Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Log 2

The first entry in this series ended up being a lot more about the background lore of the Metal Gear Solid series than I really intended.  It’s extremely easy to get bogged down in a bunch of stuff that’s maybe not so important to discussing the experience of playing this specific game, so I’ll try to refrain from talking about the larger series going forward unless it seems absolutely essential.

At the time of this writing, I’m pretty sure I’ve logged close to thirty hours in The Phantom Pain, and in that time I’ve advanced the story only a little bit.  The structural design of this game is a massive departure from other numbered Metal Gear Solid games.  Instead of a highly linear level sequence that’s reliant on the momentum of the plot to move the player from one segment to the next, The Phantom Pain goes for a much more open-ended feeling built around the central conceit that Big Boss is rebuilding and managing an unaligned private military force after spending nearly a decade in a coma.

This was taken after I’d been playing for about twenty hours. I… haven’t accomplished much more since then despite easily having at least another ten hours on my game clock.

The core gameplay is still built around solo stealth infiltration, but in the midst of all the sneaking through enemy bases the player’s free to take a break and manage the Diamond Dogs, the force that Ocelot has pulled together under Big Boss’s banner.  You can assign staff to different roles which enable various support functions during missions, direct the development of new military technology, and deploy combat forces to complete automated missions for gathering more resources.  Nothing is designed to require a whole lot of deep thought (if you want, you can just let the game auto-assign your staff to whatever team they’re best suited for, and things generally improve on their own without any careful planning on your part), but if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of min-maxing specific functions for your preferred playstyle, you are certainly welcome to do that.  The only function that has be done manually on a regular basis is directing staff to build new base platforms so that you can assign more staff to the various teams for further upgrades.  Otherwise, if base management isn’t your thing, you can safely ignore it for the most part.

I’ll come back to the Diamond Dogs themselves in a later post. Just know that their devotion to Big Boss is more than a little creepy. Death Hippo’s my boy though.

When Big Boss isn’t directing his army, the player is free to wander around whichever areas of operation have been unlocked (this is based on progression through the main story).  The maps are quite spacious with a multitude of enemy bases both large and small dispersed throughout for the player to explore and infiltrate as they like.  Free roam is a fun mode if you just want to mess around with enemy soldiers free of any of the performance standards that are imposed on scored missions (being a stealth series, there’s always a high premium placed on a player’s ability to perform operations without being caught by or killing enemies).  Side ops give some targeted objectives that players can focus on accomplishing during free roam if they are like me and prefer to have objectives instead of just enjoying sandboxes.  When it’s time to advance the plot, you pick a mission from a list; each mission has a designated smaller hot zone inside the larger area of operation.  During the mission, you have to remain in the hot zone until your main objectives are completed, or the mission will be aborted.

In terms of the scoring system, I actually find it to be a really refreshing update to the system that was in place in previous Metal Gear Solid games.  Since the first Metal Gear Solid, there’s been a scoring system that keeps track of everything you do in a given playthrough that it then grades at the game’s conclusion.  I always thought this was a really cool feature to discover after playing through the original game because once you finished enjoying the story, you had an incentive to go back and replay the game and enjoy it on a mechanical level (I’ve always had a soft spot for Metal Gear Solid games because they have incredibly absurd stories that I find nonetheless compelling combined with really polished action gameplay that’s not focused on just killing all the bad guys; you can get a lot of grace from me if you build in functionality that doesn’t require the player to be a killer if they don’t want to).  The only problem with the system in the older games was that it turned playing into an endurance contest where you had to maintain a level of play for multiple hours at a time with steep penalties if you made a mistake.  As someone who just doesn’t have the personality necessary to devote my leisure time to mastering the mechanics of one specific game, this was always torture for me.  In The Phantom Pain, the scoring system’s been scaled back so it only applies to story missions, and each one gets graded individually (that completed missions can be replayed whenever you want helps out too).  It allows you to treat a certain segment of the game as requiring whatever challenge you’re interested in giving yourself, and the rest of it is pretty much a free-for-all to do whatever goofy things occur to you.

And yes, there is a lot of goofiness on offer.  The bread and butter of silliness in this game is the Fulton Recovery System (based on a real thing the CIA has used) which involves attaching a harness with a self-inflating balloon to pretty much anything, having the balloon inflate, and then watching as the victim subject gets yanked up into the air to be caught by Big Boss’s air support.  This is how you recruit soldiers from the field for the Diamon Dogs, collect gear like artillery placements and vehicles, and rescue larger wild animals from the battlefield.  It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and while you eventually just accept it as part of the cycle of play, the first few times you Fulton someone and watch them get yanked into the air, you remember that this is not just the gritty war drama that people not familiar with Metal Gear Solid series assume it to be.

The bear deserved it.

Advertisements

Only Sweet Heaven Knows

could write an angrysad post about the confluence of Ash Wednesday and yet another mass shooting (I don’t react well to news of most mass shootings, but the ones at schools are always particularly hard to process; I’ve realized over the years that I no longer believe I work in an environment that doesn’t have the potential to become very scary very fast).  It would draw parallels between the bleakness of Lent that culminates with death and sadness on Good Friday before the final burst of redemptive life with Easter Sunday and the sense in America that things will never get better, except when I got to the part about offering up some kind of hopeful affirmation that things will get better I’d have to stop short because God damn us we live in a country where the money made from killing machines is more important than the lives of children.

I could write that, but I don’t think it would be good for my mental health.

Saborîman Kantarô (2017)

The most disappointing thing about Kantaro is that he never eats a fish pancake despite it always being tantalizingly shown in the title sequence and promo materials (like how gun control is perpetually a topic of discussion but never an actual outcome of shootings in America). (Image credit: IMDb)

Instead, I’m going to take some time to tell you about a quirky Japanese television show that is incredibly compelling and doesn’t deal with anything so dark as American indifference to gun violence.  The show in question is Kantaro: Sweet Tooth Salaryman.  It’s based on a manga of the same name; the premise is that Kantaro, a pretty normal seeming Japanese guy, has a borderline sexual obsession with sweets and likes to play hooky from his job to go taste various treats in specialty shops around Tokyo so that he can write up the experience on his anonymous blog.  What makes this concept, which honestly doesn’t sound that unusual when you consider the vast spectrum of stories that are told in Japanese media, so compelling is that it’s presented in a live action format but with a heavily stylized look that makes it feel like anime.  Kantaro and his coworkers all bear looks that evoke the visual language of manga and anime design, and in the staple fantasies that Kantaro embarks on anytime he eats sweets, the surrealist imagery feels like something that would be perfectly at home in animation.  It’s a strange visual mixture, but the ultimate effect is one that’s delightful.

The typical Kantaro episode follows a very specific but fun format (sort of like our country’s cycle of hand wringing over gun violence followed by complete inaction, but with more joy): Kantaro has a series of sales calls that he must make in a specific area of the city, and he has planned to visit a specialty shop local to the neighborhood where he plans to have a specific type of sweet.  Upon arriving at the shop, Kantaro narrates to himself about how wonderful he finds the atmosphere of the shop before discussing the ingredients that go into the dessert he plans to have.  This segment is essentially an extended commercial for the shop in question (all the places Kantaro visits are real locations) that would be irritating if not for the absolute knowledge that I will never visit these shops.  After that, Kantaro orders the dessert he’s been craving for the whole episode, and then he takes a couple minutes to marvel at the visual aesthetics of the food before finally taking a bite that results in him having major O face and a trip to an alternate reality where everyone usually has fruit for heads.  Invariably there will be a riff on some famous tidbit of Japanese pop culture that accompanies Kantaro having a small epiphany about whatever problem coincides with this particular episode.

And that’s the whole show for twelve episodes.  You get a few unusual variations on the formula (Kantaro guides a coworker through the experience of Sweet Heaven; Dobashi, the quiet woman in the office who also has a secret love of sweets, has her own parallel adventure; Kantaro eats dessert in front of his sleeping dentist mother and appears to enjoy it on a level that has nothing to do with eating).  The ultimate effect is to present a remarkably samey slice of life show that revels in elevating the bizarre and nearly nonsensical in pursuit of its core premise (like the way the NRA pushes bullshit about “good guys with guns” to get scared folks to buy more guns).  You find yourself compelled to watch it even as you are continually baffled by the unrepentant dada-esque weirdness before you.  Does Kantaro’s predilection for sweets hide some darker impulse?  Why does he only seem to enjoy the thing he purports to love so much in situations where he runs the risk of getting in trouble?  Will he ever learn that there’s no shame in his hobby and that it could be enjoyed even more when shared with friends?

We don’t know, because the series ends with pretty much nothing resolved and no promise of further follow up, meaning that the only way to experience more of Kantaro is to start the cycle over from the beginning even though you know there still won’t be any satisfying resolution.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #10”

Because this issue features Baphomet on the cover, blood running salaciously down his face, you might expect things to take a very dark turn here.  It has been five issues since the last major character death, and a very significant plot point of issue #9 was that Baphomet was informed by Ananke that he could extend his lifespan by murdering another god.  Also, Baphomet set his sights on the newly ascended Cassandra, so that doesn’t bode ill or anything.  Fortunately for everyone involved, this is not an issue where someone dies gratuitously.  Instead, it marks Cassandra’s triad debuting as the Norns and Laura hitting on some serious introspection about what she wants out of her life.  Also, Baphomet tries to kill Cassandra, but really that’s a relatively minor part of the issue.

The most unsettling thing about this cover isn’t the blood; it’s Baphomet’s eyes. All the gods have some feature that marks them as otherworldly on these covers, and since Baphomet is inclined to always wear aviator shades, seeing his eyes is especially off-putting. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

However, since Baphomet does grace the cover, we should talk about what’s going on with him a little bit.  Obviously, attempted murder is pretty bad, and the fallout from his actions here will carry on through the next couple of story arcs.  The frame of mind that he’s in at this point seems to be profound regret.  His conversation with the Morrigan (we learn here that her real name is Marian) at the issue’s start implies that she was responsible for bringing him to Ananke’s attention.  That’s an odd detail, given that the process by which gods are identified has been pretty much totally unspecified up to this point.  In the last issue Ananke mentioned that she usually has trouble finding the twelfth god, but there’s nothing much to go on beyond that.  That Baphomet and the Morrigan knew each other before their ascensions (as well as Lucifer and Amaterasu, although that’s not a relationship that’s been dwelt on very much) opens up questions about the nature of the gods’ incarnations.  Obviously they seem to incarnate in close geographic proximity (no one is weirded out that all of the Pantheon are apparently kids from around London), but the possibility of previous connections actually influencing how Ananke finds the gods is a new one.  It leaves you to wonder if Baphomet would have ascended if he hadn’t known the Morrigan of if it was all fated.  Combined with Laura’s whole one time miraculous cigarette thing, there’s space to speculate if there’s potential for lots of mortals to ascend to godhood during a Recurrence, and if Ananke has the power to pick and choose how she wants each Pantheon to be constructed.

Anyway, that was a tangent.

I really relate to Baphomet’s self-doubt, but his emotional maturity is seriously lacking. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Regardless of larger questions about the nature of the Recurrence, it’s clear that Baphomet at least holds the Morrigan responsible for his current situation, and there are some strong feelings of resentment.  Based on what else we’ve seen about Baphomet and the Morrigan’s relationship, we can get a pretty clear picture that there are some unhealthy features.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Baphomet doesn’t share his thoughts with the Morrigan so that she isn’t a party to his whole “murder Cassandra” plot.  It doesn’t stop her from intervening at Ragnarock to save Cassandra and help Baphomet escape from Ananke, but I can’t help feeling like if the two of them were just able to have a more honest conversation about how they’re coping (or not) with their situation, things might have turned out very different for the two of them.  As it stands, Baphomet tries to shoulder the burden by himself, and the consequences are him and the Morrigan being on the outs with the rest of the Pantheon.  I sympathize with what he’s feeling, but he really makes things a lot worse here (and also, he doesn’t learn his lesson about attempted murder, since the issue closes with him plotting to attack Inanna next).

Laura gets out of her head for a minute, and what we see is that she’s quite a lovely person. Also, this is a heck of a pep talk to have to give a nihilist who believes she’s going to die within two years without being properly understood by anyone. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

More central to this issue is Laura.  The last issue ended with her just beginning to cope with the fallout of Cassandra’s ascension (I don’t think she’s even gotten the news yet at that point; she just feels that something big has happened that affects her).  It’s a pretty rough spot to be in (isn’t it always when you’re still reeling from something that disturbs your hopes for the future?)  The time skip between these issues helps a little bit (Laura has pretty much the entirety of July 2014 to process what’s happened; it’s probably good that Gillen elides that period) so that Laura’s meeting with Cassandra after her performance isn’t just a mass of Laura dumping her bad feels out at Cassandra’s feet.  Instead, Laura offers the kind of comfort that only a true fan can: she encourages Cassandra to use her gift to tell everyone what she needs to say.  This moment is probably the most genuine expression of why Laura wants to be a god; yes, she wants the fame and adoration, but more she wants people to listen to her.  That she comes to the conclusion here that she probably doesn’t have anything meaningful to say is a pretty significant insight.  Regardless of what else is going on with the gods, Laura’s encounters with all of them highlight that they all have a message they want to impart.  Those messages involve varying levels of self absorption, but they all carry a core of trying to convey a sense of meaning to people (even Cassandra’s aggressive nihilism has a defiant note of human solidarity to it).  Laura, in contrast, is portrayed as someone desperately searching for any kind of meaning; it’s no wonder she’s a superfan of the whole Pantheon.  Laura’s offering Cassandra a bit of comfort after her show doesn’t elicit the response she was hoping for (I’m not sure what Cassandra wanted; maybe uncontrolled sobbing at the futility of existence?) is an unusually positive note to leave her story on with this issue.  You know that it means something really bad has to happen soon.

Other developments in this issue include Laura having a conversation with David Blake, a Pantheon scholar with whom she butted heads at Ragnarock the previous year; the revelation that the guys who tried to assassinate Lucifer way back in the first issue were a couple of folks in Fandom who seemed to just be making a play at the Prometheus gambit with an unusually elaborate cover story; and Laura finally telling someone about her episode with the cigarette (in front of Ananke).  The first part of the murder mystery from the first arc closes without much fanfare (still no hint of who killed the judge), but other threads get planted that will become important in both the near and far future.

I’m absolutely crying. Also, Ananke totally ruins the moment by standing in the background like that. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Log 1

I feel like every time I start a new game and decide to blog about it as I’m playing through, I begin with the disclaimer that I very well might just discontinue the series without warning.  It seems a little redundant to me, so let’s just agree now that that’s always the case with any multi-part series, but especially for video games because so much of the experience is about doing repetitive things that are fun, but not particularly thought-provoking.

Some things need to be explained before we get into this.

Now, with regard to the Metal Gear Solid series, there are a lot of things that can be said about its overarching story quite separate from the experience of playing any of the games.  Hideo Kojima’s signature game series is (in?)famous for the bizarre fusion of war story grit, high melodrama, and absurdist humor.  Trying to find an entry point into the series mythology is nigh impossible without just going back to the original Metal Gear Solid, a Playstation game that was itself a sequel to a couple of previously obscure games (in North America) for the MSX2 home computer architecture.  Because it was the first widely available entry in the series in North America, Metal Gear Solid minimized references to the previous entries in the series and established the continuity that’s become the main point of reference for all the various Metal Gear games to follow (there are a lot of games that aren’t part of the Solid continuity which make use of characters introduced in the core games).  The series protagonist introduced in Metal Gear Solid is Solid Snake, a soldier who is a clone of Big Boss, the greatest soldier to ever live.  Snake frequently gets drawn into conflict with various shadowy organizations that are trying to promote nuclear proliferation via the development of the Metal Gear weapons platforms, bipedal tanks that in addition to conventional armature are capable of launching miniature nuclear warheads.  Frequent antagonists of Snake are Revolver Ocelot, an old Russian soldier who was a friend and associate of Big Boss, and Liquid Snake, another Big Boss clone who is obsessed with claiming Big Boss’s legacy for himself.  Big Boss himself is a complicated figure; in Snake’s lifetime, he was revealed to be the leader of the organization that was trying to take over the world with the original Metal Gear.  He developed an ideology that has at its center the complete independence of soldiers from government actors.  From Snake’s perspective, Big Boss turned out to be a villain who wanted to subject the whole world to the will of an elite warrior class that had no allegiance to any larger cause.

Through the first two Metal Gear Solid games, this version of Big Boss’s legacy remains more or less intact.  Metal Gear Solid 2 goes in some strange directions (the final act of the story is an extended meditation on meme theory and epistemology that plays extensively with the power fantasy that players expect from games), but if you strip all the philosophizing away it’s still essentially a story about someone trying to carry out Big Boss’s vision and Snake putting a stop to it.  In Metal Gear Solid 3, things go in a very different direction.  While Metal Gear Solid 2 is a direct sequel to Metal Gear Solid set in the near future, Metal Gear Solid 3 goes back in time to tell a story about Snake in the 1960s during the Cold War.  There are some initial questions about how Snake, who was a young soldier in the early ’90s when he took down Big Boss’s operation, can be active twenty years earlier, but what is revealed as the story of this game progresses is that the player’s actually going through an episode from Big Boss’s life before he became Big Boss.  We see how his disillusionment with government service begins as he learns that his entire mission to take out his mentor, The Boss, because she has defected to the Soviet Union is an elaborate ruse designed to absolve the United States of responsibility for the detonation of a nuclear warhead on Soviet soil.  The Boss’s reputation is ruined in service to her country, and Big Boss never gets over the way she’s betrayed and discarded for her loyalty.

The fourth game in the series returns to the story of Solid Snake as he copes with the effects of his genetics.  As a clone, he was never intended to live a full human lifespan, and his body is aging at an accelerated rate.  A version of Big Boss’s vision has come to pass as the world is consumed by continued armed conflict carried out by private military corporations that sell their services to the highest bidder.  Ocelot has re-emerged with a plan to hijack the nanobot system that all the PMCs use to enhance their soldiers in a bid to take control of the world.  A lot of stuff happens, but ultimately Solid Snake’s story gets wrapped up.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain continues the series by going back to flesh out the events of Big Boss’s life prior to the events in Metal Gear.  The Phantom Pain is actually the second part of the Metal Gear Solid V story, but the first game, Ground Zeroes, is so brief in comparison that it’s considered a prologue.  I never played Ground Zeroes, so I’m going into The Phantom Pain without a lot of the context that was provided there, although there appears to be no shortage of background content to review in order to help get players up to speed.  The Phantom Pain opens in 1984 with Big Boss awaking from a nine year coma; his body is riddled with shrapnel that couldn’t be safely removed and his left arm has been lost.  A mysterious military unit attacks the hospital where he’s been recovering, and he narrowly escapes with the help of Revolver Ocelot and an unknown ally who calls himself Ishmael.  As far as opening sequences go, it’s quite good at doing double duty as a tutorial of basic controls and presenting a really horrifying situation (the overall horror vibe of this sequence was used to mask the nature of The Phantom Pain as a Metal Gear Solid game early in its development).  There’s just enough weirdness going on to set the tone before the player transitions to the more mundane meat-and-potatoes portion of the game: stealth infiltration of occupied enemy territory.

What Do We Owe To Each Other

This post is going to be one of those very weird contradictory things where I’m going to discuss a popular thing that is very, very hard to explain without spoilers, which means that my recommendation that you go experience the thing has to come early before any of the deep thoughts actually crop up.  So if you have not seen both seasons of The Good Place, you need to remedy that as soon as possible.  The first season is available to stream on Netflix, but the second just wrapped up last week, so you will likely have to fork over some cash to see it unless you already have one of those weird streaming subscriptions like Hulu (I don’t even know; we paid twenty bucks to Google Play to stream the season as it released).

Title card for The Good Place, with "The Good Place" written in white writing on a plain green background

Maybe it’s just the association with the show’s theme, but that is an incredibly soothing shade of green. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

I can discuss this much though: one of the ways I’ve been coping with my career frustrations has been to curl up on the couch with Rachael and watch some television.  It’s a great way to decompress after days at work that are stressful for one reason or another.  A few weeks back we got caught up on The Good Place, which has as its central premise the concept that the series protagonist Eleanor Shellstrop does not belong where she is, but no one knows that.  The other night, after another day at work that left me in a bit of a tailspin because I was worrying over impending observations (y’all, I have been observed so many times this year; it’s a very new experience), I was talking with Rachael over dinner about the parts of my job that stress me out the most, and I made an offhand comment about how great my coworkers are, even if they sometimes make statements that just assume we’re all special education lifers (it’s kind of hard in the first year of a new job to explain that your ambitions involve doing a different job).  Rachael’s eyes opened wide and she said to me, “Jason, you’re Eleanor Shellstrop!”

Aw shirt.

It’s a pretty absurd comparison on its face because anyone who has seen the beginning of The Good Place knows that Eleanor is a remarkably terrible person who got sent to the Good Place by accident.  I, thankfully, did not end up in my current job through a series of improbable unfortunate coincidences that revolved around trying to recover a bottle of margarita mix (also, I’m pretty sure I’m not a remarkably terrible person, though self awareness is a really hard thing sometimes).  Still, strip away the silly parts, and the basic idea that Eleanor is someone who really wants to fit in where she is without anyone finding out her deep dark secret that she doesn’t actually belong feels totally relatable; she’s Impostor Syndrome personified.

Setting aside personal feelings of “it me”ness, Eleanor remains a really compelling character because she does have that perfect self awareness that we tend to crave.  The first episode is built entirely around her calmly going through the charade of being someone who is supposed to be in the Good Place before finally admitting to her soul mate Chidi that there must have been a mix up because there’s no way she’s actually good enough to be there (also, those aren’t her memories that were playing on the television).  Eleanor is someone with near perfect self knowledge, and through an incredible fluke she gets the opportunity to reflect on that knowledge and use it to improve herself.  At first it’s motivation born out of self-preservation (the Bad Place sounds legitimately terrible), but she gradually grows to understand that genuine self improvement can’t stem from external motivations; you have to want to get better because you think getting better is the right thing to do.

If you’ve seen into the second season, you’re aware of the whole underlying premise that earning a spot in the Good Place after death is predicated on good actions that are performed without any expectation of moral desert (that’s a fancy and succinct way of saying you can’t be selfishly motivated).  It’s why Eleanor’s posthumous actions generally don’t help her case any because she already knows that there’s a very definite reward for adhering to some kind of moral system.  Folks here in the regular life get the benefit of not knowing anything about the afterlife which allows them to make their decisions completely free of interference.  What’s ironic about all this though is that even without a real inkling of what happens after death, we still have this propensity to develop vast, complex ethical systems to justify being less selfish to each other (hooray for pro-social instincts being part of human nature!).  While Chidi’s thesis is apparently absurdly convoluted and pointless, the central ethical system he promotes (when he isn’t getting a stomach ache from his paralytic indecision) is something that can be boiled down into the best aphorism of the late-’80s future: “Be excellent to each other.”  In a life that refuses to offer us any definitive answers about its larger meaning, the best we can come up with is to try to share one another’s burdens so that no one’s suffering is too much.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #9”

I like to think of this issue as the one where Gillen and McKelvie realized they should probably hold up and give a little bit of background about what’s happening in their book.  We’ve been barreling along on the momentum of the murder mystery for a while now, and with the introduction of one of the last two remaining gods in the previous issue, I’m guessing that they felt they could slow down just a little bit to do an exposition heavy issue.

Unlike that major troll they did with the Tara cover, this issue really is all about Ananke. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, cover design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The only problem with all of that is that Ananke is the one giving all the information, and she’s super sketchy.  It’s kind of hard to trust someone who straight up executed Lucifer in the street without much in the way of warning.  Yes, Lucifer had been wreaking havoc in public, but she had calmed down by the time Ananke arrived on the scene.  The whole episode feels like an extrajudicial killing, and those are bad.  Throw on top of that Ananke’s generally secretive behavior, and I think you have a decent case for being suspicious of her.  When you consider that this issue involves Ananke telling Baphomet that he can totally live longer if he kills another god it feels pretty well clinched that she is not trustworthy (her rationale that Baphomet has a better developed moral compass than Minerva is total crap; everyone in the Pantheon besides Minerva is in their late teens or early twenties, and folks who are that young are still capable of making some incredibly bad decisions when presented with significant temptation).

If you set aside the bookends of Laura heading home after hanging out at Inanna’s residency, the issue breaks down pretty neatly into three sections: Ananke comforting Minerva, Ananke tempting Baphomet, and Ananke interviewing and elevating Cassandra.  Each sequence gives a different perspective on how Ananke manages the Pantheon (it’s quite helpful to think of her as a manager trying to keep hold of the reins on her talent).

“It will be okay” or some variation on that is sort of a leitmotif in The Wicked + The Divine. If someone says something like that to someone, you can be guaranteed that things are going to go bad. See Laura’s conversation with Lucifer just before Lucifer decides to break out of jail. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In the case of Minerva, Ananke is doing a lot of work to soothe the very understandable anxiety that Minerva is feeling as a young teenager with the equivalent of a terminal disease.  I have regular anxious fits about mortality, and I’m an adult who still has multiple decades of life ahead of me barring the unexpected.  Minerva has to be pretty freaked out by all this, especially since part of her deal as a god is that she’s incredibly precocious; she understands the implications of her situation perfectly well.  This is a motif that’s been building steadily over the last few issues; Minerva’s been a relatively minor character up to this point, but Gillen and McKelvie have been pointed in the last few issues about highlighting the angst that Minerva’s dealing with at least in passing.  Unlike the rest of the Pantheon, Minerva is still a minor which means that she’s under the guardianship of her parents who from the outside at least appear to be focused on cashing in while their daughter is still around.  She can’t retreat into all the comforts of debauchery that fame brings for her elder peers.  The exchange here between Minerva and Ananke suggests that Ananke fulfills a significant role in Minerva’s life; she ostensibly is an adult who only wants to make the child feel safe.  In a lot of ways, this relationship feels like the least manipulative one that Ananke has.

This is the panel I always go back to when I think about Baphomet. He just looks like a scared kid. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Coming quickly on the heels of Minerva is Baphomet.  Now, Baphomet is a really flawed guy; if nothing else he’s incredibly reckless (remember that he accidentally killed a police officer during his first appearance).  At the same time, I really sympathize with him.  For all the bluster and snark he displays to others, this issue highlights the fact that he is really just as scared and insecure about everything as Minerva.  Ananke perceptively notes that Baphomet has come “to have [his] head stroked too.”  We don’t yet know Baphomet’s story (okay, we don’t know most of the cast’s stories yet), but he seems to have serious misgivings about the whole godhood thing in ways that are much more intense than the public facing gods (Amaterasu really buys into the gods’ mission of inspiring humanity, and Baal is all in on his own personal greatness).  One thing we’ve seen in the few flashbacks to various gods’ ascensions (and in the case of Cassandra at the end of this issue) is that when Ananke decides that she’s found a god, the person in question doesn’t really have a choice about whether they want to accept the deal.  Given Baphomet’s generally terrible record as a god so far, it’s easy to figure that he’s having some serious regrets about what’s happened to him.  Of course, when Ananke dangles the possibility that he could extend his brief life by offing another god, it’s pretty hard to believe that she isn’t setting him up to make another bad decision.  The big question we’re left with is why.

This is probably the most honest thing Ananke says in this whole issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The centerpiece of the issue is Ananke’s interview with Cassandra.  After Baphomet has a poor impulse control moment and we’re left with the distinct impression that Ananke couldn’t possibly have thought Baphomet wouldn’t try to kill someone out of desperation, she sits down with Cassandra and her film crew to give us all the background we’ve been craving.  It’s about as vague as you might expect, but it’s more than we’ve had.  Essentially, Ananke explains that the gods are the reason human civilization exists because they provide the inspiration to elevate humanity out of darkness and ignorance.  How much of this is metaphorical is debatable, but Ananke presents a history that involves multiple iterations of the Recurrence that failed to light the spark of civilization before the gods finally put one in the win column.  In a plot twist, the gods didn’t plan for their rapid exit, and humanity fell back into the dark ages so they had to do the whole thing over again.  The second time the gods beat back the darkness, one of them volunteered to give up her ability to inspire and live as an immortal who would guide each new Pantheon when they appeared.  That god, as you might imagine, is supposed to be Ananke.  What we’re supposed to take away from this story is that it really sucks to be involved with the gods at all.  Humanity writ large is supposed to be the chief beneficiary of the gods, and in exchange for this immense burden, the gods get to have a couple years every century where they can indulge in whatever pursuits happen to appeal to them.  It’s not the best deal for the gods (or for humanity, considering just how destructive the gods can be).  The best conclusion we’re supposed to draw from this is that Ananke, for all her shadowy manipulation, is essential to keeping things from going off the rails.

Cassandra’s easily one of my favorite characters in WicDiv, but she’s such a downer sometimes. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Because Gillen and McKelvie love to make Cassandra act as the surrogate for readers who don’t take anything they write at face value, she isn’t convinced by Ananke’s story.  Where Minerva is looking for comfort and Baphomet just needs someone to rage against, Cassandra isn’t quite as easy to manipulate.  Fortunately for Ananke and the conventions of narrative efficiency, Cassandra turns out to be the twelfth god of the Pantheon, Urðr.  It’s kind of hard to continue being the obnoxious skeptic when you get zapped with the god juice, after all.  Of course, despite Cassandra’s ascension, she uses her newfound abilities (Urðr has divination abilities since she’s a fate goddess) to determine that it’s all a crock anyway.  That’s right; Cassandra, even as one of the gods, still can’t buy that there’s anything divine about their nature (at least she’s manifested the aspect of a Fate; those are figures who typically exist outside and above the gods in mythologies where they appear, so it at least makes sense she’d still be nonplussed by the Pantheon).

The issue ends with us returning to Laura, who is having a moment of extreme despair since she can just feel that something terrible (from her perspective) has happened, but she doesn’t know what yet.  This Pantheon is complete, and now it’s time to see what they’re going to do.

This Is Not Where I Saw Myself

I fell into my career in special education.  The original plan way back in college was that I was going to be an English language arts teacher; I majored in English literature for undergrad, and after a couple years doing a white collar job that really wasn’t for me, I went back to school to get my master’s in English education.  I’ve always enjoyed stories, and in graduate school I discovered that I legitimately enjoyed grammar, so it just seemed like a perfect fit for me.  The first time I set foot in a classroom as a student teacher, everything felt right.

Of course, things rarely turn out exactly the way that we plan them.  I went back to school in the spring of 2009, less than a year after the Great Recession hit.  It turned out to be a stroke of good fortune on my part that I decided to go back to school when I did, because I found out less than six months later that the office where I had been working had been closed and everyone laid off.  Still, my grad school program was only set to last a year, so that didn’t give me too much a reprieve from having to deal with the job market.  At the time I thought that I would weather the recession without too much difficulty; government jobs are reliably stable, and education is an especially secure profession to be in.  What I didn’t count on was the fact that everyone else who was already in education had the same plan.  Because the chief effect of the recession at the time for most people was the complete wipeout of their savings intended to get them through retirement, what you saw was a wave of elder workers choosing to stay in jobs that were due to open up for younger people entering the workforce.  This held true for teachers as well, and because English is a content area that’s especially popular among would-be educators, the competition for job openings was really fierce.  I spent over a year looking for a job teaching English, then a job teaching, then any sort of job (the major job hunting season for educators only runs from whenever the local districts offer contracts to their current employees to a little past the end of the summer).  It was hard going.

Then, in what still feels like an incredibly happy accident, I came across a job posting for a parapro-level job in a library at a school in Athens.  Rachael and I had wanted to move back to Athens for a couple years, and I was desperate to just get something that was in education, so I applied for it and got it.  Because I was starting in February, my pay was pro-rated so that my monthly income was just enough to cover the cost of my commute (we didn’t actually move to Athens until that summer, so I had an hour-long, sixty mile drive both ways to get to work at first).  I was in charge of managing the school’s library, which was targeted primarily towards elementary grades (I’ve always wanted to work with high school students), and a lot of tacit duties involved acting as a sort of administrative assistant to one of the school’s assistant directors.  It was also a school specifically geared towards serving students with severe emotional and behavioral needs.  I didn’t care about any of that at the time because I had a job, and it was in education, and I knew that somehow I could use my experience there to find my way into a teaching job.

I spent the next year and a half paying my dues and trying to make myself into a more attractive hire.  I got certified to teach both high school math and special education (in Georgia, you can become certified by passing a content area test; there’s no requirement that you have a degree in a related area), and I made it known to my boss that I was eager to work in a classroom.  At the end of that year it happened that nearly the entire high school teaching staff was leaving (high turnover is a common challenge with students with severe behaviors), including the English teacher.  I interviewed for that job and was offered my first teaching contract in the spring of 2012.  At the same time, the school was trying to find someone who was highly qualified to teach math; the challenge was that math jobs are not hard to come by, and getting someone who had the credentials to teach in a general education setting to apply for a job working in a behavior focused special education setting is a really difficult thing to pull off.  Before the summer was over, my boss informed me that I would be doing math since I had a math certificate, and another coworker would be doing English as an apprentice teacher (that meant she’d be working to earn her teaching credentials while working through her first year).  I wasn’t super pleased with this turn of events, but I decided to focus on the positive: I had a contract, and after three years of work I was going to be a teacher.

The math job lasted for half a year.  Through a lot of weird coincidences including the coworker who had the English job asking to be moved to an elementary room, the school having to dismiss a long-term sub for negligence, and my boss deciding to give an acquaintance of mine another interview for the math job (she had been passed over before for reasons that remain unclear), I was given the chance to take over teaching English.  Though transitioning to a new role in the middle of the school year was challenging, it was great.  The following year I learned a lot and did some things that felt like they were genuinely meaningful for the students that I served.

By the end of my second year of teaching, I made a decision to stick with special education for at least five years.  There’s a federal loan forgiveness program for teachers who work that long in a high needs area, and the entirety of special education counts in that capacity (I wrote at length about the process of applying for loan forgiveness here).  Teaching English with the population that I had wasn’t what I imagined as a long-term deal, but it was enough, and I hoped that I would be able to make a transition towards general education on the strength of my content area experience when I was ready to make that move.

In the summer of 2014 my boss called me up to tell me that because the schedule for the new year required a dedicated math support class and she hadn’t been able to find a new hire to fill that role, I was going to be teaching math while the old math teacher would be doing math support.  Another acquaintance of mine, whom I had helped get hired the previous year as a parapro, also had an English certificate, so he was going to take over the high school English room.

This was less than ideal for me, but I had my plan in place, and I was going to stick to it.  I stayed at that school for two more years before I realized that I needed a change.  In my fifth year of teaching, I landed a job at a high school in one of the districts that my old school served.  It was still in special education, but I was co-teaching a variety of English classes.  I was really happy there, but I tried not to get too settled because at that point Rachael and I had formulated our plan to move out of state, and I knew that there was a strong possibility I’d be job hunting again within the year.  In the alternate timeline where we stayed in Georgia, I’d still be at that school contentedly working in special education until an opportunity to move into the English department presented itself.

Once we settled on Portland as our destination, Rachael and I had to find jobs.  We were working under a relatively tight schedule; she graduated, and I finished out my contract at the end of May, and we wanted to moved before the end of the summer.  The challenge we ran into was the calendar differential; Georgia’s academic calendar runs from August to May while Oregon’s is from September to June.  It was a stressful few weeks when we were waiting for job postings to appear for the Portland area.  I made the decision to be flexible in what I applied to; I would rather get a general education job, but with my special education experience I knew that I’d be likely to get more interviews.  I eventually got hired for a special education job.

The transition to my new job has been admittedly rocky in places.  I run a resource room for students to get extra help with their classwork, and there are a lot of things about my role that I still don’t feel like I fully grok.  Even the school culture around special education feels different; it feels like there’s a much more distinct professional divide between special and general education teachers.  Every workplace has its own internal politics, and as one of the newbies I feel like I’ve stumbled into issues I wasn’t aware were issues.  It’s a little disorienting.

Despite the difficulties, I generally enjoy my coworkers.  It seems that a recurring theme in special ed departments is an attitude of mutual support and willingness to work as a team (probably as a result of the kinds of personalities that special education tends to attract and the way that working in special ed pushes you to develop a stronger sense of empathy for students who need you to advocate for them when they’re unable to advocate for themselves).  This is a great feature!  What does get kind of weird sometimes is the pride that seems to undergird special education.  On more than one occasion in meetings about various issues that we’ve had to discuss in relation to how we work with general education teachers, I’ve had coworkers tout our expertise as a department as a major reason that general ed teachers should be more inclined to listen to us when we make requests about how to work with students.  This is true in the sense that we all have experience working with students with special needs, but it always feels really weird for me because working in special education was never my plan.  I’ve learned a lot about how you accommodate disability in the classroom, but it’s not what I want the entirety of my career to be.