No, don’t worry, I won’t bury the lede: This week’s episode of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters ends with a hero shot of actor Mari Yamamoto wielding a bow and arrow. In other news, I’m pregnant!
Certainly one of the great discoveries of this strangely sophisticated Godzilla TV show for American audiences is a woman who looks like she should be photographed by the same people as Marlene Dietrich, and that’s no doubt what I’m responding to. I’m kind of over the whole character you thought was dead comes back as a survivalist badass thing to be frank; that would not be “strangely sophisticated,” if you were wondering. But this character, who as the only major participant on the losing side of the first atomic war is the heart of the old Monarch enterprise, and this actor, who handled complicated romantic material with both of her leading men so adroitly…well, by all means, hand her Legolas’s gear and see what she can do.
Written by series co-developer Matt Fraction and directed by Andy Goddard, “Axis Mundi” takes us down into the Hollow Earth, where Dr. Keiko Miura has been living since 1959. Well, sorta, anyway: Lee Shaw was down there for a matter of days and wound up 20 years in the future when he returned, without having aged beyond those few days in the interim. I guess time just cycles a lot slower down there, because when Cate Randa plops through the rift between the worlds and lands in the forest below, Kei is the first person she sees.
Note that it’s not Lee or May, her other companions who fell through the Kazakhstan rift when Shaw blew it last episode. They wind up close together and reunite. Actors Kurt Russell and Kiersey Clemons handle this exactly the way you’d want them to: Russell with his usual sweet-natured “look honey, I seen this all before” demeanor, Clemons on the edge of a complete nervous breakdown. She’s just some computer programmer who was attacked by a monster, caught in an explosion, dropped into a pit, and blasted into another dimension. I would resent the script if it frog-marched her into instant “okay, what’s the plan” competence here. She should be barely capable of speech. She should be desperate to find their other friend, Cate — and that desperation rings out so clearly in Clemons’s voice that it’s crystal clear May’s feelings for Cate run deeper than “I just wanna find my friend and get outta here.”
In terms of moving the mythology forward, that falls to a pair of lengthy flashback sequences starring young Lee Shaw, young Bill Randa, and General Puckett, whose working relationship with the surviving Monarch heads seems to have grown more congenial over time. It’s still clear who’s really in charge, but when the project’s funding gets pulled Puckett seems genuinely regretful about it, and Bill actually refers to him as “Puck” at one point. That’s the kind of subtle, just-a-touch writing about the passage of time and the growth of relationships that you get from a lifetime of reading Los Bros Hernandez’s Love & Rockets comics, as I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that longtime comics writer Fraction has done.
Anyway, in the first sequence, which serves as the episode’s cold open. a major project designed to test the passability of the rifts — they use a device to lure a titan toward one, the titan’s mysterious relationship with the rift solidifies it enough to pass through, they’ll drop a ship full of explorers down as the titan comes up, then turn off the device to call off the titan and seal up the breach — goes disastrously wrong for reasons unclear. Many die, Lee and his men on the ship are presumed lost, and Monarch becomes the “couple of guys frantically running around the Capitol building looking for funding” outfit we find it when Kong: Skull Island opens up 13 years of in-story time later.
In the second sequence, we find out what happened after. A series of (hate to say it but very, very mainstream-indie comic book-y) slightly animated freeze frames illustrate the various natural and unnatural catastrophes that befall Lee’s crew upon landing. He manages to figure out how to reverse the process and get himself sucked back up topside, but he’s the only one who makes it, and no one at Monarch can quite trust that there’s nothing wrong with the guy…especially because he reemerges 20 years after his disappearance while looking the exact same age he was when he vanished. Still, I think keeping him sedated for three decades as a result is a slightly harsh penalty, no?
In a way this is a nice workaround for what would inevitably be calls for The Young Lee Shaw Chronicles if Monarch really takes off; there are no real chronicles to be had if he spent almost his entire adult life on a sofa in a nursing home taking pills from paper cups and watching nature documentaries. It’s only when he catches a news bulletin advising viewers that Godzilla has appeared — my guess is it’s an homage to the scene where the Joker wakes up from drugged catatonia when he sees something similar about Batman emerging from retirement in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — that the now aged-Lee prepares to spring into action, which is how Cate and Kentaro and May discover him when they first met a few episodes back.
The penultimate episode of Monarch’s first season is a serious-minded thing. I like the it’s not fair! sadness in Kentaro’s voice when he tries to convince Monarch officials Tim and Verdugo that they need to go back underground to find Cate and May and Shaw. It’s echoed by the sadness in the voice of his father Hiroshi, who goes to see his “uncle” Lee in captivity; when Lee tells him that his father Bill’s obsessive work on the Hollow Earth theory — the work that made him an absentee father for a kid who’d already lost his mother and uncle — wasn’t “madness,” Hiroshi replies “Then it was a choice. Maybe that makes it worse.”
And again, the disorientation and fear experienced by Cate and May isn’t brushed past or minimized, it’s the heart of their time in this episode. It’s just fun to see people in a story like this react more or less like you or I might, you know? As Shin Godzilla and Godzilla Minus One demonstrate, and (Kong: Skull Island excepted) as the American MonsterVerse movies have not, Godzilla material is much stronger if people behave like people, not like characters in a Godzilla movie.
And there’s also a gross giant bone warthog that reads a bit like a porcine answer to the bear from Annihilation, so that’s cool.