This isn’t the end of Clara Oswald. If nothing else, her death here figures to reverberate throughout each of the next two episodes, and it’s frankly hard to imagine the finale will pass without some appearance from Jenna Coleman in one form or another. (And that’s without getting into parsing cast announcements for future episodes, because it’s not as though the show is above trotting out misdirections inside misdirections.) That “To Be Continued” at the end of tonight’s episode is a reminder that we have only just begun sorting through the consequences of what just happened, and Clara’s death will surely inform the decisions the Doctor makes as he faces his latest, mysterious trial. As such, I think it’s best for me to resist the urge to eulogize Clara too much, if only because it’s still possible—nay, probable—that some manner of twist is coming, even if it doesn’t actually go ahead and resurrect Clara. Instead, let’s keep the focus tightly on what the episode specifically ends up saying about Clara, because “Face The Raven” represents the clear culmination of a character arc that began in the back half of last season, and the payoff for that alone immediately places this story in the top tier of companion departure episodes. (Not that represents the stiffest competition, but still.)
It’s kind of remarkable to look back on Clara’s initial run of episodes alongside Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor and realize that she was, if not exactly a coward (a term I did kick around a couple times back then, probably inaccurately), then at least someone who reacted to the insanity of traveling with the Doctor with distinctly less of the verve and steely resolve that her predecessor Amy Pond had shown. In other words, she reacted to being a Doctor Who companion much as a regular person would, which made it a little funky—though still probably the right move, narratively speaking—when the show began introducing other, even more average people like Danny Pink to point out how much traveling with the Doctor had changed Clara. Though the character-building arc from one point to the other wasn’t the best or smoothest in the show’s history, consider the vast gulf between how a petrified Clara addresses the Half-Face Man in “Deep Breath” and how a confident Clara comes this close to talking the Mire in leaving Earth in “The Girl Who Died,” and would have succeeded if not for Ashildr sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. (Which, huh, that might well count as a bit of a bookend, come to think of it.)
As much as I’ve had my issues with the show’s handling and characterization of Clara, that transformation really does work, mostly because the underlying person doesn’t actually change there. In both those stories, and in pretty much any story with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, Clara is clever, perceptive, and willing to take risks—both with her life and with others’—and all that’s changed is how much she believes in her own abilities. Last season’s “Mummy On The Orient Express” and “Flatline” started kicking around the ideas that Clara was addicted to the thrill of traveling with the Doctor and that she was beginning to act like the Doctor at the expense of some measure of her humanity. Those were fine ideas, though they got a bit lost in the shuffle as the show turned it attention elsewhere with “Dark Water”/“Death In Heaven,” and the attempts to revive those story arcs this season have often felt perfunctory.
Until tonight’s episode. The opener is a good reminder of the power of starting a story mid-sentence (or just after the last sentence had finished, at any rate). Seeing the Doctor and Clara talk about the latest impossible scrape they just extricated themselves from without actually seeing them do it can’t help but make them appear cavalier in response to danger. Just for a moments, they are strangers again, and that glimpse of the part of their lives beyond our view makes it all the harder to watch their final outing together. And there are all the little hints, like the Doctor and Clara being interrupted mid-banter by Rigsy’s phone call and director Justin Molitnikov’s approach to the lighting in that opening scene, which has the Doctor and Clara literally emerge from a bright, smoky glow. Everything underlines the sense that we’ve already witnessed the end of something, even if the TARDIS duo doesn’t realize it yet. And while the parallels between the Doctor and Clara are really underlined once the story reaches the trap street, the rest of the episode weaves in the hints of how the two characters have converged. It’s probably not a total coincidence, for instance, that Clara’s hanging out of the TARDIS—the specific thing the Doctor and Rigsy agree she enjoys far too much—so strongly echoes the 11th Doctor’s similar jaunt through the London sky in “The Day Of The Doctor.”
The dual return of Rigsy and Ashildr, beyond bringing back two of the best guest characters of this Doctor’s era, allows the show to set up a kind of spectrum of humanity, with Clara and the Doctor nestled between the two supporting players. The reactions to Rigsy’s apparent murder victims are telling, even allowing for the fact that this is part of Ashildr’s deception. The self-appointed mayor of the trap street speaks only in terms of the bigger picture, situating the tragedy of the death only in terms of how it threatens the fragile peace of the community. The Doctor asks questions, seeking the information he needs to find a solution. Clara rages against the injustice of Ashildr condemning Rigsy to death without even bothering to determine what actually happened. And Rigsy, for his part, simply asks the name of the woman he supposed killed. All four of them, in one way or another, are demonstrating compassion. It’s just that each character’s compassion operates at a greater level of remove and abstraction as we move from Rigsy to Clara to the Doctor to Ashildr. Rigsy is the only one of the four who, at least in that moment, truly acts as though there is a newly dead body in the room.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the other three, at least not exactly. “Face The Raven” is careful not to judge Clara for the mistake of believing she can take the same kinds of risks that the Doctor does and expect to get away with it. As the Doctor himself argues, it’s not that he’s any better than Clara; he’s just less breakable. The Doctor also does operate with far more extensive knowledge than that of his companion, and with that a greater awareness of when he needs to pause and learn more before deciding to act. Clara internalized the risk-taking of the Doctor without quite understanding the calculations that underpin those risks. She tried to outsmart the universe, not realizing she was finely parsing the wrong sentence. Clara assumed Ashildr’s promise of absolute protection could be considered an immutable fact, when she really should have been focusing on the precise conjunction in Rump’s explanation of how the chronolock works, which left open the possibility that the death sentence could be lifted by the issuer unless it was passed to someone else.
Speaking of which, if there’s one particular issue with “Face The Raven,” it’s that the mumbo jumbo quotient is very high here. Sarah Dollard’s script leans heavily on the fantasy and the fantastical, with the episode couching its explanations of what’s going on in something far more akin to magic than we’re used to seeing on Doctor Who. The decision to have all the aliens of the trap street disguised as humans is smart from a budgetary perspective, if nothing else, and it does lend a dreamlike quality to the proceedings, as though the audience never truly gets to see what’s really going on. The episode avoids the trap of some of the other more mystically inclined Doctor Who episodes, in that its presentation of the more magical elements doesn’t become an excuse for the episode to elide necessary explanations. There are rules here, and indeed Clara’s confusion about what they are proves absolutely crucial. From a plotting perspective, this all works fine, and indeed a lot of it ends up nicely undergirding the story of Clara’s fatal mistake. No, the potential problem with the episode’s magical elements is more one of relatability. A chronolock isn’t just beyond our experience, as it also doesn’t necessarily make all that much sense intuitively, which can make it harder to really feel the full weight of Ashildr and Clara’s decisions. Still, the acting is strong enough for us to feel the emotional stakes of the characters’ decisions, even when they are built around such fantastical elements.
One thing this episode does sidestep is the moral peril of a companion losing her human perspective, which was sort of what the show did way back in “Army Of Ghosts” when Jackie took Rose to task, though that always felt a bit half-formed. “Face The Raven” is far more about the honest mistakes that can happen when a person treats life-or-death matters like a game. What’s nuanced about this is that Clara never loses sight of what this all means to Rigsy, pointing out how devastating it would be for his partner and daughter if he never came home again. Yet she doesn’t think to extend that same concern to herself, in part because, well, the main person left to mourn her is the Doctor. (Yes, I’m aware Clara might have a family. Since we’ve not seen them since “The Time Of The Doctor,” I’m inclined to say they don’t exist anymore, narratively speaking.) Maybe there’s some hubris in Clara believing that she can play with fire so many times without getting burned, but that feels like an unnecessarily ungenerous reading of her motivations here, particularly when she so completely accepts the consequences of her actions.
Once Clara’s mistake is revealed, we see Doctor Who show off one of the greatest newfound strengths of this Doctor’s tenure: the ability to slow things down and let the characters’ interactions guide what happens next. After the breakneck pacing of previous eras, this is essentially decompressed storytelling, and “Face The Raven” provides plenty of time for both the Doctor and Clara to make clear what the latter’s impending death means to them. The Doctor’s opening salvo of threats to Ashildr is terrifying in part because, at least on some subconscious level, the audience must already realize how futile these threats must be as a way to save Clara—if there were some way to prevent her death, surely the Doctor would be busy doing that instead. Certainly Clara recognizes straight away that this is just the Doctor talking himself into rage and revenge, even if his fury would subside in the face of the first crying child.
In some of Clara’s early appearances, especially those alongside the 11th Doctor, the show had trouble defining Clara as a character outside of what she meant to the Doctor; far more so than previous companions, she was a true secondary character, and what she did and said mattered primarily in how it guided the Doctor’s actions. At first blush, Clara’s words to the Doctor fall into that category, yet “Face The Raven” artfully positions what she says so that the show never loses sight of who actually is dying here. Clara comforts the Doctor not because her death is unimportant relative to his pain but because she wants her death to mean something, and she refuses to let him insult her memory by using her death as a motivator for vengeance. It’s the same reason she refuses to let Rigsy feel guilt over her death, and, in its way, why she stops talking to Ashildr the moment the mayor admits that there’s nothing she can do. Clara restricts her focus to what matters to her, and above all she wants to die right, just as Danny did. That’s a fine thing to aspire to, at least in the context of her available options, and she admits she would like the Doctor to find it in himself to be at least a little proud of her as she goes out to face the raven.
“Face The Raven” isn’t quite perfect, but it’s damn close, and it’s hard to imagine a finer exit episode for a companion (notwithstanding the fact that I’m still a little dubious that this is Clara’s actual exit, but what the hey). Doctor Who doesn’t often devote a lot of creative energy to building satisfying departure stories for its companions, particularly in the classic series, but the rare occasions the show has put in an effort have tended to pay dividends: “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday,” “The Angels Take Manhattan,” and “Face The Raven” are all terrific episodes, and I’d say this one surpasses those previous two because it hits just the right balance in devoting plenty of time for the Doctor and companion to say a proper goodbye without falling into the trap of maudlin melodrama. (Not that I’m saying “Doomsday” did that. But let’s just say it was close to doing that.) Clara gets to go out on just about the highest of all possible notes, with both her Doctor and, in Rigsy, her companion by her side, and Jenna Coleman saves her best performance in the role for her last bow, as she easily navigates the gamut of emotions, from exhilaration and joy to outrage to grief tempered by resolve. Clara wasn’t always the most sharply focused companion, but Coleman and Doctor Who as a whole made damn sure that, when it counted most, we knew the full measure of the woman who stepped out that door and faced the raven. Now we find out who precisely the Doctor is when stripped of the person who mattered most to him.
And then that post-credits shot of Rigsy tagging the abandoned TARDIS. There’s not enough heartbreak in the world for that.
- Maisie Williams is excellent again as Ashildr, though she isn’t given quite as much an opportunity to shine as she got in “The Woman Who Lived.” Although the Doctor’s warning to her provides an easy out for her to not appear again, I do hope she comes back at least once more, as that still feels like seriously unfinished business. Honestly, I could see her being a very natural part of Peter Capaldi’s regeneration story, though here’s hoping that’s not for a good little while yet.
- It feels like pretty genuinely awful timing for “Face The Raven” to be about a refugee camp, given how refugees have become such a politically charged topic in the last couple weeks. But since this story doesn’t draw any of the kind of allegorical parallels that the Zygon two-parter did, I’m going to go ahead and call that a coincidence and move on.
- I’m curious to see how much the next two episodes shift our understanding of this story. As much as the “To Be Continued” at the end links it with what comes next, this does feel pretty self-contained, much like “Utopia.” Though I’m hoping the next two episodes aren’t like “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords,” because … well, I probably don’t need to explain that one.