The villain’s villain: Big bads, small fry, and the dynamics of power (Or, A review of SVTFOE: The Battle for Mewni)

Last week, Disney XD released the long-awaited, three-episode Season Three opener of “Star vs. The Forces of Evil,” titled “The Battle for Mewni.”

For those of you unfamiliar with this show, it essentially follows magical girl/rebel princess Star Butterfly of the Mewni dimension after she is sent to Earth to learn how to employ her magical princess powers. She befriends human boy/karate kid Marco Diaz, and together they hop through dimensions and battle the monsters (literally) who would strip Star of her magical wand.

Star GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

From the get-go, there are two main villains in this story. The first is Ludo, a tiny owl-like creature who is intent on getting Star’s wand and has somehow corralled a group of hapless but far more intimidating monsters to do his bidding. The second is Toffee. We’ll get to him in a minute.

Ludo is what I like to call the “Emperor Pilaf” of SVTFOE: determinedly evil but hopelessly (and hilariously) inept. He has moments where he poses a true threat to the life and safety of our heroes, but mostly he’s just there to kickstart the series with some kind of conflict. Like Emperor Pilaf in “Dragon Ball” (and if you have not watched “Dragon Ball,” drop whatever you’re doing and go watch ALL 200 episodes IMMEDIATELY. I’ll wait.), Ludo is there to provide structure and purpose to a set of episodes as a season, as opposed to it simply being our two protagonists (Star/Marco; Goku/Bulma) overcoming a series of minor hurdles.

Excuse me while I quake in fear. Via Tumblr

Ludo in particular provides some much-needed worldbuilding to the SVTFOE universe: he gives us a sense of what monsters’ lives are like and why they would want control over the wand so badly. His misadventures humanizes monsters, which gains increasing importance as the series goes on. More importantly, he is there as a contrast to what true evil really looks like.

And now let’s talk about Toffee.

Damn…

Toffee starts out as Ludo’s right hand man (*ahem*). He’s clearly the brains of the operation, inasmuch as there is one, and he eventually leads an ouster of Ludo after several episodes of hilarious incompetence.

Unfortunately, the ouster of Ludo is not hilarious, because Toffee is not here to screw around. No, Toffee knows exactly what he’s doing, and he has a plan, a long-term, insidious plan. And thus you have the Big Bad facing off with the Small Fry.

Without giving too much away, Toffee possesses Ludo and uses him as a hapless, harmless-looking vessel from which to achieve his goals. Once he’s done with him, he spits him out – literally.

Yeah, good luck sleeping tonight

“The Battle for Mewni” is the climax of the Toffee/Ludo storyline, in the sense that you see the true extent of Toffee’s powers and his abuse of Ludo. The interaction between Toffee and Ludo in this finale is what really captured my attention.

From the start, it was obvious that Toffee was using Ludo for his own goals. In many ways, Ludo was the perfect tool, since he’d been trying to capture Star’s wand for ages without even the hope of success. Star had no reason, at that point, to see him as a legitimate threat – the most he was was an inconvenience. Who better to hide behind than the one nobody takes seriously?

But here’s the thing: once Ludo outlives his usefulness, he’s tossed out as the viewing audience would expect. But Ludo comes back with renewed vigor and this time, he’s actually successful even without the help of his monster crew. BUT – and I know this is a lot of buts – he’s always clearly inferior to Toffee. At no point does he pose a serious threat to Toffee’s goals.

So why does Toffee use him again?

Why Ludo?

Villain vs. Villain is a lot more interesting than Villain vs. Hero

From where I’m sitting, there doesn’t seem to be anything that Toffee can do via Ludo that he couldn’t do without him. Ludo’s ineptitude makes him a comical figure as the usurping kind of Mewni, but what purpose does that serve? Ludo effectively forces the Mewmans into servitude, but surely Toffee would have been even better at that. And in the end, it doesn’t even seem that Toffee is particularly interested in ruling Mewni – having (supposedly) defeated Star and her allies, he simply turns to leave, walking away from the ruins of Mewni.

Let’s compare this to Dragon Ball one more time. In the second to last arc of the series, Emperor Pilaf and his gang revive the Demon King Piccolo after numerous failed attempts to capture the dragon balls for themselves. Their plan is to use his superior powers to gather the dragon balls and then steal them for themselves.

Image result for king piccolo with the pilaf gang
You can tell already this was a bad idea. Source

This, obviously, is not going to work.

Once again, there is no doubt at any point that the Pilafites are in over their heads. They can never be a threat to King Piccolo because he is simply operating at a level beyond their capacity – they cannot even begin to contemplate the evil that he has planned. And, much as you would expect, he only keeps them around while they are useful to him. Once they’ve outlived that usefulness, he dumps them.

So why does Toffee go back to Ludo when he no longer needs him?

In her blog post, writer Katie Cooney identifies nine elements that make for exciting, threatening villains, and a few of these points are very relevant to a discussion of Toffee. The first is his surface motivation. When we first meet Toffee, it seems pretty obvious that what he wants is power. He pretends to believe in Ludo as a leader, but really he wants to wear that hat himself. He pretends to want the monsters as a group to be successful, and that serves as excellent cover for his ouster of Ludo. And truly, power suits him. (See image above. Not the throwing up one, before that).

But what power really is, is control. Toffee wants control – over the monsters, over the Butterflies, over Mewni. When we see him in flashback, we see that had once had control, over a literal army of monsters who believed in him, and who would have followed him into the depths of Hell (or Heaven, depending on your perspective) because of his ability to project dominance.

And then teeny-bopper Queen Moon cuts of his finger.

This flashback scene, I think, is crucial, because it encapsulates the moment when Toffee’s end goal changed. Now he wants that finger, not in his hand but on it, because it represents everything that he lost in that moment – not just control, but the prestige, the respect, the dominance that gave him that control in the first place.

Without the finger, Toffee is emasculated (and yes, I mean that with all the connotations it implies). As long as he doesn’t have the finger, his need for control is overwhelming. He takes a perverse pleasure in forcing Star to be the architect of her wand’s destruction. And he keeps going back to Ludo.

Ludo is easy to control. He’s small and pathetic and in over his head. Even at the height of his power, he is easy prey. Toffee has influence over the other monsters, but without his finger, he needs something more. He needs that tangible control over Ludo’s mind and body to exert dominance. The stronger his hold over Ludo becomes, the more forward he is about decimating Mewni’s magical population. A fingerless Toffee would never have attacked the magical high commission, but in the body of Ludo, he takes them on with a smile on his face.

Once he has the finger, he can walk away. His prestige has been returned to him. He’s proven that can still exert dominance, can still run the show, without it. With it, he is invincible.

Well, not really, because Star kills him. But you get the idea.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of Big Bad-Small Fry interaction before, and I thought it was fascinating – you can tell because I’m still thinking about it a week later. Now, with Toffee seemingly vanquished and Ludo safely on his way to a redemption arc, I’m excited to see what the show does with new villains. Toffee’s demise left a lot of questions unanswered, and I don’t know how they’re going to top his ‘rise to power’ arc.

Season three of “Star vs. the Forces of Evil” resumes in November on Disney XD.

What do you think? Is Toffee coming back in season three? And will any villain ever be able to make us feel the way he did? Let me know!

Nadia watches Netflix: Gotham Season 1

A couple weeks ago, I binged the entire first season of “Gotham” on Netflix. “Gotham,” for those of you who are unaware, is a prequel of the Batman lore and follows Jim Gordon and his budding police career. We also get to see a young Bruce Wayne as he copes with the aftermath of his parents’ murder.

I was intrigued by “Gotham” not because I’m a Batman aficionado (I watched the animated series as a kid, but that was about it), but because Gordon is played by none other than “The O.C.’s” Ryan Atwood, whose IRL name is, Wikipedia informs me, actually Ben McKenzie.

The 2000s was really my heyday in terms of pop culture awareness, so Ryan (that’s his name as far as I’m concerned) is one of a few select group of television stars that I recognize on sight (others include Rory and Lorelai from “Gilmore Girls” and Kristen Bell, who will forever be Veronica Mars in my eyes. You thought I was kidding when I said the 2000s were my heyday, didn’t you?).

Anyway, I wanted to see what Ryan was up to, and I sunk like a rock into the dark world that “Gotham” imagines. I got through the first season almost compulsively because nearly every episode ended on a cliffhanger and I had to see what happens next. But it’s also a very violent show, so I needed a break between seasons. In the meantime, I thought I’d summarize everything I liked and didn’t like about the first season. Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead:

I liked:

  • Jim Gordon: I like Ryan in this new role. I mean, Jim Gordon is essentially a grown-up version of Ryan Atwood, complete with “strong, silent type” demeanor and a predilection towards emotionally unstable blonde girls.
  • Baby Bruce Wayne: It’s actually kinda fun watching a teenage Bruce Wayne develop the skills that he would utilize as Batman later on. Plus the kid who plays him, David Mazouz, is a surprisingly good actor.
  • Alfred: is badass. Seriously, I don’t know how he got the job as the Wayne’s butler, but clearly they were anticipating needing more than just a guy who can answer a door because Alfred is one tough cookie.
  • Harvey Bullock: Donal Logue makes everything better. I just love him.

  • Fish Mooney: I don’t know why, but something about Jada Pinkett-Smith in this bizarre and overly dramatic role just speaks to me. Actually I do know why: it’s because I like watching a tiny lady stab giant men. I’m super bummed she was drowned(?).

  • Edward Nygma: His descent into madness will clearly be the highlight of the next season.

  • Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot: He gives the me the heebie-jeebies, but I kinda want him to see him become the ultimate mob boss. It’s that physically underwhelming guy being the one in control thing again.

I didn’t like:

  • Selina Kyle: For a street urchin, this girl is surprisingly well-groomed and well-dressed. I’m not buying it. Scruff her up a little!
  • Barbara Kean: I knew she was crazy the minute she came onscreen, because a) see predilection for unstable blonde chicks referenced above, and b) she basically didn’t have a personality at all until the last third of the season, and unfortunately when writers don’t know what to do with a character, they make end up making her crazy.

  • Leslie Thompkins: This character is played by the girl who was the barista with crazy eyes on “How I Met Your Mother,” and once you’ve seen crazy eyes on a person, it’s hard to unsee them.
  • The Dollmaker: This was a stupid subplot and a giant waste of time.
  • Victor Zsasz: I like the actor, but I don’t get the character. There are already enough visibly disturbed people on this show. What is he adding here? Not much from where I’m sitting.
  • The city itself: Are we even going to pretend that this isn’t actually New York City? Not gonna even try? No? Okay then. Seriously, it’s jarring to be sucked into the story only to have it interrupted by what is obviously the New York City skyline. I’ll pretend that “Gotham” takes places in an alternate universe where New York City just has a different name, but I won’t like it.

 

The case for close-ended shows

Does it though? Image by Brandon Martin-Anderson via Flickr.

You, the reader, probably don’t watch a whole lot of Arabic television, but I do. But this not a list of the differences between Arabic and English television shows. That would be too long.

No, this is the case for incorporating one particular aspect of Arabic drama into the world of Western television, and that aspect is the closed ending.

Consider: the most satisfying aspect of a story in any format is that it’s building towards some kind of climax, followed by a winding down to a sensible end. This is story arcs 101, and there’s a reason for that: it works. When you don’t have a specified end, you force the story to continue in ways that are inorganic and ultimately dissatisfying.

Couldn’t be any simpler. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Think about it, how many of your favorite shows ended up going down the tubes after three or four seasons, rehashing old plot-lines and resorting to obnoxious guest characters to force humor and/or drama where none can grow?

Or even worse, how many shows were cancelled after one or two seasons, leaving the dedicated viewer grasping at straws, forced to resort to that dark side of the Internet, fanfiction, in a desperate attempt to gain some form of closure?

Compare that to your average Arabic television drama, which wraps up in quick and easy 30 episodes. This ensures that the show will have a beginning, a middle, and, thankfully, an end. Within that tried and true structure, you have character development, crisis and resolution, and an overall sense of structure. Even when the end is left purposely open, at least you have a sense that the main plot is wrapped up.

There are, of course, many shows that follow a season format, but that’s usually because they cannot, for whatever reason, resolve the major plot points within 30 episodes. At most you’ve got a story that 90 episodes to end. That’s still much less than the average six-season American television show, which at 22 episodes a season is over 120 episodes! That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that a lot of these episodes involve either a) upping the dramatic ante until it reaches previously unheard of levels of insanity (*cough “Grey’s Anatomy” cough*), b) employing ridiculously convoluted plot twists in an attempt to maintain viewer interest (“Pretty Little Liars” is particularly notorious for this), or c) beating the “will they won’t they” drama to death (“Friends” and, increasingly, “New Girl”).

Stop this plot! In the name of proper storytelling structure!

I’m not alone in thinking our shows go on for way too long: more and more new shows are debuting at just 10 episodes in their first season. In an interview with Variety, television producer and the brains behind Parks and Rec, Mike Schur, says, “…there’s more of a sense that shows should have a number of episodes that befits that idea, instead of just, ‘Let’s do as many as we possibly can.'”

It’s a trend that many credit to networks like HBO, AMC, and Starz. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not enough. The problem is not the number of episodes per season, it’s the number of episodes overall. So I say it’s time to take a page out of the book of Arabic television and commit only to shows that have both a start and an end.

Goodbye show. We knew ye a little too well.