If Die were a television serial instead of a comic book, then I’d say that we’ve been through the flashy two-part pilot followed by the actually-not-at-all-forgettable third episode that gets into the messy business of establishing the rhythm of a series, and now it’s time for the fourth episode where the characters begin to feel like they’re a little bit more than what was presented at first. Instead, it is a comic book, and everything we’ve seen up to this point was at least outlined in pretty good detail before the first issue ever hit the stands. The beats we get here, Matt’s ridiculously varied experiences of grief (oh my God, can we please get this guy home as soon as possible?), Isabelle’s reflexive impulse to compare things to the behavior of her students (I can totally relate to that), Ash’s discomfort and rage with being confronted about how she uses roleplaying as a way to explore parts of her identity that weren’t safe to explore as a teenage boy in 1991, were all present in the first issue and just waiting to be developed at a time when there would be room for them to breathe instead of getting overwhelmed in the immediate urgency of the initial crisis. It’s time for a quiet issue, and being a story about fantasy storytelling, it naturally centers on an inn.
The cover features Ash’s sister Angela, the party’s resident rogue and cyberpunk. We see Angela here embracing a cybernetic dog, a pet that’s based on her real-world dog Casey who died just before the events of the first issue. Angela’s personal life is a mess made from bad circumstances and poor choices; when we met her in the first issue Dominic let us know that she’s going through a hostile divorce involving a difficult custody battle for her children all while getting more deeply involved with her new girlfriend. On top of that, because Angela’s character in Die is a cyborg, she lost her biological arm when the party returned to the real world the first time. Where Matt seems to be a character all about how people can get battered by forces way outside their control, my initial read on Angela seems to be that her character is more subtly directed at the ways that trauma induces bad decisions. Some of the things about her background really suck for her, and then she compounds the damage. It’s no wonder her character’s core flaw is that short-term gains have to be prioritized over long-term goals in order to feel like an effective, contributing member of the party. I want more complexity from her character, and I trust it will come with time, but the main thing that’s communicated through this cover and Angela’s actions up to this point is that, like Matt, she’s been dealt a bad hand, but then she’s gone and played it badly on top of that. In the edges of this piece (and this is a motif that’s echoed in Jamie McKelvie’s alternate cover of Die #1 that features Angela as well) we see glimpses of Angela’s real world life; her arm is missing, and the cybernetic dog is flesh and blood. She strikes me as the character most directly torn between the needs of her old life and the temptations of the game world.
Because Gillen absolutely loves playing with structure, the second half of this issue is built around tales told in between the fight-y bits (and because this is a story about storytelling, Ash explicitly says that’s what’s going on). The adventurers have survived to another day, and they’re celebrating with stories, mostly about difficult things. The two explicit tales we get come from Dour the dwarf, who gives an example of how relentless awful Sol has been to the denizens of Die, and Matt, who talks about that awful common experience of waiting for someone who’s in the hospital to get better (because Matt is the world’s punching bag, he has a version where things are scary but turn out okay and a version where they don’t). The third story, because things always come in threes, doesn’t actually get told in the inn; it’s interrupted by Angela having a moment of distress (I think this is where Gillen plays a small joke; Isabelle had to read aloud from her teenage diaries to a congregation of worshipers of the Mourner, one of the gods that Isabelle contracts with for miracles; there was a third story earlier, we just weren’t the audience for it).
The reason for Angela’s distress is her realization that she still has one ability that she’s yet to activate since returning to Die. In the backmatter essays, Gillen discusses how he conceived of the Neo as a rogue character who’s untrustworthy specifically because of their nature as addicts. Neo abilities are powered by Fair gold, a special substance that disappears within a day of being looted. Angela has to have a steady supply of the stuff in order to be a contributing member of the party, but up to this point it hasn’t really been established what would compel her to risk the party’s safety to get her hands on the stuff. The bit about the dog nails it down here. Angela’s life is not a great one, and the allure of Die for her is clearly a combination of having her arm back and being able to access a thing she missed deeply at the time of the original disappearance: her dog. There’s more going on here than just the sadness at losing a pet (which I understand is a really deep sort of grief for folks who are inclined to have pets); Casey’s also emblematic of the stuff that Angela had to leave behind at a too young age. Everyone else was about sixteen when they disappeared, which is still awful, but Angela was even younger than that. Childhood nostalgia’s a heady thing, and I can totally see now why that might be a dangerous thing for Angela to have to contend with.