Hey remember Game of Thrones…that was a thing. If the success of Netflix’s The Witcher has shown anything, it’s that audiences still have a craving for more adult fantasy with moral ambiguity and political intrigue. That said, while I enjoyed the first season of Geralt’s journey into legend, it felt more like…well, like this:
Not that there’s anything wrong with being the next Xena. Definitely nothing wrong there. Much to my surprise, however, I found another Netflix offering did a much better job of scratching that Game of Thrones intrigue itch. If you want complex characters living in a fully realized fantasy world of political complexities and societal strife, you really should check out The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, or as I’ve started calling it: Game of Muppets.
Setting the Scene: Establishing the Strife
Right away, the two shows start in similar fashion. Remember Game of Thrones wonderful opening? Well, Dark Crystal doesn’t do that, mostly because it can’t, not without being called an outright copycat. Instead, it devotes its opening minutes to quickly exposition dumping about the world of the gelfling, which in this show is comprised of seven separate clans that exist in a less-than-equal social hierarchy.
All of the clans, however, fall under the rule of the Lords of the Crystal – beings known as the Skeksis. The gelfling have placed all their trust in the Skeksis to rule benevolently and do what is right for all. For the record, here is what the Skeksis look like:
So yeah, you see how things may go badly.
The Skeksis, turns out, may not have the gelflings’ best interest in mind. They may, in fact, want the exact opposite. However, rather than easily unite against the common foe, much of the first season of The Dark Crystal explores how everyone is too busy distrusting one another to unite.
Just like Game of Thrones, The Dark Crystal brings us a fantasy world that is not the typical black-and-white we’re expecting. Not even every Skeksis turns out to be evil, although they do all look like nightmare fuel. The first episode sets up a setting of disconnected, isolated people powerless to unite against the one thing they all have in common: their overloads. They’re not directly pitted against one another – this ain’t Hunger Games, but they do take pleasure in putting down any gelfling seen as coming from a lower class.
The Chamberlain vs. Little Finger
Probably the character who would most easily slide from the puppet-filled plains of Thra to the wintry world of Westoros is the Chamberlain, also known as skekSil. See, unlike the White Walkers, the Skeksis are not just “bad guys.” There’s more to them. They are plenty evil sure, but this malice manifests in different forms depending on the Skeksis.
For skekSil, being evil means being self-serving. He is by far the most political of all the Skeksis, preferring diplomacy and negotiating to combat or brute force. He is also willing to double-talk, promise conflicting things to different people. All of this adds up to, you guessed it: intrigue – by the truckload. Speaking only for myself, I personally found every scene with this guy in it to be more engaging than anything in the last two seasons of Game of Thrones…probably within the last three actually.
Then, of course, there’s his trademark “whimpering”:
And that’s just from the movie. Man does he make that sound a lot – usually whenever he sees something that interests him/he thinks he can turn to his advantage.
Laying the Thematic Groundwork for a Story about Genocide
I’m going to get into spoilers here…I guess? I mean, The Dark Crystal film came out in came out in 1982 so 38-year-old spoiler warning! In the film, the gelfling are nearly extinct. We only ever see two of them. In the prequel show well, there’s a lot more gelfling running around. So, we go into the story knowing they are going to lose…badly.
What’s terrific is how the show plays with this knowledge. Losing the war doesn’t mean losing every battle, so the gelfling have their share of ups in season one. More importantly, Netflix’s series underlays the cultural reason why the gelfling will lose: They’re not evil. They’re not killers. Most won’t press their advantage even when they have it. All they want is to survive, they have no desire to triumph over the Skeksis.
Which is not great since the Skeksis have no objection to slaughtering every gelfling they can. The Skeksis fight to destroy, the gelfling fight to protect. It’s a stark contrast that few stories get right. In fact, years ago I wrote about how several notable pieces (like Transformers and Man of Steel) got this element wrong. If the good guys are supposed to be “pure of heart” then you can’t have them commit casual murder and be psychologically fine.
So yeah, you care about the gelfling and you want to see them victorious, but you can also understand why they won’t like. Likewise, you can see how the Skeksis will ultimately fail as well. While they prey on the divided gelfling, they themselves are far from unified and will never be so because they are largely incapable of selfless desire. Everything each Skeksis does is for the betterment of that particular individual first and foremost. Their infighting and squabbles will prevent them from fully defeating their enemy.
So yeah, there you go. I hope I didn’t spoil too much. Do yourself a favor and go watch the show if you haven’t seen it already. It’s terrific storytelling, not to mention visually captivating. Honestly, the biggest problem with The Dark Crystal is that the movie (which currently serves as the end of the story) is far from perfect. That said, it is better than the ending of Game of Thrones, so it’s got that going for it…which is nice.