There is a lot to like about The Almighty Johnsons, for one thing it is not embarrassing. Sure, there’s a certain element of “cultural cringe”, but it’s fairly well made, the scripts are fairly coherent, and so on. I like the premise of the show, even if by now it’s not precisely a new concept. I generally find the characters charming enough and likeable enough, and they have had some interesting story lines and interpretations of beloved mythical characters.
There are some things not to like though. There are two that were a little submerged in Season 1 which have more prominently surfaced at times in Season 2. One is structural, and one is political- we’ll start with the easy political problem, because in some ways it’s a pre-condition for the structural problems.
In short, I think the show has difficulties with the idea of consent – not just sexual consent, but that’s the most serious of this problem’s facets. There are lots of examples of various scales. At the smallest end is the way the characters arrange meetings. At various times, things happen which need to be addressed by the group – inevitably the gathering is initiated by a terse phone call where one character demands the others come to them, offers no explanation, and expresses how urgent it is. It’s not a dialogue, it’s a demand, every single time. The idea of entreating or negotiating seems completely foreign – everything is a subtle expression of power. At a few crucial times, circumstances are resolved by negotiation, but even those are perfunctory resolutions after a good deal of posturing.
I suppose it’s inevitable that this should come up in a show whose premise is connected with destiny. The main cast are the mortal embodiments of deities, and many of their actions are more than influenced by the deity that inhabits them. Deities are not people, after all, but semi-abstract collections of natural traits. In the first season of the show, one of the main plot threads was one character’s rejection of his powers – he did everything he could to live as a mortal before finally capitulating near the end of the season. That capitulation set off a train of events that saw his wife leave him for her True Love, who had been in a coma for 20 years. I saw the first season of the show as making a serious effort to engage with the problematic nature of predestination, and eventually finding a kind of equilibrium, where the characters can’t control their fundamental natures, but can direct them towards particular ends. Obviously, the idea of consent becomes constrained when the idea of choice is so heavily proscribed.
This idea remains present in the second season, but the emphasis has been far more on indulging in their natural behaviours, and exploring the consequences of this. This has been framed by the characters in terms of unhealthy addictions. One character in particular, Ty, is described and depicted in similar terms to any other addict – a self-destructive spiral fuelled by his drug of choice, in this case that is another character. This expresses itself in some uncomfortable ways when sex is involved.
For example, Colin and Michele are in a relationship at the start of the season, and he is quite up-front in demanding sexual services. Eventually, around 2/3 of the way through the season, she leaves him and cites his treatment of her, saying she’s not a whore he can simply use for sex. This does not become a site of resistance to the idea of sexual servitude, because she goes directly to Mike and offers him a package deal of her as his lover and ally – if she wasn’t a whore before, why is she effectively selling herself to cement an alliance with Mike. Mike agrees to her terms – but demands she prove the value of an alliance first, inducing her to force one of their cohorts to temporarily fall in love with an undesirable mortal. That’s non-consensual sexual slavery (albeit, temporary), and as the victim herself points out, there’s a word for that. Nothing much happens as a result, except that Mike and Michele become a couple.
It’s hard to interpret any part of the fiction as offering a critique of the idea that forcing someone else to have sex for your advantage is okay. This is a point really rammed home later in the season. Anders spent all of Season 1 using his native charm in combination with his godlike powers of persuasion to bed a string of women. Whether that sex was consensual or not, it was predatory in the extreme. I felt like the fiction treated it lightly, but did offer a critique, showing him in a consistently negative light. In Season 2, with that background established, he baulks at using those powers to dodge a hefty lunch bill. It’s hard not to make the direct comparison that forcing women to have sex with you is okay, but stealing is wrong ™.
To a certain extent, this approach to consent goes hand in hand with most deities in myths. There are no shortage of stories where, particularly male, deities rape mortals at will and whim. It never ends well for the women. The reduced critique of these issues in the second season goes hand in hand with its descent into its own mythology – the second problem I had with Season 2.
In Season 1, there was a core cast of deities, but the majority of the story revolved around how their powers and inclinations interacted with the mortal world. In Season 2, the representation of mortals rests more-or-less on the shoulders of two residual characters from the first season and no new mortal characters are introduced – in fact, most of the characters we thought were mortal in Season 1 turn out to be gods as well. I doubt that bothers most people, but I think the shift introduces some problems into the narrative that were avoidable.
The “genre” of Urban Fantasy still feels a bit tentative to me. There is such a substantial bleed-through from horror, super-heroes and “magical realism” (whatever that means), that it often seems premature to discuss it as a term or use it to think about creative works. For a primer in the kinds of concepts I’m bringing to bear refer to my earlier post, Text and Subtext. The mythic elements of an Urban Fantasy are used to explore non-mythic elements which we could term “the human experience”. Fantasies that take place exclusively in their own mythological space might be better thought about as portal-fantasies. I think I might have misunderstood Kraken, because I was fooled by the veneer of the real world. If I’d thought about it as taking place entirely in its own reality, in the same way as, say, The Half-men of O, I might have liked it better.
Season 1 of The Almighty Johnsons was unequivocally an Urban Fantasy, in that it overlaid fantastical elements over a realistic modern urban setting. It used those elements to pose questions about identity, love, and destiny; all concepts familiar from “real” literature. By descending into its own mythology in Season 2, it loses its ability to speak to wider issues than inherent in its own characters and premises. Instead of raising questions about the human experience ™, it raises questions about being the embodiment of a Norse god in modern NZ; far less interesting questions, as everyone shares the human experience, but few of us are embodied deities. That is not necessarily a fatal flaw; portal fantasies like The Half-men of O encourage us to use the construction of the fantasy world as a prism to look outside of the fiction. I didn’t get much of an impression from Season 2 that it was trying to do that – it seemed content to become increasingly self-reflective.
The last couple of episodes of the season go some way to ameliorating these problems by explicitly giving two key characters a choice about their destiny and hence allowing characters to directly engage with these core difficulties of consent and submersion into the mythological space. It is possible at the close of the season to look back and see a lot of the story events as the natural result of the characters losing touch with their humanity. The characters who are the least successful are those who’re most deeply embedded in their mythic identity. The problems I’ve been having during Season 2 feel in some ways like faults in execution, but it is also possible that what I am identifying here is a deliberate design strategy that didn’t appeal to my particular sensibilities. Either way, I think sufficient remains to like about the show that when it’s available I’ll watch Season 3.