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Harsh Realm – Reunion (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.

– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, The First Part, Chapter XI

Reunion continues the sense that Chris Carter envisioned Harsh Realm as something of an allegorical episodic adventure series through a post-apocalyptic reflection of contemporary America.

Carter quite clearly wanted to use Harsh Realm as a vehicle to explore and comment upon certain aspects of the American experience. Inga Fossa touched on the links between projected masculinity and violence; Cincinnati will find Santiago’s “manifest destiny” brushing up against the country’s Native American population. Even scripts like Three Percenters and Manus Domini feel tied into Carter’s large oeuvre, touching on the writer’s recurring fascination with homogeneity and spirituality in the modern world.

Things come to a head...

Things come to a head…

Reunion is very consciously a critique of excessive and abusive capitalism, presenting a vision of America built upon the economics of slave labour reinforced by the rhetoric of freedom and competition. In some respects, Reunion feels like Harsh Realm is channelling the spirit of classic science-fiction television like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. Its central allegory is hardly subtle, but there is a goofy charm in carrying these ideas well past their logical extremes. The vision of labour presented in Reunion is grotesque and exaggerated, but it is not completely fantastical.

Reunion also reaffirms the link that exists between the digital world and the real world, suggesting that perhaps the world that we inhabit is not as far removed from the horrors of the virtual reality as might hope.

Family matters...

Family matters…

In Reunion, Hobbes and Pinochio are captured in the virtual world while searching for Hobbes’ mother. At the same time, Sophie is visiting Hobbes’ mother in the real world. In both realms, it is revealed that Hobbes’ mother is dying from cancer. The script for Reunion offers a simple explanation for the coincidence; the reason that Katherine Hobbes has developed cancer in both worlds simultaneously is because it is the recurrence of a cancer that affected her in 1995. The script for The Pilot confirmed that the digital world was built on data sampled from 1995.

At the same time, the coincidence is uncanny. Hobbes is reunited with virtual!Katherine at the same time that Sophie goes to visit Katherine. Indeed, both versions of Katherine pass away in what seems to be the same instance, a coincidence that is somewhat harder to justify as the result of a meticulously-researched virtual world. It suggests that there is some tether that ties together the real world and the virtual world, that the realm in which Hobbes finds himself trapped in not merely ones and zeroes.

He needs this like he needs a hole in his head...

He needs this like he needs a hole in his head…

This is not the first time that Harsh Realm has mooted such a connection. The opening sequence of The Pilot had Hobbes spot Santiago’s emblem scrawled as graffiti on a crumbling wall in Sarajevo. Inga Fossa suggested that Santiago hoped to conquer both realms through a plot to destroy the real world. The first season of the show is populated with mirror imagery and reflection, right down to the reflection in the eucharist during the opening shot of the teaser of Camera Obscura.

However, Reunion makes these connections more explicit and more inexplicable than they have been to this point. Not only does Katherine die in the same instant in two different worlds, but her eyes become a fleeting portal through which Sophie might catch a glimpse of her last fiancé. There are also suggestions of infinite recursion. Reunion opens with Hobbes studying a snow globe, only to end with snow falling on the virtual landscape. Has Hobbes found himself inside what amounts to a gigantic snowglobe? Are worlds connected so simply and so effectively?

The inside looking out...

The inside looking out…

This was one of the aspects the intrigued Chris Carter about working on a show involving virtual reality, that it provided a framework for weaving these sorts of elements into the show:

There are tricks and devices. One of the things that interests me is a kind of Greek approach to this storytelling that you’ve got the Gods above in the real world, if you will, manipulating the characters down below and so I think you can plant visions in Hobbes’ head through computer programming, phantoms. You could, perhaps, bring Sophie back to that world as a phantom. Flashbacks, dreams, all these things present opportunities and devices to tell stories with them together. But I think the distance is what creates part of the power of the series.

As ever, there is a sense that Carter is more interested in the grand mythological underpinnings of Harsh Realm than he is the mechanics of how such a virtual world is intended to work.

It's a stitch-up...

It’s a stitch-up…

Then again, this positions Harsh Realm as a part of Carter’s oeuvre. There is a recurring theme running through the writer’s work that is fascinated with the idea of human connection across impossible distances. On Millennium, the first season defined Frank’s preternatural gift as a surplus of empathy. Much like his obvious inspiration in Will Graham, Frank Black was willing to open himself up to the world and feel unparalleled empathy. Similarly, The X-Files stressed the spiritual connection that seemed to exist between Mulder and Scully.

Even in Carter’s script for The Pilot, the writer seemed to argue that love was a force that could transcend reality itself. Confronting virtual!Sophie, Hobbes appealed to her basic instincts; the show seemed to suggest that the love between Hobbes and Sophie was so strong that even her virtual doppelgänger could feel it in a world that was arguably nothing more than lines of code and processing power. This all ties back to the spirituality of Harsh Realm, which suggests that spiritual connections exist beyond those tethered in rationality.

Sophie's choice...

Sophie’s choice…

Much is made of the connections between the real world and the virtual reality of Harsh Realm. This approach makes a great deal of sense. After all, Carter is interested in using Harsh Realm as an allegorical playground. The virtual world is not something that exists on its own terms or on its own merits. The virtual world is primarily useful as it sheds light and shade on the real world. All of the trappings and all of the plots are simply metaphorical vehicles that allow the writers to comment on certain aspects of the American experience.

In Reunion, the work camp is at once a brutal evocation of the slavery that helped to build contemporary America and also a commentary on the excesses of unchecked capitalism. Tellingly, Hobbes and Pinochio are forcibly abducted and taken to the camp. Nets are thrown over them, as if they are nothing more than animals; beasts of burden who might be useful cogs in the engine of the camp. Slater stops short of issuing them new names, but they are “branded” in their own way; with “bugs” placed in their brain to keep them in line.

Work makes you free.

Work makes you free.

It is not surprising that Hobbes and Pinochio are captured with nets. The net is a powerful piece of imagery associated with slavery in the popular memory. The association undoubtedly predates the hit television miniseries Roots, but that show undoubtedly cemented it in the cultural consciousness. The reality is that most slaves were captured during war and sold as spoils, but the net remains a compelling visual expression of the dehumanising brutality associated with slavery.

Slavery was very much the mechanism by which the economy of the United States developed. When the European settlers arrived, they lacked the resources or manpower to harness the continent to their design; as such, much of the labour was imported by the settlers and worked without the expense of wages or the freedom of self-determination. It is worth noting that the United States is not the only country to build its economy on slavery; most of the developed world owes their economic prosperity to the trade in one form or another.

Fight night...

Fight night…

Of course, slavery is a controversial historical subject. There is legitimate discussion to be had about whether building an economy based on slavery was ultimately economically beneficial to the United States, particularly in the longer term. There is a sense that it is a difficult subject to talk about, because it is tied into a whole host of deeply uncomfortably historical and political issues. As with any nation, the history of the United States is frequently romanticised and idealised; the part that slavery is an essential part of that history makes it uncomfortable.

Harsh Realm repeatedly suggests that General Omar Santiago is playing out his own twisted version of manifest destiny. In Leviathan, he compares himself to the founding fathers as he plots a move westward. In Cincinnati, he comes head to head with a Native American rebellion in Ohio. Reunion makes it clear that his political and economical clout is built on a system of exploitation and slavery. Here, Slater is allowed to run the camp as he sees fit, and it is “subsidised by Santiago for the building of his empire.”

He really took a bath on this investment...

He really took a bath on this investment…

At the same time, Reunion is not just an exploration of the realities that shaped the history and development of the United States as a nation. Slater might keep his subjects as slaves, but it is telling that the episode avoids using the label. Unlike ancient slaveholders, Slater does not attempt to justify his abuse of his workers; he does not claim superiority or divine authority. In fact, Slater creates an elaborate fiction about how the camp ultimately protects and empowers its workers. It might look like slavery, it might feel like slavery; but Slater asserts that it is not slavery.

Instead, Slater asserts that it is a system that keeps the world ordered and safe. Much like Santiago’s propaganda in Inga Fossa, Slater uses a lot of the right words in trying to sell the idea that he is providing a vital and much-needed service. “Everything you feared in Harsh Realm no longer matters because from now on you’re free,” he promises his latest subjects. “All your worries about food water, shelter they’re gone. You live here now. You’ll get everything you need.” The use of the word “free” is ironic, mirroring the use of the term in Santiago’s propaganda.

Bright eyes...

Bright eyes…

In some ways, Slater has become a more ironic character in the years since Reunion was first produced. When issuing bugs to his assembled workers, Slater suggests, “A simple security measure. You respect your freedom, you got nothing to be afraid of.” That is something of a red herring. It is an argument that feels all the more telling in the era of wiretaps and metadata. After all, proponents of the surveillance state argue using similar logic; only those with something to hide are concerned about privacy.

Even in the context of 1999, Slater is not just an update of the classic slaver archetype. The episode avoids too many signifiers associated with classic slavery; there is no whip, no lynching, no torture. The camp is not portrayed as a plantation or estate. It is a place of industry. Slater runs the place like a factory, operating on a scale far larger than that associated with traditional depictions of American slavery. (If anything, it comes quite close to the depiction of prison labour in The Shawshank Redemption.)

Cigar-smoking man...

Cigar-smoking man…

Slater is presented as a stereotypical image of ostentatious American wealth. With his leather jacket, his cigar and his oversized belt buckle, Slater could easily pass as a modern-day millionaire who made his money in oil or farming. Slater is the very embodiment of excessive capitalism, brought to life by a delightfully sleazy performance from Tobin Bell. Bell’s guest appearance on The X-Files had been shot much later than – but was actually broadcast a week prior to – his appearance here.

Reunion makes it quite clear that people are nothing more than commodities to him. He treats his servant as little better than an animal; he is eager to sell Hobbes and Pinochio on for bounty as if they are property; he is willing to wager on a fight to the death between Hobbes and one of his guards. The infirm are hidden from him. “They have no use for the sick,” the doctor explains. “They see you can’t work, they dispose of you.” At the same time, the bugs implanted into his workers are reusable, because that’s just cost-efficient.

"Slater's also not a fan of Obama care..."

“Slater’s also not a fan of Obama care…”

It is not too difficult to read Slater’s camp as a none-too-subtle criticism of modern capitalist excess. Then again, this is perhaps a theme that comes with the genre. Although Carter tends to downplay the science-fiction roots of the show, Harsh Realm is arguably rooted in the same cyberpunk tradition that informed Kill Switch. Frederic Jameson memorably described the cyberpunk genre as “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself.”

Unsurprisingly, William Gibson is a massive influence on the portrayal of the virtual world in Harsh Realm. He and Tom Maddox had considered writing a script for the show, while Carter eager references Gibson’s praise for the show on the DVD commentary of The Pilot. Gibson’s depictions of cyberspace tend to emphasise the commercial component of the region. In fact, Harsh Realm was broadcast only three years before Gibson would abandon the near-future setting of most of his work in Pattern Recognition; a novel released in 2003, but set in 2002.

"You've been terminated..."

“You’ve been terminated…”

It has been argued that these networks and connects have always be cultivated for exploitation by the forces of capitalism. A digital world would ultimately be no different than the real world, where networks of communication and transportation were driven by more than a simple desire for exploration or discovery:

The notion that transportation and communications infrastructures draw the world together into a ‘global village’ is nothing new, and in the United States, the idea has struck particularly fertile ground. In 1849, while arguing for an internal transportation network that would rival maritime trade routes, William Gilpin suggested that a Pacific Railway would expand the field of human activity across national boundaries and blend the vast space from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic to Europe and the Americas “under one international relationship.” Of course, Gilpin’s plan to draw together the nations of the globe with a transportation network under US economic control was more than an attempt at confraternity. Gilpin’s move bespoke other motives: a desire to challenge the political power of Europe, to create a more substantial domestic commercial network, and most importantly, to open markets in China, Japan, Polynesia and South America. The rhetoric of the frontier–whether it is reflected in the pioneer’s flexibility, the railroad’s world-reach, or the universalistic discourse of modern communications technologies–has always been part and parcel with the maintenance and reproduction of a capitalist world system.

Given the tendency to treat the virtual world as a “new frontier”, it makes sense that it would be exploited and harnessed in such a way. Reunion literalises this through a fairly simple allegory. The world of Harsh Realm is a world that has been built and cultivated by mankind; its landscape becomes a twisted reflection of its inhabitants.

Ring the Bell...

Ring the Bell…

Mankind is responsible for manufacturing a world so brutal and horrific that men like Slater can thrive and prosper through the ruthless exploitation of others. Then again, this it myth of the frontier. In The Ontology of Digital Domains, Chris Chester is critical of John Perry Barlow’s description of cyberspace as a “new frontier”:

The envisaged space refers quite uncritically to a heroic history of the westward American expansion. Barlow presents this as a universal good. However, the imagery is quite specific – it is a myth for white male Americans. Far from liberating everyone, the rhetoric builds boundaries across the imaginary landscape, reminiscent of the forgotten victims of the heroic colonialism to which he alludes. The wired will colonise the new frontier; those left behind are the tired and hungry masses.

Harsh Realm suggests that if men were allowed to rebuild the world like a digital computer program, the result would be horrific. Built on aggressive expansion and unchecked capitalism, mankind would simple repeat the mistakes that had been made time and time again in the real world.

His neck's on the chopping block...

His neck’s on the chopping block…

Reunion benefits from the direction of X-Files veteran Chris Carter. In these opening nine episodes of Harsh Realm, Carter very shrewdly draws from a pool of existing talent to help him realise his latest show. Daniel Sackheim brought the comic to Carter’s attention and directed the first two episodes; Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban would write two of the first nine episodes; Carter and Spotnitz had asked Vince Gilligan to be involved, but he “begged it off”; Cliff Bole had directed on both Millennium and The X-Files.

From the outset, the production of Harsh Realm felt much more integrated with The X-Files and Millennium than Millennium had been with The X-Files. Six of the first nine episodes come from X-Files staff writers. Seven of the first nine episodes were credited to directors who had worked on The X-Files in the past. In the admittedly truncated life of Harsh Realm, there was no sense that a strong creative voice had been brought in from outside the Ten Thirteen family; there was no Thomas Wright, no Ted Mann, no Chip Johannessen.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

The fresh writers on staff were both relatively novice; Kein Ausgang was Steven Maeda’s first credit, while Greg Walker’s first credit was only two years earlier. Both staff writers would join the staff on The X-Files after Harsh Realm had been cancelled, meaning that every episode of Harsh Realm was written by somebody who had written or would write an X-Files episode. In a way, it makes a great deal of sense. Carter very clearly envisaged Harsh Realm as a breakout hit; it was not intended to stand on its own in auteurish way like Millennium had in its early days.

There are some problems along the way. As with The Pilot, it seems like the show softened the rough edges off Pinochio just a little bit too early; the character is never convincingly selfish. Early in Reunion, he insists that Hobbes abandon virtual!Katherine. However, it seems inevitable that Pinochio will soften and intervene so that Hobbes might get to spend some time with his dying virtual!mother. Pinochio’s decision to step into the fight arranged by Hobbes feels inevitable rather than heroic or surprising; Pinochio feels like a superficial bad ass rather than an anti-hero.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

Similarly, there is a sense that the production team are having a little difficulty with the science-fiction trappings, with the script having to offer a technobabble solution for why Hobbes can’t simply bring virtual!Katherine to visit Florence so that she might be healed. Pinochio explains, “Florence can only work on what happens in the game. She can’t take away what’s written into the code. She can’t heal cancer that’s in the code.” That makes a certain amount of sense, but surely Florence could set the cancer back to where it was in 1995; in remission?

There are obvious story reasons why Hobbes can’t simply bring virtual!Katherine to be magically healed, but it does feel like Harsh Realm is reaching a point where it has to start contorting in order to explain why its magical elements can satisfy some plot requirements and not other. This is a problem that faced quite a few of the Star Trek spin-offs, and it would have been interesting to see if the production team got a bit more adept at handling it as the show went along. In Reunion, the exposition feels a little clunky.

No new writers wanted.

No new writers wanted.

This is also the last appearance of Sophie. Perhaps learning from the problems with Catherine Black in Millennium, the production team opted to keep Samantha Mathis as a recurring guest star rather than a regular. This is probably for the best; having to constantly cut back to her search for her fiancé could get tiring. At the same time, though, it feels like she is entirely absent from the rest of the season. It seems like there must have been something of interest that the production team could write for Sophie over the course of the next four episodes.

Sophie feels like a character who could have become problematic and troublesome had the show continued. Certainly, the opening nine episodes suggest that the production team are not entirely sure how she fits within the larger picture of the season. She is very much an aspirational object for Hobbes, but she seems to have very little agency on her own terms. Leviathan made it clear that Sophie was still looking for the love of her life, but that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in the first stretch of the season. Then again, it is far too early to make an judgements.

Shining light on it...

Shining light on it…

Nevertheless, Reunion is a solid first season episode of a new show that manages to integrate quite neatly with the themes of the show around it.

You might be interested in our reviews of Harsh Realm:

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