Gargoyles, “Awakening, Parts 4 and 5” (season 1, episodes 4-5; originally aired October 27, 1994 and October 28, 1994)
While watching these two final parts of the Gargoyles series premiere, my roommate came into the room and commented that this is perhaps one of the strangest shows I cover for The A.V. Club, which is saying something when I cover Adventure Time on a weekly basis. And I can understand how this show looks very weird to the casual observer. Brightly colored living Gargoyles from the 10th century fighting bad guys inspired by the video games and comic books of the late 20th century is a wacky premise on the surface, but the writers find ways to make the audience care for these creatures on an emotional level by tapping into the themes that have helped classic superheroes gain cultural significance.
Personal loss and social alienation are two of the most prevalent themes in superhero comics, and they are the driving forces of Gargoyles. We saw the immense personal loss suffered by the characters in the first three parts, and in these last two parts of “Awakening,” we see how that loss has driven a huge wedge between Gargoyles and humans. Goliath already doesn’t trust humans for what they did to the rest of his people, but after these episodes, he learns that no one can be truly trusted, human or Gargoyle alike.
The most significant development in these two episodes is the return of Demona, who is reunited with Goliath as part of David Xanatos’ continued manipulation of the Gargoyles’ leader. Goliath is absolutely elated to see his former lover alive, and it makes him especially susceptible to exploitation. In “Awakening, Part 4,” Demona is still unnamed, referred to as simply “My love” by Goliath to accentuate the intensity of his feelings for her. Before naming themselves, the Gargoyles all just called each other “friend,” but Goliath’s affection for Demona is more passionate than friendship. It’s true love, which makes her betrayal all the more devastating.
In Demona, we have the Magneto to Goliath’s Professor X, a militant activist for Gargoyle rights that is equally devoted to ridding the world of the humans that have transgressed against her people for a millennium. Her prejudice against humans stems from witnessing human prejudice against Gargoyles, much like how Magneto’s childhood experience as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Germany impacted his approach to human-mutant relations. Demona trusts Xanatos because he reunited her with the lost members of her clan, but any human that can’t directly benefit the Gargoyle cause is meaningless. And any human that fights the Gargoyles deserves death.
One of the brilliant things about this series is how it approaches a common theme of art aimed at children: fitting in. Social alienation is something everyone feels at some point, whether it’s in those early childhood years when we’re first acclimating to an environment outside of the home, the time of wild mental, emotional, and physical change that is adolescence, or in adulthood when we learn how the real world functions without the safety nets of youth.
In the X-Men, the characters’ extraordinary abilities alienated them from the rest of society, and as mutations began to have more dramatic physical effects, it became even harder to pass as human. The visual designs of the Gargoyles do incredible work aligning the characters with forces of darkness and evil by giving bat wings, horns, and fangs, creating a strong contrast between their demonic appearances and noble spirits. The character that actually lives up the expectations of her look is appropriately named Demona, and the fact that she embraces that name says a lot about how the past thousand years have changed her.
There’s one more big superhero influence on Gargoyles, and it appears in “Awakening, Part 5,” which introduces David Xanatos’ Steel Clan of robotic Gargoyles. A billionaire with a goatee and a proclivity for technologically advanced suits of armors, Xanatos is two-parts Tony Stark to one-part Lex Luthor, a side that comes through in his devious behavior and desire to obtain the strength of superpowered heroes. The Tony Stark connection will be solidified in the next appearance of the Steel Clan, “The Edge,” and considering Iron Man’s conceptual base as a contemporary take on a medieval suit of armor, it’s an influence that fits wonderfully into this show’s blend of fantasy and science fiction.
Goliath is still reeling from tragedy that is still fresh in his mind, but he hasn’t let that break his resolve and compromise his integrity and morality. He still lives by basic tenants that killing and stealing are wrong, so when he sees Demona’s bloodlust and learns that he and his friend were used by Xanatos to steal discs that weren’t his property, he’s disgusted and infuriated. Seeing his people used as the template for killing machines is just another blow in a long stream of hits, but he’s the leader of his people and he’s not going to let weakness show.
Goliath’s going to destroy every last member of the Steel Clan and stop Demona, but he won’t let that corrupt his character like Demona. Elisa is there to show him that peaceful coexistence is possible, but it won’t become a reality if there aren’t people like Goliath and Elisa on both sides, fighting to show both humans and Gargoyles that their species can be mutually beneficial.
I was raised on Disney cartoons, so I have a natural affinity for Disney princesses and the evil women that stand in their way. Snow White and Cinderella and their evil stepmothers. Aurora and Maleficent. Ariel and Ursula. I also grew up in a house where men were in the minority, so female characters were whom I latched onto most because they were closest to the people I knew. As I grew up and became more bewildered by male-dominated cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series and live-action children’s fare like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, I was still relating to the female characters, and Gargoyles had two of the best realized women in cartoons of the early ’90s with Demona and Elisa.
Elisa Maza has the natural beauty of a Disney princess, but she’s not a damsel in distress. Traditionally feminine qualities like generosity and compassion shine through in Elisa’s interactions with Goliath and the rest of the Gargoyles, but more stereotypically masculine traits like stubbornness and aggression are also incorporated into her character. When Elisa sets her mind to something, she follows through until the task is completed regardless of the obstacles, and if she finds herself in a dangerous situation, she can take care of herself instead of needing a man to help her. (Unless she falls off a building, in which case she’ll need a flying male Gargoyle to save her.)
In “Awakening, Part 4”, we see Elisa go into full badass mode as she takes out the armed thugs that ambushed her and Goliath at the end of part three, a task that becomes far more challenging when the sun comes up and turns Goliath to stone. We see the skills that she’s honed as a detective in this fairly lengthy sequence, starting with Elisa discovering the tracer that’s been put on Goliath. (Later, she does some digging to find that it was placed there by David Xanatos.) She’s outnumbered and outgunned once Goliath is frozen, but she relies on her stealth to systematically take out each of her armed assailants. She’s just so freakin’ cool, and showing her in this favorable light makes the viewer admire her in the same way Goliath does.
After some shoddy animation in parts two and three, the visuals are back to the high quality of the first chapter in the final parts, which feature meticulously detailed environments, smooth action sequences, and vivid, evocative colors. So much of this show takes place at night because of the characters’ nocturnal nature, making Elisa’s daylight fight with Xanatos’ goons a striking shift that is highlighted by the bright blue, greens, and yellows that dominate the sequence.
When the Gargoyles face off against the steel clan, explosions of hot red, yellow, and orange pierce cool nighttime shades, a color contrast that is used to heighten the impact of the battle. The detail of the park is just gorgeous (I would love to see the original background paintings for that scene), and that level of attention to the setting continues throughout as the Gargoyles find themselves in more traditional superhero environments like helicarriers and skyscrapers.
“Awakening” ends with Demona presumed dead, David Xanatos hauled off to prison, and the Gargoyles going to sleep atop Castle Wyvern as Elisa wonders if the city is ready for its new winged protectors. A complete story is told with plenty of threads left dangling for future episodes, making it a fantastic origin story that is brimming with narrative potential. New York City may not be ready, but this is the kind of ambitious series that children’s television desperately needed when Gargoyles debuted.
- Why hello, The Lion King on Hudson’s TV. Just in case you forgot who was producing this show.
- Brooklyn, Broadway, Lexington, and Bronx take their names this week. We also learn why the first three love the modern era: Brooklyn gets to tap into his cool side, Lexington has all kinds of technological wonders to explore, and Broadway gets to eat food from all over the world.
- Amazing Keith David line delivery of the week: “I cannot make war upon an entire world!”
- “Lot to go through for a piece of lawn sculpture.”
- “With you alive, I can start to live again as well.”
- “We’ve dreamed for a thousand years, Goliath. It’s time for our dreams to come true.”
- “Chinese food. It was good, too. But for some reason, an hour later I was hungry again.”