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Harsh Realm – Manus Domini (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.

Manus Domini continues the influx of assistance from the writing staff on The X-Files, with John Shiban contributing a script to the first season of Harsh Realm.

Manus Domini is a very strange episode. In a way, it feels more keenly aligned with the sensibilities of Chris Carter than those of John Shiban. It is the most overtly religious episode from the short run of Harsh Realm, with characters contemplating faith and spirituality in an otherwise cruel world. It is the logical continuation of themes seeded and developed across the rest of the season, bringing the religious subtext of the show to the fore so that it might be acknowledged and explored.

Florence in the machine...

Florence in the machine…

To be fair, there are elements that fit comfortably within Shiban’s oeuvre. Shiban is very much a fan of classic horror tropes, so it makes sense that his script should feature a monstrous supporting character whose complete moral decay is symbolised through grotesque facial deformities. (The element recurs in Camera Obscura, but is not as pronounced as it in this episode.) There are elements of Manus Domini that feel like they might have been lifted from classic seventies horror.

Nevertheless, Manus Domini is defined by its religious components, making it clear that the show retains the same core moral perspective that runs through Carter’s work; there is a recurring sense that faith and spirituality are essential to survive and endure in an increasingly faithless world.

A literal mine field...

A literal mine field…

Both Three Percenters and Manus Domini features conventional nuclear families under siege. The teaser for Three Percenters finds a small family under attack by a programming glitch that has taken root of a small community within the game. Manus Domini features a similar family that lures Florence into a trap so that they might sell out the Sisters, a religious organisation that Santiago hopes to eradicate so that he might cement his control over the virtual world.

Over the course of Manus Domini, the father of this nuclear family is revealed to be a treacherous and untrustworthy coward. As an act of self-preservation, he eagerly sells his son into the care of a deformed prophet who demands payment for his services. The patriarch betrays his own family in a desperate bid to stay afloat just a little bit longer. In a way, this set-up feels very familiar; it recalls the sacrifices made by the conspirators in Two Fathers and One Son, trading family for power.

Cruz control...

Cruz control…

One of the big recurring themes of Chris Carter’s work is the idea that paternal betrayal. This is reflected in both the “sins of the father” motif that runs through The X-Files, but also in the way that Frank Black struggles to protect his daughter in a way that modern society no longer seems to protect children in Millennium. There are all manner of smaller examples that might be found in his individual scripts; the exploitation of children in Red Museum or the abuse perpetrated by Joe Bangs in The Well-Worn Lock.

There are a lot of ways in which this recurring theme might be interpreted. Certainly, the sense of yearning towards traditional family values – and the sense of betrayal felt by those who abuse or undermine those values – suggests a latent conservatism. After all, it has been suggested that the first season of Millennium was pushing wholesome family values “as overtly as Touched by an Angel.” This sense is reinforced by Carter’s preference for relatively chaste and aspirational romantic plot threads in his work.

A man with no name. Okay, a man with a name. But he shares the name.

A man with no name.
Okay, a man with a name.
But he shares the name.

As James Lyons notes in Selling Seattle, the initial set-up of Millennium treated the middle-class family as an aspirational object under siege from a harsh and uncaring world:

Millennium did not critique the institution of the middle-class family – rather it used it as a motif of fragility in a precarious world. Arriving ten years later, Millennium was the product of a period which post-dated the Republican zeal for conservative ‘family values’, yet retained an investment in the talismanic status of the middle-class family.

Coupled with the moral panic and sexual deviance running through the first season of Millennium, it seems fair to suggest that Carter’s work does have a certain conservative moral bent to it.

Sister, Sister.

Sister, Sister.

However, it is not quite as simple as all that. Millennium might suggest that the nuclear family is under siege from an increasingly violent and apathetic world, but his work also repeatedly suggests that the greatest threats come from inside the family unit. It is William Mulder who chooses to sacrifice Samantha, just like all the other conspirators willingly hand over their (mostly female) relatives to the aliens in order to assure their own survival. Even in Millennium, it seems like threats are as likely to come from inside safe spaces in episodes like Weeds or Sacrament.

This is arguably an extension of Carter’s repeated frustration with and mistrust of authority. Carter came of age during Watergate and Vietnam; it is no wonder that his work is engaged with the betrayal of an entire generation by their elders. Fox Mulder and Frank Black both have damaged relationships with their fathers, and a recurring motif throughout The X-Files is the sense that Mulder is desperately searching for a father figure; whether in Deep Throat, William Mulder, or even the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

"I'm watchin' you..."

“I’m watchin’ you…”

Asked about his own personal politics, Carter is fairly even-handed. He seems to suggest that descriptions like “left” and “right” are outdated for the current political climate. In one interview, he reflected:

I think that really — almost any affiliation now is meaningless. You know, it just seems to me that the parties have come so — they’ve both become so centrist, have moved so far to the center that they’re almost … interchangeable. Bill Clinton is very Republican. In some ways.

It is difficult to ascribe a particular political viewpoint to his work. Carter’s output is both liberal and conservative, often in the same instant. As with a lot of personal politics, there is room for contradiction and inconsistency.

Bringing it to heel...

Fade out…

Still, Manus Domini returns to the recurring Chris Carter image of a father who would sell out his own child in order to secure his position. As with Leviathan, there is a sense that Manus Domini is engaged with very gendered depictions of power and authority. Inga Fossa contrasted the aggressive power of Omar Santiago with the sexual power of Inga Fossa; here, masculine power is associated with death and violence while feminine power is tied to life and healing. There is a very gendered portrayal of power within Manus Domini.

The Sisters represent a clear threat to Santiago, existing in opposition to him. The Sisters bestow life, while Santiago takes it away. The mine field is an open wound on the surface of this virtual world, and it is telling that the male characters are the ones who have trouble navigating it. In contrast, the Sisters are able to see and deal with the wounds; Florence navigates the minefield without trouble, while the Sisters heal the damage inflicted upon Pinochio by the minefield.

Enemy mine...

Enemy mine…

There is something a little uncomfortable with how Harsh Realm treats these gendered notions of power and authority. It is one thing to criticise entrenched masculine authority; it is another to suggest that “sexuality” and “purity” are traits that are inherently female. Perhaps this discomfort stems from the casting of the show; the major female characters are all much less prominent than their male counterparts, and so are less well-defined. Florence, Sophie and Inga Fossa can be little more than archetypes in the space afforded to them.

These gendered assumptions bleed through into the show’s spirituality. In his opening monologue, Hobbes described the virtual realm as “a world that looks and feels like our own but was created not by God, but by man.” Episodes like Inga Fossa and Manus Domini suggest that Hobbes’ choice of word is deliberate; he does not take “man” to mean “humankind”, but instead to mean “male.” The virtual world of Harsh Realm is presented as a place that alternates between purgatory and hell, but that is largely due to the fact that it is a world made by men.

Let us prey...

Let us prey…

The religious and spiritual subtexts of the episode are very clearly rooted in gender. Manus Domini presents two contrasting glimpses of the divine. The travelling seer is very much a religious archetype, but he is presented as grotesque and deformed. It is worth noting that Camera Obscura presents another deformed “man of God”, perhaps serving as a criticism of the power that religious institutions have traditionally entrusted to male authority. (The fact that the seer asks for a young boy as payment reinforces this uncomfortable subtext.)

However, the travelling seer is just one face of the divine in Manus Domini. He is contrasted with the Sisters, who charge no price for the use of their power. In fact, the climax of Manus Domini finds on of the Sisters sacrificing herself for a relative stranger. If male divine authority is rooted in something grotesque and exploitative, then feminine divine authority is invested in something that bestows life and heals trauma. The Sisters are very much the embodiment of pious virtue.

Sisters of mercy...

Sisters of mercy…

Manus Domini is less than subtle in its religious leanings. “Who gave her this power?” Hobbes monologues of Florence. “Some programmer? For what purpose? Or could it be, even in the unreality of this strange world there exists a higher power? One whose call only Florence can hear.” Later he continues, “As I lay in that field, feeling life slip away from me I became aware of a presence. A presence to whom I owe my survival and to whom Pinocchio would come to owe something far greater.”

Harsh Realm arrived at a point where Chris Carter was really embracing the religious and spiritual subtext of his work. The X-Files had been a show about faith in the nineties from the moment that the “I Want to Believe” poster came into shot, and episodes like Red Museum only reinforced that. However, as the new millennium arrived, Carter became more comfortable making those elements explicit. What had been a recurring thread was now pushed into focus throughout his work.

Heal thyself...

Heal thyself…

His last script for Millennium was an appeal to faith in Seven and One. The three-parter bridging the sixth and seventh seasons of The X-Files – BiogenesisThe Seventh ExtinctionThe Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati – was steeped in religious imagery. Closure would reveal the fate of Samantha Mulder in a very spiritual manner. In a way, Harsh Realm was the most overtly religious of Carter’s work from this phase of his career; Leviathan suggested that the moral decay of the virtual world was rooted in fact that it was a “godless” realm.

There is an awkwardness to Manus Domini which makes the religious elements seem particularly cringe-worthy. Manus Domini is not a well-written piece of television. This is perhaps most explicit when the script devotes extended sequences to matters of belief and divinity, but it is also evident in other aspects of the story. The bulk of Manus Domini is narrated by Hobbes through a letter that he is writing to Sophie. Even leaving aside the pointlessness of the framing sequence, this means that Manus Domini is dominated by awkward purple prose.

Bountiful...

Bountiful…

This means that any potentially powerful insight is lost amid overly emotive prose and heavy-handed navel gazing. “Harsh Realm is a faithless world, one where God is not believed to exist,” Hobbes remarks. “And yet, how else to explain my survival? The faith that sustained Florence and the healers was a threat a silent challenge to those who preached faithlessness. So they were to be hunted down destroyed by those who built their empire on fear.” There are more effective ways to communicate themes like that than having your lead actor narrate them.

Then again, there is a sense that the treatment of faith in Harsh Realm (as with the treatment of faith in Millennium or The X-Files) has dated rather poorly. Chris Carter’s shows seem to romanticise religious devotion, admiring the idea of unquestioning belief. This makes a great deal of sense given the context of the show; Carter was speaking to a generation that grew up apathetic in the nineties, desperate to believe in something. Unfortunately, the theme becomes a lot more uncomfortable in the context of the War on Terror.

The write stuff...

The write stuff…

This is quite disappointing. In some respects, Harsh Realm was actually quite prescient. After all, Camera Obscura will reveal that the post-apocalyptic atmosphere is a result of a terrorist attack on New York City. More than that, the idea of a total war that is not confined to a clearly delineated battlefield is very much in line with the twenty-first century. (The show’s portrayal of Santiago’s propaganda also prefigures a lot of War on Terror rhetoric.) Despite – of perhaps because – of all that, the recurring religious element of the show feels deeply uncomfortable.

Hobbes’ faith seems almost militant. Hobbes’ monologue suggests that the evil of Santiago’s regime is not rooted in any of the atrocities that it commits or its authoritarianism; instead, Hobbes seems to imply that Santiago’s lack of faith is what defines his army as immoral and corrupt. Santiago’s greatest sin is not genocide or war, it is hubris. Manus Domini suggests that Santiago has committed blasphemy by setting himself up as God. “There is no higher power than Santiago,” Cruz advises Hobbes. Santiago is a heretic.

Step on it...

Step on it…

The first season of Harsh Realm repeatedly suggests that Hobbes is a Christ-like figure who has arrived to preach a message of hope to the masses of the virtual world; it seems that message is not purely humanist, but is steeped in Christian imagery and iconography. Leviathan had him restore faith to a virtual character; Three Percenters featured a version of Hobbes walking on water; The Pilot and Camera Obscura bookend the series with teasers featuring collapsed churches as a comment on godlessness in the world.

Perhaps all of this would work better if the script were tighter. There are quite a few moments in Manus Domini where the episode crosses over into camp; the earnestness of the religious dialogue contrasts with the cheesiness of the post-apocalyptic setting. This is not an episode that does understated, with Pinochio raging at the heavens in frustration as he limps through a minefield. “What are you putting me through?!” he demands. “Why are you doing this to me?!” It is just not an episode that supports profound meditations on life and divinity.

I like Mike...

I like Mike…

One of the episode’s plot threads features Pinochio losing his leg. The problem is that the audience is savvy enough to realise that Pinochio is not going to spend the rest of the show wandering around on one leg; from the moment Pinochio first realises that he is missing a limb, the audience is awaiting the convenient deus ex machina that will handily reset the character so that the cast and crew can get back to the show next week and pretend that this never happened.

The shift from Inga Fossa to Kein Ausgang had made it quite clear that Harsh Realm was not going to be a serialised show. The episodes following Kein Ausgang had reinforced that the show was going to be quite episodic in structure. As such, it seemed highly unlikely that the show was going to do something as dramatic as to cripple one of its leading characters, particularly in the context of an episode that does not seem to be tied particularly closely to the larger arc of the season. (Santiago himself does not even appear.)

Inside her head...

Inside her head…

So it seems inevitable that Pinochio will retain the use of both of his legs by the end of the episode. It is simply a question of how the episode plans to justify that resolution to the plot. Manus Domini feels quite lazy in this regard; a character who never appeared before this point conveniently sacrifices herself so that Pinochio can retain both of his legs. It is a cop-out ending, but it is a particularly obvious cop-out. The sacrifice is more inevitable than moving, its emotional impact blunted by the fact that any literate viewer knows what is coming long before the characters.

Manus Domini is also notable for making an effort at world-building despite the episodic nature of the story. The first season of Harsh Realm devoted its first three episodes to establishing the status quo and the major players. Since then, it seems like Hobbes and Pinochio have been wandering from one standalone adventure to the next. Manus Domini at least fills out some back story on Florence and introduces the Sisters, even if it doesn’t really do anything with them.

Going against the grain...

Going against the grain…

As ever, it feels like there was a lot of wasted potential in Harsh Realm. The pacing of the first nine episodes suggests that the production team were taking the first season for granted, that there was no rush to hit various plot points because there would be time for that in the future. It feels like the world of Harsh Realm has been barely defined, and that the production team have not even been afforded the time necessary to introduce all the trapping of the show, let alone the opportunity to do anything with them.

Manus Domini is a mess of an episode, a heavy-handed exploration of the religious themes running through the show. It is clumsy and awkward, serving as something of a cautionary tale. Again, it is worth stressing that these are only first season episodes; they serve as experiments to held guide the show in what it should or should not be doing. Unfortunately, it seems like Manus Domini is more of the latter than the former.

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