Analysis

Five Problems That Hold Age of Resistance Back

Several Skeksis standing in front of the crystal.
Netflix’s new hit fantasy show The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has a lot going for it. The superb use of puppets and strong visual themes really help it stand out from other fantasy franchises. Most of the characters are sharp and distinct, and the plot has an excellent sense of escalation. Age of Resistance (AoR) is everything we loved about the original The Dark Crystal film, but with a more coherent and accessible plot. It is a great show in many ways.

That said, there are a few major issues that hold the first season* back. It’s still a great show, but it could have been a lot better. Fortunately, several of these errors can also be used for instructive purposes, so the rest of us know what to avoid when we next set pen to paper. Let’s dive in and see not only what went wrong but how the show could have been done better.

Spoiler Notice: Age of Resistance’s first season.

1. Podling Treatment

Hup from the Dark Crystal.

As its title implies, Age of Resistance is heavily focused on themes of oppression and social justice. The Skeksis are imperialist overlords extracting wealth and labor from their subjects, and later draining Gelfling for immortality. We’re shown how the Gelfling elites are used to maintain this exploitation and how the Skeksis benefit from divisions and discrimination between Gelfling groups. Frankly, it’s a better portrayal of power and oppression than most stories manage.

However, there’s a serious exception: the Podlings. When the Gelfling are discriminated against, we’re shown how it’s harmful and wrong. But when Podlings are mistreated, it’s often played as funny. Rian and Mira are introduced when they steal food from Podling servants who are helpless to stop them, which is likely to get the servants in trouble with their Skeksis masters. When Aughra first wakes up, she spends several minutes berating her Podling servant, who as far as we can tell has been keeping her house in order out of the goodness of his heart. Later, when Brea is in the Order of Lesser Service, her unpleasant task is to “clean” a Podling village, where suddenly adult Podlings love rolling in filth like they were all toddlers.

These instances all have immediate negative consequences. Rian, Mira, and Aughra all seem like bullies picking on those with less power than themselves, which is never a good way to introduce a character we’re supposed to like. Brea’s sequence is just confusing because we never see Podlings act like that in any other scene. Worse, the treatment of Podlings undercuts the show’s critical messages about power and oppression. If the good guys can abuse the filthy little Podlings and it’s funny, why is it such a big deal when the Skeksis abuse the Gelfling, or all of Thra for that matter?

The show tries to push back on this with the Podling character Hup, who is amazing, but he’s not enough on his own. What AoR really needs is either to treat the abuse of Podlings the same way it treats the abuse of Gelfling or to just not have the good guys mistreat Podlings. Considering how much else is going on in season one, the latter option was probably more practical. Brea’s unpleasant task could have been shoveling Landstrider manure, and the other characters could simply not have picked on their Podling servants. Problem solved.

It’s possible AoR could still address Podling treatment in season two. That would help, but it won’t undo the damage already done in season one. It’s always better to avoid a problem in the first place than to patch it later.

2. Gelfling Wings

Deet hovering in the air between Rian and Brea.

I admit, I never imagined flight as a plot-breaking power. That’s probably because when I think of superpowers, I imagine them mostly in the context of epic MCU powered brawls, where flight is pretty low on the rankings. But in a setting like The Dark Crystal, where magical powers are rare, flight turns out to be a serious problem. We’re shown several times that female Gelfling can take off from a standing position, fly long distances, and even hover in place. Despite that, a surprising number of the show’s conflicts revolve around getting somewhere high up.

This happens more often than I have time to list, but here are a few of the highlights. Early in the show, Brea needs to reach her mother’s throne room, and instead of just flying there, she goes through an elaborate plan to get somewhere high up so she can glide down to it. Later, at the Circle of the Suns, Brea and Deet are wondering how they can possibly get up a steep rock face, until they end up getting carried by Lore. Then at Stone-in-the-Wood, the Arathim attack with mind-control bugs, and for some reason Maudra Fara and her female soldiers don’t simply lift off the ground to escape. Incidents like this keep happening, as 50% of the characters struggle with problems they could easily surmount via their wings. And that’s not even considering how overpowered flying Gelfling archers would be in a fight.

At first glance, it might seem like AoR was stuck with this problem, since Kira has wings in the original film. However, they actually had a lot more wiggle room than they seem to have realized. First, just because Kira has wings, it doesn’t mean all female Gelfling do. Kira never claims that; she just implies it with her “you’re a boy” line to Jen. Since Kira wasn’t raised by Gelfling, AoR could have easily said that wings are a very rare ability that only a handful of Gelfling are born with.

If the creators really wanted to stick with the idea that half the Gelfling population has wings, they could have saved themselves a lot of hassle with gliding wings instead. If female Gelfling can glide rather than fly, it solves almost every problem. Gliders still need to get somewhere high up in order to use their abilities, so they can’t just overcome obstacles whenever they feel like it. In the final battle, we see some male Gelfling launch their sister-soldiers into the air, which just makes way more sense with glider wings. It fits with the original film too, since Kira only ever uses her wings for gliding anyway.

Without changing how Gelfling wings work, AoR’s only option is to have fewer problems that can be completely solved through flight. That’s what they’ll have to do in season two, but I suspect it’ll be difficult given the puppets’ mobility constraints.

3. Skeksis Strength

The Skeksis emperor wielding a sword.

The Skeksis are an entire species of evil parrot monsters, which gives them a lot of intimidation bonus right off the bat. They’re all sharp edges and pointy beaks, perfect for giving your children nightmares. However, one serious sticking point remains: how dangerous are they in a fight?

Just from their appearance, it looks like one Skeksis can probably face two Gelfling in a fight, maybe three or four at most. Sometimes this is borne out. Rian and Ordon are defeated by the Hunter, but they hold their own for a while, and the Hunter is also supposed to be the strongest Skeksis around. In other scenes, such as when the Skeksis are ambushed in their carriages, we see that they’re unwilling to attack even a moderately sized group of Gelfling rebels. But then, we’re also told that, offscreen, a group of eight or so Skeksis somehow defeated the entire castle guard without taking any losses, which implies that the Skeksis are actually unstoppable killing machines.

Neither interpretation works with AoR’s plot. The Skeksis simply can’t be as strong as they’re implied to be offscreen. Not only would that make individual battles against the Skeksis pointless and contradict what we’re actually shown, but the puppets being used probably can’t manage the feats required to be that strong. At the same time, if the Skeksis aren’t that strong, then a Gelfling revolt should be really easy, since the Skeksis are so heavily outnumbered by just one Gelfling clan.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: give the Skeksis minions. The show plays with this idea but doesn’t fully commit. The Skeksis briefly recruit the Arathim, and they finally make one of the Garthim from the movie at the end, but neither of these is enough. There are still long sections where the Skeksis have no minions at all and yet are still supposed to be powerful enemies, including their offscreen defeat of the castle guard.

And frankly, the creation of the Garthim doesn’t make any sense. The Scientist does it by grafting a Gruenak corpse onto an Arathim corpse, which somehow makes a creature bigger than both put together. Plus, there are no more Gruenak and they don’t exactly have a ready supply of Arathim corpses either, so how are they going to make more? Also, we’re supposed to believe that the Chamberlain just came up with this idea out of the blue. Is he also a scientist?

There are two prominent ways to fix this. First, the Skeksis could already have the Garthim, or something similar, when the show starts. They’d still depend on Gelfling for day-to-day labor and security, either because the Garthim require special resources to operate or because they just aren’t practical for tithe collecting. This would allow the rest of the plot to continue with little change. When the Gelfling rebel, the Skeksis unleash their Garthim soldiers, which are actually capable of believably defeating a Gelfling army. This would really help the scene between Chamberlain and Rian where Rian is almost convinced that war against the Skeksis is pointless, since the Skeksis would actually have the muscle to back that up.

The second way is for the Skeksis to have a group of Gelfling minions who stay loyal to the bitter end. This would be hard to manage since the dreamfast ability makes it really easy for Gelfling to share information about Skeksis crimes. To make it work, the Skeksis would have to weaponize Gelfling prejudice even more than they already do. They’d tell their loyal Gelfling that, of course, we’d never drain you. It’s only those other, lesser Gelfling who will be drained. You’ll be rewarded instead since you’re so cool and rad.

4. The Dual Glaive

Rian holding the Dual Glaive.

The quest to find the Dual Glaive is a major plot thread for most of season one. All of our main characters end up contributing to it in some way, and it plays a pretty major role in the final battle as well. That’s why it’s such a problem that this plot doesn’t work at all.

The quest to find the Dual Glaive starts when Brea discovers a symbol that may mean the end of life on Thra – or possibly a new beginning. Then, the person who tells her this also somehow knows that a newly hatched unamoth will lead Brea to answers. This works, and the moth leads her to a stone golem, who then leads her to an exiled Skeksis/Mystic team who explain that this whole quest is about a magic sword, which is all the way back where the characters come from.

You can see the difficulties when the steps are all laid out like that. Namely, that they have no real payoff. Each step is nearly unconnected to the one before it, to the point that it seems like you could rearrange them in any order and it would have roughly the same effect. There’s no moment when everything clicks together; finding out about the sword is just another step on what feels like a procedurally generated quest. Retroactively, the show tries to give the Dual Glaive some thematic weight by saying that Rian’s father used it in a previous battle, but that’s too little too late.

Worse, it’s not at all clear what the sword does, just a vague promise that it’s the “key to Skeksis demise.” The characters never ask what that means, leaving us unsure how getting this sword will actually help. As it turns out, the Dual Glaive’s power is to let Rian broadcast his dramatic speech* to the other Gelfling clans and then to somehow materialize a shard of the Crystal of Truth by stabbing the General. Again, those are pretty random powers for a sword to have.

There are a lot of ways we could fix this, but the first thing is to give the quest some thematic weight. We can do this by linking the various pieces of the quest together. Instead of this symbol appearing at the start and then never mattering, it should be part of the story at every step. Instead of the symbol leading Brea to an unrelated moth, she should need the symbol to make the moth do what she wants. Then the next step of the riddle might involve expanding the symbol so it includes the crest for every Gelfling clan placed in equal standing to one another, or what have you.

But the most important thing is for the big reveal to be a moment of satisfaction. To do this, I’d ditch the magic sword concept entirely. This is The Dark Crystal, not Lord of the Rings. Let’s use something that fits with the setting. If it were up to me, I’d have it be that the Skeksis/Mystic team* have devised a way to extend dreamfasting to all Gelfling, so the characters can spread their memories to other Gelfling all at once. That would also resonate with the show’s other major plot thread: getting the other Gelfling to believe that the Skeksis are evil.

If it absolutely must be a magic sword, then it should be foreshadowed in advance. We should hear stories about the legendary Dual Glaive that Rian’s father, Ordon, wielded against the Arathim, so then it will mean something when we realize that sword is actually meant to be used against the Skeksis. Granted, this would raise questions about why Ordon never mentioned the sword before his death, but the show already has that problem; it just tries to distract you from noticing. Finally, it should be clear what the characters think the sword will do, even if it ends up doing something different. If they don’t know and they’re just taking it on faith, that should be clear too.

5. The Final Battle

The Skeksis charging into battle.

In the final episode of season one, the Gelfling and Skeksis square off for battle. This is it, the big showdown, the climax of our heroes’ struggle. It’s a real mess. So much of a mess that it suffers from every other item we’ve already covered on this list. First, Hup’s not there. Why isn’t Hup there? He’s stuck back at the Circle of Suns, where he does nothing interesting. Stop mistreating Podlings and #LetHupFight, you monsters!

More seriously, the final battle showcases how the Skeksis cannot possibly be as strong as we’re told they are. This time they also get fancy armor, yet they have difficulty against a handful of Gelfling. Both sides of the battle spend long sections of time standing around rather than fighting, which I suspect is another artifact of how the puppets limit what can be done onscreen. Then Rian has this weird moment where he shouts, “I’m no killer,” after just stabbing a Skeksis with his sword. Rian, has no one explained the concept of a battle to you? Also, the Skeksis are literally draining Gelfling of their life energy – it’s ridiculous to say the heroes shouldn’t be willing to kill them, especially in a franchise as dark as The Dark Crystal.

Worst of all, the Gelfling completely dominate the Skeksis, sending them back to their castle in a panic. But then because we need the Skeksis to survive for the timeline’s sake, the Gelfling don’t chase them down and finish the job. This is inexplicable, since they know that the Skeksis still have the Crystal of Truth, which holds the key to all life on Thra. As if that wasn’t enough, any hope of the Skeksis being a threatening enemy is gone now. They’ve been beaten as thoroughly as it’s possible to beat someone, and even magically generating an army of Garthim next season won’t fix that problem.

The first issue to grapple with is whether AoR should have used a big battle as its season climax in the first place. If my suspicions are correct and many of the problems stem from limitations of the puppets, then the story should hinge on some other event. It could be a single duel with a battle going on in the background where the limitations aren’t as obvious. Or it could be a social conflict to convince the other Gelfling clans to abandon the Skeksis. With a unique story like The Dark Crystal, we can afford to think outside the box a little.

If the climax is still a big battle, then the most important thing is to make it at best a partial victory for the good guys. This should be a battle where even winning leaves the Skeksis with the upper hand, just not as crushing as it was before. It might be a raid to free prisoners who are being drained or a fight to defend the Gelfling capital while civilians are evacuated to safety. This lets the Skeksis maintain their threat level for the next season. Instead of a total victory, we’re left with our heroes surviving to fight another day, which is exactly the kind of ending this story calls for.

This will all be a great deal easier if the Skeksis have proper minions, since that will explain how they deal with the numerically superior Gelfling. Limiting the Gelfling wings will also help, since flight is overpowered in a setting without anti-aircraft guns. Finally, we need to completely drop this idea that it’s wrong for the Gelfling to kill Skeksis. Not only is that absurd within the story’s own premise, but it also reinforces the idea that in real life, the oppressor and oppressed are on the same moral level. This puts the burden on victims not to go “too far” in their own defense, and it’s not something we should be promoting.


This list doesn’t address every single thing wrong with Age of Resistance’s first season. There are still some character interactions that don’t make sense, and I haven’t even talked about how unnecessarily gross some of the scenes are.* Instead, we’ve covered the most significant structural issues, since those usually need to be addressed before smaller problems can be dealt with. AoR is a good show, but it would have been better without these problems. Let’s hope that some of them are fixed in the next season.

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    Hope you don’t mind a minor quibble

    >Sometimes this is born out

    should be “borne”

    Otherwise, a good article. Shows the importance of planning ahead, and of keeping your medium’s limitations (puppetry) in mind

  2. LeeEsq

    American popular media tends to portray people involved in various Rebellions as the cool kids, be they jocks, cheer leaders or the detached artistic types, from high school while the tyrannical overlords were various types of prudes and grinds who hate fun. My guess is that the treatment of the Podlings come from this, because the cool kids always need some hapless other kids to play a prank on to demonstrate their disdain for authority.

    Basically, the Podling mistreatment comes from decades of high school and college dramas about teens rebelling against authoritarian adults. The teens that decided the best way to deal with authoritarian adults is to support them or just to go along with it and stay out of trouble were always seen as appropriate targets for the cool teen heroes because they were grinds. The Podlings are this in a fantasy series.

  3. BabyCharmander

    I… thought the reason they didn’t want to kill the Skeksis was obvious? The Gelfling heroes SAW that the Skeksis and Mystics are connected and that by hurting a Skeksis, they hurt the Mystic. So Rian’s “I’m no killer” line makes sense because he doesn’t want to kill an innocent creature (the Mystic connected to skekVar) and potentially condemn them to nonexistence. The only times Skeksis are killed are during drastic measures–when Deet kills one (to, you know, prevent the Darkening from killing literally everyone else), and when urVa commits suicide to kill his own dark half (which was not really ideal, but again, it was a drastic situation).

  4. RavenHawkTech

    So, when the Urskek first split both the Mystics and Skeksis were younger and stronger the two beings only being immortal so to speak in their ethereal form. If you follow the lore, the Skeksis second set of arms have shriveled and almost are useless now except for some exceptions with this being earlier in their existence and around 600ish years between these events and the movie. and a previous 900 years prior to this shows timeline, they have settled in grew fat, slow, and with notible exceptions being the Hunter and the General from the movie who becomes the Garthim Master who keep in mind cut a stone in half with a sword and had it go cherry red.. The Podlings they have to wash are younger and Podlings are high energy people, they don’t like to be cleaned so are goofing off and acting out

    The Garthim are not just two creatures fused together but also have other armor and bits in them per the lore and wiki’s, and Skeksil the Chamberlain only thought of an unstoppable warrior and likes to torment his fellow Skeksis if the scientist failed it’s not Skeksils fault hmmmmmm? Also a similar species to the Gruenak exist the Makraks so it’s not like the Scientist cannot find other parts he just needed inspiration. Pre-show and technically post it’s said he based the design off of Crustations that lived on their homeworld

    As for Gelfling not wanting to harm a Skeksis for fear it would hurt an Ura “Mystic” most Gelfling’s at this point did not know of them or as we’re warned by the Skeksis that they were Old Wizards to be feared by the Gelfling..

  5. Dvärghundspossen

    Isn’t this a pretty common problem in stories about oppression in fantasy…? (I haven’t seen the show, these are just general musings). Group A oppresses group B. Group A say that B are lazy, filthy and ugly. We, the audience, are shown that B are actually noble and beautiful, and therefore oppressing them is clearly wrong. Group C, on the other hand, really are quite pathetic, so their oppression isn’t wrong. It’s not even called oppression in-story, it’s just normal.

    In the end, you have a story that challenges no one. NO ONE disagrees with the statement “if a group of people are actually noble and beautiful (and great in every possible way), it’s wrong to oppress them”.

    • LeeEsq

      This gets this right. Oren talked about this before with the Problem with Oppressed Mages. Even if the oppressed group don’t have any superpowers per se, authors can’t seem to resist depicting them as great and beautiful people because of thousands of years of literary heritage going back to Ancient Greece. People seem to feel empathy a lot more easier to high status people or groups, so the oppressed in fantasy novels tend to be high status groups prevented from being so from their meanie persecutors.

  6. Kevgr5

    Still better than 98% of what’s on television including cable and HBO!

  7. LizzyLee

    I have to disagree about to Dual Glaive to an extent. I agree, it seemed like too much build up to not enough resolution. That is until Brea picks up the Crystal Shard that had been hidden in the hilt, the thing that literally defeats the Skeksis.
    But more importantly let Hup fight.

  8. Mads

    Hi Oren, in the last paragraph, shouldn’t it be ‘pus’ rather than ‘puss’?

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