How do you craft an origin story when its very storytelling tropes have become so well-worn that you can’t do them without coming off as lazy—or worse yet, unimaginative?
If you’re the team behind Moon Knight, you opt to do it five episodes into that same-titled series. Oh, and rather than neatly present said origin story, you decide instead to fracture it and encase it in a mind-bending scenario. And you have to give it to the show, the gamble pays off. As a tight-bottle episode of sorts, this visit to a psychological minefield of a psych ward was a great way to help color in some of Marc and Steven’s backstory all while setting us up for what promises to be a thrilling climactic third act.
But maybe we should start with the first bombshell dropped at the top of the episode: “I’m afraid you’re actually quite dead.” No other way around it. Yes, our dashing hero was shot and he finds himself now in the after life. Well, not quite, as Taweret (the hippo goddess who freaked us all out last week) explains: an after life. There are many and Steven and Marc (“So are you two like twins?” “Well, sort of…”) have found themselves in the realm of the Duat, the Egyptian underworld.
Now, why it looks like a psych ward (they couldn’t handle what it actually looks like) is simple: “We’re insane,” Marc deadpans.
As a narrative conceit, though, squarely placing Marc and Steven in a psych ward where their memories are stored and where they must wrestle with their shared pain and shame if they hope to be returned to the land of the living in time to stop Harrow and save Layla, is actually quite ingenious. Is it a narrative shortcut to do an origins story via trauma’s greatest hits? For sure. But given the show’s interest (however slight) in mental health and the ways we develop coping mechanisms to grapple with what we’d rather forget, it’s no surprise to have Moon Knight become a splintered, Nolan-esque psychological drama.
This setup also meant we covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. A brother’s death! A rancorous mother! A willful decision to dissociate! A mercenary hit gone wrong! An Egyptian god’s faustian bargain! A shiva that finally breaks our hero’s tenuous grasp on his divided reality! A fight with sandy zombies! And in the end, a heartbreaking self-sacrifice!
And so, while at a narrative level we were being given the missing puzzle pieces that allow us to have a complete picture of who Marc (and, more to the point, who Steven) is, what worked best for me was the way the psych ward conceit mixed in with the weighing of the heart mythology allowed the show to bring its two main thematic concerns together. Namely: How can we do good when we’re broken?
Moon Knight, in between Harrow’s philosophical musings about Ammit and Marc’s tortured relationship with Khonshu and Steven, has paved a story for itself that hinges on our notions of justice and ties it to issues of mental health. Marc, as we learn, was horribly scarred by his brother’s death and his mother’s aggrieved anger. Is that what made him such a perfect avatar for Khonshu? It was his “broken mind” which so fascinated the God, after all. This brings up questions about why it may feel apt to have someone so scarred be a welcome “fist of vengeance.” Does justice, as Khonshu conceives it, require someone who’s neutered himself from his own emotions? What might it look like if/when Marc finds himself whole and reunites with Khonshu? Can healing lead to a more just kind of justice?
The answers likely lay ahead. In the meantime let’s find some requisite peace in the field of reeds where a lulling tune lures us into thinking we’ve come, as the song that plays at the end suggests, to the home we know on the other side of the sun. Til then!
- Just as I praised F. Murray Abraham’s voice work for Khonshu, I should set aside some time to stress how refreshing it was getting Antonia Salib’s Taweret in the mix. For a show that’s continued to toe the line between a dour psycho-mythological drama and an outright comedy, it was lovely to have her dulcet voice bring Taweret to life and offer us some much welcome levity. There’s a brief moment when Taweret licks her lips as she readies herself to announce something to Marc and Steven that has not left my mind since I saw it.
- Speaking of welcome levity. This episode may have leaned heavily into dour family drama/trauma but it was also, unsurprisingly, a really funny take on the buddy comedy. Isaac, of course, volleys quite well with himself (and with Salib) but it was lovely watching Steven and Marc really wrestling with who they are to one another before, well, we found out exactly the answer to such a question.
- Okay, for the most part, Isaac Parent Trap-ping throughout works really well; it helps that Marc and Steven are rarely actually physically interacting. Except for that one punch which…the less we talk about it, the better (read: it was the one moment that really took me out).
- The return of Tomb Buster! It makes sense why we were shown that one clip a few episodes ago; it wasn’t just a chance for the Moon Knight crew to craft a loving spoof; we were being set up for the gut-punch of a twist at the heart of this episode.
- So perhaps it’s because we were shuttling between the psych ward and, well, everywhere else, but I think we finally need to talk about how dark the show is? Like, not “the Wayne parents are getting killed yet again” dark but actually dark. I know it comes with the territory; we’re in caves and in tombs and in deserts in the night and in oppressively wood-paneled houses, but surely there are ways of lighting those spaces so I don’t struggle trying to figure out what is happening? I’ve coughed up those moments to my own home set-up (which, honestly, may well be the case) but it felt particularly distracting in this episode during that one scene. You know the one. Maybe that’s why I so liked the psych ward scenes; I didn’t have to squint to enjoy them.