’s book that demonstrates the effects of war as well as this one. Jake had absolutely no idea what to do with his life for most of it. He spent a year clinically depressed and not talking to a therapist or any of his friends. He barely left his house except to sometimes visit Rachel’s grave, and he didn’t even talk to her. After that, when he started making an attempt to move on, it was by floating through life until someone gave him another mission. Marco got the fame and fortune he’d craved, but it was hollow and as good as he was at pretending otherwise, he was bored out of his mind and jumped at the chance to go into space and rescue Ax. Tobias became a recluse. Ax mostly just…found other stuff to fight so he could avoid trying to get on with his life. Cassie alone managed to move on.

There really aren’t many books out there were a significant chunk of is it about the war crimes trial a year after the end of the war, during which the defence attempts to discredit the lead character by accusing him of being a war criminal himself, so when you read one, it sticks with you. Animorphs, everybody. For kids!

2. Hork-Bajir Chronicles

Animorphs is in general a story about war and imperialism, and this book showed that off like whoa. There was a cast of great characters:

  • Alloran, my trashbag fave! He’s pretty much my favourite character outside the mains, partially due to him being a pretty terrible person.
  •  Seerow, the closest thing that this series has to an unambiguous good guy! Except no, not really, because his was a very Woodrow Wilson style of idealism and liberalism – that is to say, hugely racist. Wilson believed in self determination as it extends to white people. Seerow believed in the intelligence of the Yeerks, that they deserved to see the stars, but not in that of the Hork-Bajir. Aldrea told him how Dak was brilliant and had rapidly learned just about everything she had to teach. He flat out didn’t believe her,  because how could that possibly be?
  • Aldrea, who was all for getting the Hork-Bajir to fight the Yeerks and trying to manipulate Dak even as she started to like him, then noped the hell out of there as soon as she found out about the biological warfare stuff.
  •  Dak Hamee, who mastered the art of calling out Andalites way before Jake, smart and kind and forced to fight.
  • Esplin from before he infested Alloran and was still a cunning villain because of not growing kind of crazy from the power. Man, they really shouldn’t have promoted him, he was really good at his old job.

Plots are all well and good, but they’re nothing without solid characters to drive it, and these? Amazing.

1. The Answer (53)

You can argue that the entire series culminated in this book. If 54 was about the aftermath, this was the book where all the pieces that have been building since the beginning came together for the sake of this one thing.

It’s a complex plan filled with various forces, some of which are teeth gritting their way through their alliance. The Animorphs are only reluctantly working with Tom, and that falls apart almost immediately. They used the Auxiliary Animorphs and the military as a distraction. The Hork-Bajir and Taxxons were holding position down to the last person. Jake had to threaten to kill Chapman in order to force Erek to help. Esplin doesn’t surrender until the next book. Tom and Rachel aren’t dead yet. But the war was effectively won here.

There are a lot of fans that see Jake as a boring everyman. I’m pretty sure Marco is the most common favourite character, and something I used to see quite often (but not so much anymore) is people saying he’d be a better leader. I disagree for a lot of reasons, and it would take a whole post of its own to explain why, but this book was the best example of Jake at his most brilliant and most terrifying.

Jake was as a ruthless as a character can get, because now they’re in all out war and for the first time, he actually saw a way to win, one that involved a whole lot of sacrifice. He was emotionally distant for most of this book. Very early on, he says that he’s had to give up soul searching because there’s no time left for that, and he does. He has a brief moment of feeling amazing at the prospect of victory when Arbron says they want to help, but aside from that, this book is a sombre one about him using his people as chess pieces. He’s detached, numb, and only focused on the goal until near the end, when it seems to register just what he’s doing.

Ordering Rachel to go after Tom made sense. He was stopping Tom’s nameless Yeerk from getting away and enslaving some other species – and how crazy is it that this guy, this villain we loathe so much, at times even more than Esplin, never got a name? Through the whole series we call him Tom, and while at times I found that frustrating, it serves a very important purpose that pays off here. Jake doesn’t know the Yeerk’s name. He can’t separate the Yeerk from his brother. It’s not just the Yeerk that dies. It’s Tom himself. It’s the conclusion to the series long Cain and Abel theme, and the reason that even now, in 2018, thinking about Jake Berenson still makes me want to cry.


The plot of the series is not complex. But the depth of the characters and the way in which the books deconstruct so many tropes is outstanding.