GANGSTA. – Episode 6: “Thorn”

This week’s forecast: Cloudy with a chance of bigotry.

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Maaaan, but GANGSTA can be mighty bleak sometimes. I’m not complaining, mind you, as it does “pensive and faintly tragic” exceptionally well, but there were moments that were so quietly, matter-of-factly sad that the sky wasn’t the only thing that felt like crying. This really isn’t a show interested in making you want to go out and raise some hell in Ergastulum in the way that, say, Black Lagoon or Baccano did; it knows its world is deeply broken, and it makes that emphatically clear to its audience.

Plot-wise this was more about setting up the pieces for the oncoming gang war, and as such spent more time in the past developing its characters’ histories than it did forwarding the current story lines. Still, we did pick up a few nuggets worth mentioning, so let’s hit up our weekly Bullet Point Rundown.

And yes, Li'l Nic, there will be a test.

And yes, Li’l Nic, there will be a test, so study your letters closely.

  • The Corsica family (led by boss Uranos) is after Monroe’s head, not specifically because of Monroe himself but because of his connection with the Cristiano family, who deal primarily in drugs. This is just speculation, but given the Corsica family’s previously established hatred toward Twilights, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re trying to halt or mess with the flow of Celebrer into the city.
  • Monroe apparently fought for the Three Laws and the Twilights’ current limited freedoms, and Worick feels indebted to him because of at least that if not more.
  • A Mysterious Umbrella Carrier (definitely with the Corsica family) meets with one of Monroe’s men, shares intel, and reveals that the Corsica are connected to the bodies (all of which were Tags, says Worick) found in the warehouse. Also, they’ve got a crooked cop on their side, so watch your back, Chad.
  • We’ve also got two people (probably with Corsica) murdering folks in alleys and leaving the message “The wages of sin is death” in human blood. I’m sure Nic and Worick won’t have to face them at any point, no not at all.
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The look on Worick’s face here is proof that he’s secretly a giant puppy in a man-suit desperately in need of a head scratch.

In other words, a war is brewing between Monroe and Corsica, and the Handymen are looking to be right in the thick of it. Monroe and Worick are fighting as much for the Twilights’ right to life and limited liberty as they are for balance within the city. Nic is willing to go along with it, but thinks the whole endeavor is pointless and the Twilights are doomed.

Meanwhile via flashbacks we have Worick and Nic growing closer as they bond over their shared abuses and the fact that neither is wanted by society. There’s the sense that these two came together largely out of necessity, not due to any shared interests but because each is the first person to have treated the other like a human being instead of a “Twilight” or “monster” or “Arcangelo” or “bastard.” That they bond over language is simultaneously sweet and (like everything else this week) The Saddest, because it really is two isolated kids trying to find a way to communicate with the one person who seems as lonely as they do.

It also obliquely tells us that Nic’s current… “owners,” I guess?… never bothered to teach him how to write or use sign language, denying him the ability to express himself and further solidifying his position as a dependent, obedient tool rather than a person. Really, it’s a minor miracle that so much empathy, loyalty, and compassion has managed to survive in both of these kids, and they (and the series) cling to those sparks of humanity in a way that keeps everything from devolving into total gloom and doom.

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While there were some great character beats and interactions between our whole team this week, this felt more like the episode that builds and expands on themes, drawing connections between seemingly different individuals to form a coherent overarching narrative. Unlike most underworld crime dramas, which endorse and revel in hyper-masculine bravado and violence, GANGSTA is quietly crafting an argument against that mentality by focusing on the people most hurt by aggressive systems and showing how anyone who doesn’t fit into a particular mainstream ideal is attacked and robbed of agency, treated as sub-human.

The big reveal this week (and the one that really starts tying all these character threads together) is that Alex was being drugged by her former pimp, Barry, to keep her submissive to him, and the withdrawal process is what’s been causing her recent bout of paranoia and hallucinations. In the show’s most unsettling scene to date she mistakes Worick for Barry and attempts to have sex with him to keep him from hurting her.

It’s the first time we’ve been explicitly told that he abused her not just physically but also sexually, and drives home exactly how much Alex has silently been trying to work through. The moment is visceral and painful, all the more so because of how quickly Worick and Alex try to move on from it, suggesting that Alex’s story is an all-too-common one in Ergastulum. GANGSTA focuses mostly on Alex and doesn’t attempt to trivialize or romanticize her trauma, and the scene is all the more powerful for it.

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Okay maybe they romanticized it a little but dammit this is a beautiful shot literally drenched in sadness, so I’m allowing it.

Outside of expanding on Alex’s current story and strengthening her ties with Worick, this reveal also serves to draw some significant parallels between Alex and Nic, whose dependency on a different drug also keeps him obedient to the (Normal, native, male) figures in charge of this world.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Nic is both a disabled person and a foreigner (Asian in a European city), nor that Alex is a woman of color. More and more, GANGSTA is becoming a story about oppressed individuals being “kept in line” by the ruling class, what that does to a person psychologically, and how each finds a support system and a way to survive despite that environment.

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Or TL;DR: The Screenshot

Worick is a curious middle-ground element in the story. At first glance he’s a member of the ruling power structure (Normal, native, male), and as such the city’s other authority figures continuously charge him with “taking care” of Nic and Alex, demonstrated this week by both his father’s paranoia that he was training Nic and Dr. Theo’s insistence that Worick is “keeping” Alex and should “teach her some manners.” The language of this series is rife with dehumanizing terms, something Worick himself struggles with when he first sits down with Nic and has to fight the urge to see him as “not quite human.”

But Worick is also living with his own scars both visible and hidden: His missing eye, yes, but also his illegitimate birth, which robs him of much of his social privilege, putting him in a position only moderately better than Nic’s when the two first meet. His own status as an outcast makes it easier for him to sympathize with those more openly oppressed, as he does with both Nic and Alex this week, giving them a very literal shoulder to lean on when needed.

It also puts him in an awkward position where he wants to be treated as his partners’ equals but also knows it’s vital to their survival that they take advantage of what little power his position gives him. It’s a tough line to toe, and it’s no wonder he sometimes reluctantly or even inadvertently falls into the trap of treating Nic like an inferior.

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Exhibit A.

This is a lot to chew on going forward, and it’s fascinating to parse through the social politics and character interactions each week. My interest and concern now is how the series chooses to handle Nic, Alex, and their demons both personal and social. I’m glad they have Worick around to help them, and I think his own moral dilemma makes for some great storytelling as well, but too much of him stepping in to talk everyone down and we run the risk of a “white savior” story, and no one wants that. At the end of the day, the focus needs to be on Nic and Alex’s individual decisions and strengths, as they deal with past traumas and struggle to give meaning to their current lives.

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4 thoughts on “GANGSTA. – Episode 6: “Thorn”

  1. This episode was a masterclass in storytelling, exposition and pacing.

    It was really weird, dreamlike almost, how we went from the present ongoing issue, to Worrick and Nick’s backstory. The visual style and art direction reminded me of an art film (which I admit I’m not a huge fan of) but Gangasta walks that fine line between art and storytelling that very few pieces of entertainment can do well.

    And yes, I realize that’s not something you particularly talked about in the actual post, but it was something that really spoke to me this episode, and sky rocketted Gangsta to the near top of my list this season.

    Now… As for Worrick, it seems that you and I seem to have vastly different opinions of the guy. The more I see him, the more I seem him act, the more I tend to like him.

    I don’t think the story is as much about Worrick being the “white” savior, as it is Worrick being trapped by his race and social “position”. The people he relates to and cares for are outliers of society because of not only their race, but the hand dealt to them via life. Worrick can relate to Alex and Nic because they’ve had an unfortunate life given to them.

    Yet they’re both still good people, and people that he’s grown attached to. I love how Worrick continues to try his best to hold everything together, and how he has to almost do the thing he hates most “act superior” to his friends, for their own good.

    You can really “feel” the regret from Worrick when he asks Nic to not make him “order” him again. In my mind, I don’t think Worrick did anything wrong, he did it for his friend’s benefit but… Its quite telling when the act itself has him so disgusted with himself.

    For a long while, I thought that Nic was the main character of the show, but right now it seems like Worrick and Alex are equally as important.

    I personally REALLY loved that scene, and it spoke volumes about both Worrick and Alex, when once the horrible stuff was over, the sun came out and he began complaining about his day as if it was business as usual.

    That’s GANGSTA to me, the characters trying to find some semblance of a normal life in the dark pit of a place where they’ve been cast into.

    /Essay Comment XD (Okay, I seriously am going overboard with these comments, 408 words…. Sorry XD)

    Like

    • Agree 100% about how well-paced and narrated this episode was. I’m not sure who directed it but they did a phenomenal job shifting between time lines and character beats, for sure. It’s very, very difficult to seamlessly weave stories like this but GANGSTA made it look effortless. I wanted to talk about it, too, honest; I just got so wrapped up in character and thematic threads that the post ran long as it was and I could’t justify forcing people to read ANOTHER 500+ words (you’re not the only one who wants to write essays about this series, lol!). ^^;

      And speaking of essay comments:

      Yikes, did I give the impression I don’t like Worick? Apologies if that’s how it came out, but I actually think he’s a sympathetic, complex, fantastically crafted character and a really good example of how these broken power structures damage everyone, even the people who’re supposedly benefiting from them. But I also think he’s very human, and the nature of hierarchical, oppressive systems is that if you exist within them than you get sucked into them, even reluctantly, even unintentionally. That the show is doing such a delicate job of showing that through its dialogue (like Theo’s veiled “control your woman” demand) and actions is a testament to how sophisticated this series is, I think.

      It’s that “don’t make me” bit that makes me feel like Worick gets caught up in his own privilege (again, reluctantly and often unintentionally, and not in a way that I think makes him a bad person by any means). “Don’t make me do X” strikes me as a pretty patronizing phrase, the kind of thing parents say to their kids (or masters to their servants, or abusers to the abused) which shifts the blame from the person exercising the power to the person having that power exercised upon them, and is frequently used as a guilt tactic to enforce a particular desired behavior pattern on that person. It also implies that the person is incapable of making their own choices. It’s not dehumanizing exactly, but it does place the other person in an inferior position mentally/psychologically, and subtly reinforces the current power structure, whether intentionally or not.

      Even your language in your original comment fell into this trap, I think, when you said that Worick is acting “for their own good,” which also suggests Worick is more capable of making decisions for them than they are for themselves. In Alex’s case I think it’s totally fair because she’s in the midst of drug-induced hallucinations and *does* need someone to keep an eye on her and help take her mind off her past trauma. But Nic? There’s been no indication thus far that Celebrer affects its users’ judgment/mental facilities, meaning that he should be capable of making his own decisions (even if they’re ultimately destructive ones). Now, as his friend, should Worick step in and try to stop him? Sure. But by resorting to an “order” he essentially denies Nic agency, forcing him to do what Worick wants rather than what Nic wants.

      Again, I don’t even really blame Worick for what he did last week. He obviously cares a lot about Nic and doesn’t want him to die any earlier than he’s already going to (it’s also implied that Worick would also be punished for “his” Tag violating any rules, so there’s an element of self-preservation to it, too). Honestly I don’t even know if he had a better option here. But that doesn’t change the fact that he *did* take advantage of the power granted to him as a contract holder, and by doing so he quietly reinforces the validity of that master-servant system.

      And that’s the pernicious, nasty thing about oppressive structures like the one set up in Ergastulum: Even the best intentions and the most loyal and compassionate relationships can get twisted and bent over time, because the very nature of the system encourages people to take advantage of whatever power they have for the sake of their own and their loved ones’ survival. And sometimes that means you do the thing you don’t want to do, which is treat those loved ones exactly the way the world around you does.

      So, yeah, I don’t dislike Worick at all. I dislike the awful, broken system that’s put him and Nic in such an awful, broken situation, and I applaud how hard he’s working to not be the thing he hates. Doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when he is, though, and I think he’s well aware of that, too.

      As for the white savior bit, I don’t think the series is there yet, just that I don’t want it to get there. Making it about Worick sweeping in and saving all the oppressed folk would be…ill-advised, to say the least. I have enough confidence in GANGSTA that it won’t do that, but a lot of other stories do, so I was mostly commenting on it as a future concern than a current problem.

      /End Essay Reply! You bring out the chatterbox in me, setsu. ^_^

      Liked by 1 person

  2. setsuken says:

    Wow, first of all, I really want to say thank you for taking the time to write out something so well thought out and insightful. I’d say your comment could be an post in and of itself, so I’m really humbled that you took the time to write it in reply to the dribble I wrote down XD

    “Even your language in your original comment fell into this trap, I think, when you said that Worick is acting “for their own good,” which also suggests Worick is more capable of making decisions for them than they are for themselves.”

    ALL OF that, just wow. I think the stuff about Worrick that you mentioned, really was gold. I hadn’t realized how the show had almost made me biased in favor of Worrick’s world view. I think my empathy for Worrick can blind me sometimes to what’;s really going on.

    Jumping to conclusions is just something you shouldn’t do with this show, its just that nuanced where jumping the gun is such an injustice to the solid writing.

    Also, I totally get the bit about being able to write another 500 words. There’s only so much time we have per week to write, and I dunno about you, but it can take me upwards 45 minutes to an hour per post. I think if given free reign, you or I could probably write a friggin 5000 Word College Paper on an anime episode, and in Gangasta’s case, probably a graduate level thesis XD

    That said, I appreciate the effort and your nuanced analysis. I can’t wait for this Sunday! :D

    Liked by 1 person

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