Well, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Or Jersey City, I should say.
Last week’s episode teased a visit to Karachi, and while I wasn’t 100-percent convinced it would happen, the show proved me wrong. And so here we are for the majority of this episode, in Pakistan’s largest city and one of its buzziest, brightest, and busiest. Yet somehow, this installment largely felt quieter and more contemplative than those that preceded it.
Kamala (Iman Vellani) and her mom arrive in Karachi, still a little on the outs over how Kamala “ruined” her brother Aamir’s wedding. But their relationship isn’t the tensest mother-daughter one in the episode. That honor goes to Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), Kamala’s mom, and her mother, Sana (Samina Ahmed). From the moment Sana greets her daughter at the airport (and if you think that looked chaotic, trust me, Pakistani airports are 10 times more chaotic in reality), you know that there is going to be awkwardness. Like all good Pakistani mothers, Nani follows up a warm greeting to her daughter with some criticism to bring Muneeba down a peg or two (“your skin is so dry”).
After driving through the streets of Karachi, Kamala arrives at her grandmother’s house, a gated property that is huge. We know from last week’s episode that when Muneeba and Yusuf arrived in America, they found things hard, with Yusuf (Mohan Kapur) “working very long hours for very little money.” But in Pakistan, Muneeba is clearly from a comfortable, if not wealthy, middle-class background, or perhaps even upper class, given that Kamala’s cousins take the group out to the “club” (that most British and colonial of things) for lunch. There’s a whole essay to be written about class and status and wealth, and how immigrants often experience a change in all of these when they move to a new country, but this is probably not the place for it.
Kamala stumbles across what appears to be Nani’s art room, full of paintings Sana has done, as well as newspaper clippings and photographs on the wall referring to Partition and floods in Ferozepur, a border town. This room is a memory vault of sorts. Nani tells Kamala that she paints because “we lost so much during Partition. And I thought the only way I can hold onto what we had lost was to create it myself.” The losses of Partition and the significance of seemingly small symbols are a big theme of this episode, which is really focused on how your history and the loss of it has long-term and damaging effects—but can also be a motivator.
Nani then blithely confirms that Kamala is a Djinn, and when Kamala asks how she can be so casual, Nani’s answer is that Kamala is focusing on the wrong thing, that “it’s just genetics.” I’m not quite sure Nani is right here. I think it is a big deal if someone tells you you’re a Djinn, but she’s not the only one who is playing fast and loose with Djinn mythology this episode. More on that later.
After a brief nap, filled with some nightmares where Kamala relives the criticism thrown at Ms. Marvel back home, she’s off into the city. One super spicy lunch and quick (and not very informative) historical tour of the city later, Kamala’s left on her own by her cousins, who would rather have coffee with friends than take Kamala to the train station, where she hopes to somehow connect with her family’s ancestry.
It’s a good thing they don’t come with her, since Kamala sneaks through some signs telling her a part of the station is prohibited, donning the eye mask Bruno (Matt Lintz) presented her with last episode. (Does she really think this will disguise her?) There, as she’s look at an Avengers mural, a knife comes flying through the air and embeds itself into the wall next to her.
And that’s our introduction to the Red Dagger, aka Kareem (Aramis Knight), who quips “found you” from behind Kamala before the pair engage in the most flirtatious fight I’ve seen in some time. Kareem, who wears a red scarf covering the lower part of his face, found Kamala because he sensed Noor, and after trying to one-up each other, they settle on a brief truce to get away from the station guards who have finally noticed the disturbance caused by the pair fighting with knives and beams of light. Kamala, with no regard for her own safety, just agrees to go off with Kareem when he asks. To be fair, he has very cute eyes, and so 16-year-old me would probably also have followed him.
Kareem takes her to a rundown Chinese restaurant, which actually hides a very hi-tech, very beautiful building behind it, home to the Red Daggers. The plural is technically correct, but there do only seem to be two members: Kareem and Waleed (Farhan Akhtar), the latter of whom is in charge. As the trio dig into Chinese food, Kamala makes fun of Kareem’s red scarf. It’s harmless bickering, but Waleed steps in to tell Kamala that the fabric has significance and has “protected the identity of warriors willing to take on the mantle of the Red Daggers.” It’s not the last time this week that we’ll see the significance of clothing and materials.
The Red Daggers protect people from the “threats of the unseen,” like Djinn. Waleed reveals that the Clandestines are not like the Djinn from stories or religious texts, and that if Thor landed in the Himalayan mountains, he too would be called a Djinn. Does this mean the show is using “Djinn” as another word for alien? It’s a little puzzling, because if these aren’t the Djinn from stories or religious texts, why call them Djinn at all? Why invoke those ideas? I’m not quite sure where the show is going with the Djinn storyline yet.
With technology rivaling Tony Stark’s, Waleed explains a little more about Kamala’s great-grandmother Aisha’s home, which is connected to ours but hidden. Its energy source is Noor, and there’s a heavy implication (I say implication because Waleed uses the word “if”) that the Clandestines want to use Kamala’s bangle to tear down the veil separating the two dimensions, which would result in our world being destroyed. Kamala must protect the bangle, which Waleed notices has an inscription: “What you seek is seeking you.” What is Kamala seeking? Home, connection, identity? And how are those things seeking her?
Kamala heads home to join her grandmother on the balcony (where she stands listening to the azaan, the call to prayer). Nani wants to know if Kamala has found what she’s looking for, telling her that she’s still trying to figure out who she is. “My passport is Pakistani; my roots are in India,” she tells Kamala. “And in between all of this there is a border. There is a border marked with blood and pain. People are claiming their identity based on an idea some old Englishman had when they were fleeing the country. How is one to deal with that?” How indeed. Partition wasn’t just the movement of a people; it was the ripping of them from their roots, and even now, 75 years later, a feeling of displacement remains for many Indians and Pakistanis. An arbitrary border resulted in decades of pain and loss, but it’s interesting that this discussion takes place right after Waleed reveals that the border between Aisha’s dimension and ours must stay in place. Borders as both separators and protectors is an interesting idea, especially in our world, where technology erodes borders. But some governments seem intent to use physical barriers to keep people out; and wars, of course, rage because of borders.
After so much intense background, there’s a moment of lightness for Kamala as she heads to a beach bonfire with Kareem and his friends, while at home Nani and Muneeba try to reckon with their differences. A frustrated Muneeba attempts to clean up, softening slightly when she realizes that all the toffee boxes scattered around are ones that her mother kept in case she came back, since Muneeba loved toffees as a child. It’s a touching moment, which makes the conversation afterward hurt all the more. Sana and Muneeba are still clearly divided over Muneeba’s decision to leave. Muneeba says she needed a break because she was “shunned by neighbors because of my crazy mother and her wild stories,” which Nani refuses to accept. All she wanted to do was share her stories with her daughter, while all Muneeba wanted was a mother living in the present. The relationship between Muneeba and her mother explains so much about the relationship between Muneeba and Kamala.
The next day, back at the Red Dagger headquarters, Kamala is practicing using Noor, wearing a red kurta that I think is the one she bargained for (badly) in the bazaar. Waleed presents her with a blue waistcoat, telling her that “there is history in every thread of this fabric so you always remember where you came from. You’re not alone.” It’s really significant that so much of Kamala’s superhero costume (or an early iteration of it, at least) is coming together in Pakistan, and that it’s consisting of traditional items like the kameez and the waistcoat. Clothing is important, and for many Pakistani immigrant communities, it was also what marked them out as different in their new homes, sometimes leading to discrimination and the abandonment of certain items of clothing for protection from racism. In recent years, we’re seen both the appropriation of items worn by South Asians (stripped of their meanings and presented as fashion) and the politicization of them (just look at France and its population’s obsession with Muslim women covering themselves with hijabs or burkinis in public). That Kamala is shown to be making these cultural clothing items part of her costume, and wearing them with pride and joy, is beautiful.
But there’s no time to dwell, because from the ceiling come the Clandestines, who earlier escaped from the Department of Damage Control’s Super Max Prison. Waleed and Kareem manage to get Kamala out of the building, and they all hop on a motorized rickshaw to try and escape, while some of the Clandestines follow in one of those highly-decorated trucks Pakistan is famous for. And what follows is my least favorite thing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe does: a chase through a city that leaves behind destruction. Granted, the damage here isn’t too bad, and there aren’t any fatalities (Kamala manages to save a family on a motorbike from harm by throwing up a shield of Noor), but there will still be plenty of merchants picking through destroyed goods and wondering how they’re going to make their money for the week.
The fight continues through the streets, and Waleed has a split second to make a decision: Does he throw his knives at the Clandestine coming up behind Kamala and Kareem, or does he protect himself from Najma’s (Nimra Bucha) attack? There’s no choice really, and he sacrifices himself to protect the teenagers, giving Najma the chance to stab him in the back. Kamala and Kareem don’t have time to grieve, because the Clandestines are closing in. Running into what looks to be a fabric dyeing factory (with plenty of purple cloths—have I mentioned yet that clothing and fabric is significant?), where they’re briefly behind a protective veil of hanging fabrics, the pair prepare for the Clandestines to close in, which they do.
It’s looking like the pair will lose, especially when Najma leaps out and strikes Kamala’s bangle with her weapon. Instead, what happens is that we get what looks like a breaking of the veil between worlds, and Kamala is thrust into what seems at first to be a vision. We think that she’s seeing that Karachi train coming towards her again, like at the end of episode three. But this is no vision: Kamala actually seems to be in 1947, at a train station as crowds surge around her, trying to get on the last cars. That means, of course, that a toddler Sana is somewhere in this crowd, either about to be separated from her father or already separated. Could it be that the light she sees, the light that led her to be reunited with her dad, was actually sent by a from-the-future Kamala?
We’ll have to wait until next week to find out, but it’s a wait I’m fine with, since I’ll need some time to process that final sweeping shot of the episode. Kamala, dressed in blue and red among a sea of people in washed out colors, climbs aboard a train. The camera zooms out to show thousands of people clamoring to get on trains. It’s an extraordinarily moving and disturbing moment: All these people wanted was to survive, to find a home when they had been suddenly rejected from theirs.
It’s this closing image, as well as Nani and Waleed’s talk of protection, of identity, of the importance of history, of the significance of items that connect you to your past, that make this episode so meaningful. Aside from the big fight scenes, a lot of “Seeing Red” felt quiet. It’s an episode that takes us to places we rarely see on television and gives voice to people and ideas that we often try to hide, perhaps because acknowledging them means acknowledging our hurt and trauma and—for some—the part they played in causing it.
We’re left, I think, in an unsatisfying place when it comes to the Djinn mythology being employed by the show. But I know that this is an episode I’ll come back to again and again, for its quiet understanding of how we can be so easily torn apart, but also how we can find help in unexpected places.
- Maps, maps, maps. There are maps everywhere in this episode: Kamala examines one on the plane; they’re all over Nani’s house and in the headquarters of the Red Daggers. Maps and land and borders tie in nicely with the ideas being explored throughout Ms. Marvel.
- Is there a super max prison in Marvel that is actually super max? Because I feel like more people escape from them in the MCU than remain locked up there.
- “How do you know I’m not Canadian?” Kamala asks Kareem during their flirt fight. It’s a cute nod to the fact that Vellani is Canadian, not American.
- An incomplete list of Very Pakistani Things: those beaded curtains being used instead of doors, the embroidered pillowcases we see when Kamala is taking a nap that nearly every Pakistani household has owned at one point or another, biryani in a bag, a whole family just casually using one motorbike.
- No Yusuf, no Bruno, no Nakia. This episode takes away a lot of the secondary characters we’ve grown to love, but the honing in on three generations of women really works.
- Talking of Nakia, she’s not talking to Kamala, as we see from all those unanswered texts. This is a friendship I desperately want to see make it through, so I hope we see it being repaired in future episodes.
- Poor Kamran. I feel like I ignore him a lot, but he has been set aside this episode, not just by me, but by his mother too. Sure, the Clandestines help him get free of the super max prison, but once they’re out Najma tells them to leave her son behind, since he made his choice by helping Kamala. Ouch.
- Farhan Akhtar was wonderful as Waleed this episode, but he’s not the only big name South Asian actor linked to the series. This episode saw Pakistani actor Fawad Khan’s name appear in the credits, although it’s generous to describe him as being in this week’s episode. He was, I’m fairly certain, in the photo of Nani and her father that Kamala looked at (and definitely somewhere among those thousands of people in the final scene), and so we’ll see him more next episode as Aisha’s husband/Sana’s father.
- This episode made me hungry, especially for the king of South Asian street food, pani puri. Unlike Kamala, I’m pretty sure I could handle the spice.
- The train station mural (of Ant-Man) that Kamala looks at is by Saira Hussain and is an homage to Adrian Alphona, the original illustrator of the Ms. Marvel comics.
- A quick history factoid: The Brit who decided on how India would be split had never been to the country before he arrived on July 7, 1947 as chair of the boundary commissions. Cyril Radcliffe had five weeks to split the country up, so it’s no wonder Partition was as horrific as it was.