Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 3

When last we left off, Judah was pestering Connie and making plans to ask her master (aka Eugene) about owning her body and entire life from now on marrying her.

Then they run into the Romans, and Judah insists on eavesdropping. Felix and Lucanus are expecting some kind of revolt, but have opposite views on how to handle it. Felix is spoiling for a fight. Lucanus is hoping to de-escalate any situation that arises. Once that has been re-established for the audience, Lucanus announces he’s sleeping in the courtyard, since there’s no inn. It’s not like he could commandeer any building he wants or anything.

Next comes a jarring cut to the sound of a baby crying, and Connie announcing to the men that Jesus has been born. Off-screen. Which, you know, is fine. It’s not like we were building up to that moment or anything.

Eugene and Connie have about ten seconds of back and forth. Connie is thrilled by what she just witnessed, and she’s just shouting about how Eugene should have been there. Eugene makes a point about how he couldn’t, old timey traditions say “no mensfolk allowed in the birthing chambers.”

This almost feels like they are trying to reward Connie for enduring all this sexism. This entire adventure has sucked for her, but at least she got to see one thing Eugene didn’t get to witness! It’s a pretty lousy compensation. It’s not like his absence somehow made it more special. I mean, I’ve certainly heard people arguing that sexism was fine because while women are dehumanized they are also idolized, and stuff like childbirth and menstruation gets to be all magical and inaccessible and those two things totally balance out…. wait, is that actually the point they are trying to make?

You know what, let’s put a pin in that. We are almost at the end.

Eugene goes to get Hezekiah. While waiting for him to return, Connie to accidentally runs into General Lucanus, who is pretty much playing creepster bingo. Interrupting her work and ignoring her protests? Check. Ignores multiple attempts to leave? Check. Says he’s been watching her? Takes her hands without her permission and talks about how soft and delicate they are? Asks if she wants to go to Rome, and then cuts immediately to “I’ll speak to your master about it” without giving her a chance to give a clear yes or no? Check check checkity check.

It’s like he knows the story is almost over and he is way behind Judah on the creepster scale.

Speaking of Judah, he pops out of nowhere and heroically announces that no, he’s not taking her to Rome! Because who needs all that “respect a woman’s choices” crap when you can just have two men fight over which choice she doesn’t get to make?

So Lucanus and Judah have a swordfight while Connie begs them to stop. They both ignore her. Lucanus easily beats Judah, then Connie knocks Lucanus out with a water pot. Judah, once again, is upset that she helped, and then decides to just kill Lucanus while he’s unconscious and helpless. Wow, my hero.

Connie won’t let him, proving once and for all that even if these guys gave a shit about her as a person, and even if they weren’t just simulations in a computer program, she would still be way too good for either of them.

Naturally, as Judah respects neither basic human ethics nor Connie’s point of view, she can’t just say “don’t do the bad thing” and let that be that. No no no, she’s more stalling him with an argument until some menfolks come along to actually stop it. Hey, you know who we haven’t seen for a while? Eugene and Hezekiah.

They come in, see her arguing with Judah and wrestle his sword away. Hezekiah and Judah rant politics vs religion at each other for a little while, without listening to what the other is saying. Then the Romans show up. Felix arrests Hezekiah and Eugene, assuming that being in the vicinity of an unconscious Roman means they are somehow guilty of something, while Judah runs off.

I’ve given this episode a lot of grief for inaccuracy, both historical and human, but they got one thing right. If a guy’s ego can’t handle a woman helping out, then, when you leave him to handle his own shit, he’ll be a total wuss.

Once the coast is clear, Judah returns and tells Connie that he’s running off. Again. In a more permanent sense this time. He asks her forgiveness for being stubborn. She adds immature and inconsiderate to the list, but does forgive him. See previous statement, re: her being way too good for him. But oh-uh, Felix once again shows up and arrests him.

Is it just me, or is this episode mostly just people showing up and disappearing and showing up again?

Well, now all the men are locked up and none of them have gotten to see baby Jesus. We don’t have time for a cool jailbreak, so instead Lucanus regains consciousness. He tells Felix that Judah isn’t to blame. He was attacked by a “wild-eyed revolutionary, but all I see here is a jealous boyfriend.” Wow, nice burn. You’re still a creepy-ass motherfucker. He tells Felix that Eugene and Hezekiah aren’t responsible either, and tells everyone to go to bed.

Later Judah retracts the proposal that Connie totally didn’t accept, because the feelings of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Dude, you’re not Humphrey Bogart, there’s no plane, and she did not come to you last night asking that you decide for all of us because everything is too complicated. You’re a loudmouthed wuss with no real plans except taking off, and she’s a woman who has repeatedly told you she’s not interested.

Also, in a battle of the two creepsters, you’re the non-imperialist of an appropriate age, yet you still managed to be the less likable character. Just, fuck off already.

Shepherds show up raving about angels, and after they’ve had their turn to fawn over the baby, Eugene, Connie and Hezekiah finally get to meet Jesus. I mean, Connie already has, but now she gets to do it with Eugene. And a random old guy. Hezekiah gushes over the baby, and Eugene starts crying. He ends the program, as he’s too choked up to continue.

Aaaand that’s it. That’s seriously where the story ends. Whit and Connie are all, “aw, Eugene got emotional? That’s so sweeeet,” and roll credits.

I’ve already said a lot about the three major issues with this story. Eugene’s character arc relies on him forgetting that this is all a simulation, and he’s canonically a computer scientist. The historical accuracy is overhyped, to say the least. And Connie spends most of the time being subjected to one kind of humiliation or another. Each of those things are problematic individually, but I’ve talked plenty about that during parts one and two. Now I want to look at how they all interact together, because even if they had been executed better, they are a very incongruous mix.

Good writers use thematic elements to link disparate elements together. Les Miserables, for example, follows a large cast of characters, many of whom never meet. It contains stories so complex that an entire revolution becomes a subplot and we are all cool with it. But every story element feels like it belongs, because of their thematic links. They all show characters who are powerless against systemic oppression, but able to alleviate each other’s pain with small acts of individual kindness. So what is the point of Back to Bethlehem?

Well, at the beginning, Eugene and Connie have a conflict. They trust Whit to resolve it with his computer program because he is so wise and all-knowing. That’s why the continued, if somewhat undeserved, insistence  The text of that conflict is that Eugene is skeptical of the Nativity story, while Connie views it through sappy eggnog tinted glasses. This is a narrative from a Christian perspective, so naturally Eugene needs his skepticism to be fixed, so he can eventually become religious and not burn for all eternity in hell, simply for expecting evidence. Okay, internally consistent if not something I can really approve of. Why does Connie need her perspective changed?

As I said last time, while I think Connie’s feminist leanings are awesome, I still am in favor of her learning a more complex understanding of women’s history. But I don’t think this episode showed that happening. She spent a lot of time being humiliated, dehumanized and harassed, and very little time appreciating her work. The only happy moment she really had was when she witnessed the birth of Jesus, and that was mostly offscreen. If we are assuming AIO is aiming to teach her what I thought she needed to learn, that was a very clumsy execution.

But there’s another way to look at this story. See, I’ve said over and over again that Connie was humiliated, but her reactions aren’t those of someone in real pain. She is experiencing days of isolation, but doesn’t act lonely. She is experiencing days of hard manual labor, but doesn’t act exhausted. She is experiencing sexual harassment, but doesn’t act scared.  She rants and grumbles, sure, but in a way that only someone mildly inconvenienced has energy to do.

Also, while the argument that started all this might have been about the realism of conventional nativity scenes, the subtext was about sexism. In the middle of some normal teasing, Eugene took offense at a comment that threatened his masculinity, and reacted by pretending she should, for some reason, follow old fashioned sexist norms.

Then, during one of her final scenes, she is overjoyed at witnessing a birth that men were barred from.

I think the real point of this was to tell Connie that things weren’t all that bad back in sexism times.

As to the writer’s actual intent, I don’t know. I don’t live in their minds. But I do know that, when talking to men, especially older men, experiences of sexism often get discounted. As a kid, I was often told that things used to be so much more unfair and nobody minded. The fact that people bothered to change things is, apparently, not proof enough that somebody minded. I also notice that, now that I’ve transitioned, simply being male is enough to make people take my experiences of female gender bias more believable. I tell men who routinely dismiss sexual harassment about what it was like to be scared to wander down the streets, and they pause. They are startled. They take me seriously, because I’m trans male. My point is, I don’t think it’s unfair to think that these writers might be writing this episode to show little girls how sexism really isn’t that bad, because it’s a mentality I encounter all the time, among both conservative and liberal men.

And even if that was not their intent, I think it is worth taking a bit of a death of the author stance here. When I listened to this episode, for the first time in years, I did not remember how sexist this episode was towards Connie. That is, each event individually felt familiar, but I was thinking, for the first time, “holy shitballs, Connie is being picked on for her gender in literally every scene.” Sometimes, I actually remembered finding the scenes of harassment funny, even though, when I was placed in Connie’s shoes in real life, I found it painful and dehumanizing.

I think that’s why we don’t get to see Jesus’ actual birth. We are watching and laughing at Connie, but we are feeling with Eugene. They are both protagonists, but Eugene is the locus of empathy. His feelings matter, and are (however inaccurately) developed. Hers don’t, and we get to laugh at them.

I’m featuring this as part of my politics theme, because it did the best job of showing how AIO treats gender issues, on the rare occasion that they are addressed even sort of explicitly.

Hardly anybody on this show breaks with gender norms in any way. Girls like shopping and makeup, women are either housewives or have an appropriately feminine job description. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Many women are like that, and if, as a writer, you prefer writing femme women, that’s cool. It also shows femme women as strong. Lisa from my prior episode was a great example. She’s both outspoken and a girly girl, and the episode shows how her gentle caregiving approach is not inherently less valuable than Nick’s manly confrontational one. I genuinely think stories like that are awesome.

But it does sometimes have female characters complain about sexism, and when that happens, those complaints are rarely taken seriously. They are instead used as setups for jokes at the female characters’ expense. Sexism passes without comment, while feminist characters are quietly humiliated.

This show rarely does anything as straightforward as argue against women’s issues. It just quietly normalizes sexism, so subtly you can’t even be sure how intentional it is.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: Eugene is worried that his name won’t fit in with the denizens of the Imagination Station. So he introduces himself as Eugenius. The more you think about it the funnier it gets.

Worst Moment: The one where you realized that Whit actually had think up a program where his teenaged employee gets not one but two virtual reality stalkers. I just hope there’s something to the program that stops General Lucanus from treating girls who are younger than her that way. The more you think about it, the creepier it gets.

Moral Rating: What was even the point!?!?! I mean, I guess I just spent several paragraphs speculating on the point, but even my best guess was equal parts shoddy and shitty. F

Story Rating: To be honest, if you took the adventure out of the Imagination Station, and made Eugene and Connie two regular travelers who happen to meet Mary and Joseph in ancient Bethlehem, this might be a pretty good story. But the Imagination Station sucks the drama out of every plot point. How does Hezekiah know that Jesus is the Messiah? Because he was programmed to. It’s the Imagination Station. Are Connie and Eugene going to find Mary and Joseph? Of course they are. That’s the point of the whole adventure. It’s the Imagination Station. Will either of Connie’s icky suitors win her over? Probably not, because both of these people will cease to exist once the program ends, because it’s the motherfreakin’ Imagination Station! D-

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