This is it. The gun episode. On the shortlist of “must-see,” “quintessential” or “most-remembered” episodes of the show, “Deadly Force” is on it. We pretty much all agree that it’s a prime example of how to handle a big morality story in a mature way, focusing on a real issue that affects children and adults, and leaving out the abstract. But does that make it an actual, like, good episode of television? Brace yourselves, we’ve got a hard nut to crack here.
This being a half-superhero show, we of course open with another weekly heist. This time, it’s during a Xanatos Industries weapons sale on a shipyard. Owen’s there in Xanatos’s incarceration-induced absence, and while he’s no David Fucking Xanatos, he still has quite the moves and badassery to fight back.
Despite a valiant effort—and, seriously, Owen’s “stoic nerdy badass” shtick is a really cool surprise—the long-haired beauties get away with the weapons.
Meanwhile, the clan does their “yawn to epic swelling music” schtick, but Broadway darts off immediately without even saying more than a word. He’s discovered movies, it seems, and his new favorite is a cowboy movie called Showdown. You know it’s a big deal because he’s skipping dinner first (shouldn’t it be breakfast for them?) More importantly, Lex summarizes the movie as nothing more than “Cowboys, horses, guns.”
Hudson notes that it’s “hard to tell what’s real and what’s not” with all the movies, TV and video games, which is not at all something we’ve heard before, nope, not at all.
Meanwhile again, Elisa is at the police department complaining to Chief Maria Chavez about the heist in the opening, and that she “knows it was Dracon.” The weapons he stole were a crate of non-projectile weapon prototypes from Xanatos—Elisa, being the clever de-tec-tive she is, figures, “You mean like lasers?”
Owen barges in, because you can totally just do that in police chiefs’ offices, and clarifies that it’s “an invisible particle beam,” and “the laser is just for aiming.” Because this is the 90s, and a frickin’ laser beam just wouldn’t be enough. The details don’t really matter, though; Elisa just wants to do her job, even if Dracon’s cash and connections make him as bulletproof as La Roux.
Meanwhile the third, Broadway is busy watching Showdown in a storage area above the cinema filled with endless bags of popped popcorn, which makes absolutely zero sense.
Meanwhile 4: The Reckoning, Elisa ambushes Dracon in public to talk to him about the heist. It makes no sense that Dracon is smart enough to cover his tracks, though, because his “alibi” is that he’s “with these guys doing the town” (what?), he practically confesses to all the crimes right then and there just to relay that there’s nothing she can do about it, and acts like a total creeper by calling her “sugar.”
Too bad cops can’t just, like, arrest people for being smug douchebags. Elisa sure as hell wants to.
Meanwhile 2000, Broadway finishes Showdown, which features numerous stereotypical clips of Cool Western Gun Moves—spinning, shooting, crazy close-ups, everything you expect. And, well, the guns do look pretty damn cool, gotta admit. Broadway feels the same way.
Meanwhile vs. Jason, Elisa comes home, and we get a very long take of a close shot of her gun belt. It’s a cool shot, actually, as the camera pans across the animated cell to follow the belt as she hangs it up in a creepy, off-balance way unlike most things you’d see in traditional animation.
Also worth noting is that we meet Cagney. Because this is the internet, so here’s a cat.
These two intercut sequences finally collide as Broadway shows up in Elisa’s living room without warning. She treats it like a common occurrence, so that probably means she can never chill in her underwear and eat ice cream in the living room anymore (oh, the sacrifices we make for friends.) She starts making a couple of late night steaks for Broadway, while he’s busy playing cowboys with himself like a child. And I don’t mean that as insult; he’s quite literally playing around like we all did as kids after seeing cool action movies. This is an incredibly important little detail, but it’ll have to wait a second before we can address it—because he’s spotted something even better than an imaginary gun. It’s
Chekhov’s Elisa’s real, actual, super-cool mega-badass gun. This is, like, the best toy anyone could ever get! This is the real thing! COWBOYS USE THIS SHIT!
I have to break out of the moment to say this: I hate the music here. When Broadway is playing with the gun just before he shoots it, the show does its typical loud swelling orchestral thing. The overly epic music at all times is just a part of the nature of the show, and by eight episodes in, I think we’ve mostly gotten used to it. But, while I get that Broadway playing with the gun is intended to be portrayed as a bad thing even before it goes off, this is a moment where subtlety is key.
Case in point: what happens when it actually goes off. Because this here?
This is utterly fantastic mise-en-scene. The emptiness. The stillness. That everything is quiet except for the sound of the sizzling steaks. Broadway’s line, “My bad…hope I didn’t break anything,” happens right before we see this shot, but it’s still chilling because it’s played against silence. We know what just happened, even if he doesn’t. Even as kids, it’s obvious, just from this shit. It’s terrifying, and this coupled with a reaction from Broadway would be enough for us to get it. But then the show goes a step further…
This shot isn’t nearly as “beautiful” (in a sense) as the empty one before, but it’s clearly not meant to be. This is brutal. And, look, this screencap alone, to anyone who’s not seeing it in context—it’s not a huge deal, I suppose. It’s not particularly gory. But it’s the lack of flourish that delivers the impact; like Elisa as we’ve gotten to know her as a character, what you see is what you get. She’s lying on the ground bleeding. There’s nothing else to it. And it’s a haunting way to end the act break (and a more effective place to have the music swelling, though even then I’d argue it’s still too much.)
Broadway takes her to a hospital and leaves her on a stretcher outside, but not before realizing the weight of the situation.
Broadway doesn’t return to the clan for sunrise, where Owen delivers the news of Elisa’s state—emphasizing that they’re not sure she’ll live—just before they all turn to stone. It’s an effective use of the “sudden stone” element, considering Goliath’s inability to even aptly react only ups the melodrama.
During the day, Dracon and his friends practice with the
lasers invisible particle whatevers, laughing about Elisa’s shooting and how it’s “dangerous to leave your gun lying around” because they’re dicks.
That night, the gargs, sans Broadway who’s off crying, show up and ask Owen for information. He understandably assumes it had to do with Elisa’s investigation into Dracon (again, why is this guy so untouchable? He even has a motive for crimes he didn’t commit!) In any case, that Owen is so open to the gargoyles is a really cool side of the character, even if he’s cold about it. Much like Xanatos, he isn’t out to be vengeful or cruel; he might not care about Elisa, but surely he can sympathize with the plight, as long as it doesn’t affect his and Xanatos’s ends. Owen gets significantly fleshed out this week, even if it’s nothing more than solidifying him as a protege of Xanatos.
Goliath visits Elisa through the window in the hospital, where the doctor is talking to Elisa’s impressively multicultural family about how she “survived 10 hours of surgery, but the next 12 are crucial.” The fact is, the news isn’t good and it’s touch and go. Her brother is optimistic, but her mother—voiced by the awesome Nichelle Nichols—simply says, “We can pray, Peter. We can pray.” Wowsers.
This might be a good place to show off some of the hospital shots that are intercut throughout this episode:
Look at that needle, guys. LOOK. AT. THAT. GIGANTIC. FUCKING. NEEDLE. And she’s actually being defibrillated on screen! The show is careful to do these in wide off-center shots so we aren’t making kids see hospital horror straight-on, but we see enough. These are mostly quick sequences, but they are more visceral and brutal than anything we’ve seen on the show so far. It underlays the entire episode, even when it just becomes typical action. Which it does, starting from about here (and is much less interesting from here on out.)
Chief Maria Chavez shows up and explains she thinks it was Tony Dracon’s men who broke in and shot Elisa with her own gun (noting the prints were too badly smudged to “even look human,” a clever detail.) Goliath overhears that, and is of course going to avenge his friend. At the same time, Broadway spots a guy in the park using one of the super-90s plasma weapons to mug someone, and freaks out about it: “A new way to kill people?!” It’s redundant to sing the praises of the voice cast, because they’re pretty much all the best voice actors ever, but Bill Fagerbakke shines in the episode, turning in an unexpectedly frightening performance during Broadway’s bought of rage.
While the last two episodes have given pathos to the other members of the comedic trio by giving them vendettas—Lex to The Pack and Brooklyn to Demona—Broadway’s is a little more abstract. His guilt has descended into anger that something that can kill so easily exists. Though he’s taking it out on Dracon now, after finding out these new guns have come from him.
Chavez (with the as-yet-unnamed Matt, in his first appearance) is tailing Dracon’s men, with Goliath tailing them; from the air, he spots that Dracon’s men made a switcheroo that Chavez didn’t notice. He follows them to Dracon, where Broadway also arrives, having interrogated Dracon’s Dragon, Glasses. Goliath, so focused on the goal, honest-to-god says, “I don’t care why you’re here, help me find Elisa’s shooter!” Which is funny and terrible all at the same time. Broadway can’t even react before a big, awesomely animated fight sequence breaks out.
Goliath, in a moment truly proving how much he has grown to care for Elisa in this short time, nearly kills Dracon to avenge her, harkening back to the pilot. Broadway stops him, of course, and confesses to shooting Elisa, to Goliath’s dismay. After leaving Dracon wrapped in metal with evidence linking them to the stolen weapons, Owen shows up. It turns out he was buying all the guns back from Dracon anyway, making things right. Of course, Goliath, having almost been killed by these ultra-particle laser things, wants them gone forever. So he MELTS THEM ALL DOWN.
Goliath refers to Elisa as a “sick friend,” which prompts Broadway to ask, “You mean, Elisa isn’t dead?” This is a wonderful underscore for Broadway’s arc here—he wasn’t feeling guilty for shooting Elisa, he was feeling guilty for killing her. This explains his utter rage, earlier; he wasn’t just feeling guilty about the mistake. He was angry that he had access to a device that could so easily kill her in one shot by accident.
When Broadway goes to see Elisa, he of course apologizes profusely and promises to never touch a gun again. This infers a lot about Broadway; like we saw when he first entered Elisa’s apartment, he’s a child. He’s a grown gargoyle, but he’s still in it all for the food and fun, with no larger concept of bigger things. At least, he wasn’t at the beginning of the episode. He went through hell this week, even if most of it was internally. His initial reaction isn’t that he should be more responsible, though, it’s that he should stay away from the evil monster that did this. And while I have to admit that this isn’t the best lesson for gun protection overall, it’s a very good one for children.
But the episode doesn’t leave it at that. Elisa still takes half the blame; she left her gun out in the open, after all. She’s allowed to have it because she’s a cop, but she has to be responsible. That’s the difference between the two: Broadway is a child, Elisa is the responsible adult. Both have to live in a world with guns, whether they believe them to be horrible monsters like Broadway or a means of defense like Elisa. But both have to be responsible in their own ways; Broadway by staying away from them because he isn’t capable enough to use them, and Elisa by making sure she keeps hers in a safe place and uses it right.
One other thought from this episode, though, comes from the gun trouble spawning from Broadway’s obsession with Showdown. It’s something of a repeat of a big lesson from “The Thrill of the Hunt,” but tweaked to be less about believing everything you see on the screen and more about imitating it. Granted, these are two relatively different lessons, but “The Thrill of the Hunt” was so broad about its view of television that “Deadly Force” deems it sort of irrelevant. “Hunt” had the advantage of coming first, but this is simply a stronger representation of the consequences of being reckless and getting invested in TV and movies in the wrong way. Seeing someone get accidentally shot and almost die is way more effective than seeing a bunch of animal-themed stuntmen with bad hairstyles doing backflips.
But anyway, even at that, calling this a “quintessential” episode of Gargoyles is not right. It’s actually a pretty standard one. The Dracon plotline is yawn-worthy, the pacing is really off-kilter in the second half among all the intercuts, and the latter quarter of the episode is more about meeting the action filler quota than making the story effective. It’s not even close to the moral grayness or cynical commentary on the darkness in life and humanity of the previous episodes. “Be careful with guns.” It’s super super simple.
What makes “Deadly Force” stand out amongst its brethren, though, is that simplicity and straightforwardness. This could have easily been an episode where Broadway accidentally pricks Elisa with some magical talisman that traps her in a neverending sleep. They’d find a way to break the spell, and Broadway would learn to be careful with dangerous things. It’s a basic message, right? But throwing in an actual gun, and frightening viewers with Elisa bleeding on the floor or going through cardiac arrest, injects a shock factor. And I won’t deny that there’s a superficial reasoning there; the shock factor does get everyone to remember this episode. But you could argue that this could easily and more artfully be done in allegory, considering the show already has medieval fantasy and robots and magic anyway, right?
The thing is, as massive a part of literature and art as allegory is, there are times where it only clouds the story that needs to be told. Gargoyles has used symbolism and allegory adeptly thus far, and I love it for that. But there are cases when the point is to hit you as close to home as it hits the characters. We’re supposed to feel as horrified as Broadway, but we don’t live in a world where we get grief from spell casting—here, we have schools with metal detectors because school shootings are so rampant. You could argue that a better writer could make even the most fantastic still hit close to home, perhaps, but why is it necessary when this does exactly what it intends?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show that used fantasy and horror as clear allegories for high school and growing up, but it was the visceral, realistic and magicless depiction of death it presented in “The Body” that is regarded as one of the best episodes of television ever made. Sometimes relating to what we feel, and reminding us that other people in the world are as scared or confused as we are, is the best way to present a point. That’s what Gargoyles attempts to do in “Deadly Force,” and even in spite of the episode’s problems, it succeeds.
Even more now than in 1994, we in America are caught in a huge, complicated web of fear, anger and tension over gun violence, and no matter what side you’re on, it’s impossible to have the discussion without it hitting close to home in one way or another. “Deadly Force” focuses on those feelings of impossible frustration, but doesn’t get too preachy about it and stays away from getting political. That, ultimately, is why it all works. Elisa has a gun because she’s a cop. Broadway shouldn’t have a gun because he’s essentially a child. The bad guys shouldn’t have super-guns because they’re bad guys. The show avoids hitting the gray area that makes the gun control debate so volatile, but it does hit the nail on the head with the point it’s trying to make: be responsible with whatever choice you make, and sometimes you’ll have to compromise. After all, no one was without fault—Elisa, Broadway, Xanatos, Owen, Dracon, even the makers of Showdown—everyone contributed to the gun violence directly and indirectly. That’s not the deep, contemplative character-based painting we’re used to from this show so far, but it’s none-the-less a powerful one, especially for kids who don’t care about the politics behind it; they just don’t want to see their loved ones get killed for no reason. It’s not going to go away, but it’s up to us to take steps to stay safe and keep it from happening as often as it does.
Next week: Something to do with a famous writer or something.