When last we left our heroes, they were screaming in shock at Tawaret, the hippo goddess! We rejoin them in Moon Knight’s fifth episode, “Asylum,” written by Rebecca Kirsch and Matthew Orton, and directed once again by the fantastic Mohamed Diab. I gotta warn you, things get heavy. I’ve tried to talk about all of it below but I’m guessing I missed some things—this episode is STUFFED.
Like, hippo plushie in a museum gift shop stuffed.
This episode shuffles like a deck of cards between the asylum in Chicago, where Harrow is trying to guide Marc, and later Steven, to an emotional breakthrough; the ship of Ra, where Marc’s and Steven’s hearts are being weighed together on the Scales of Judgement; and Marc’s memories, which he needs to share with Steven in order to get the scales to balance. About halfway through the episode we learn that Harrow has kickstarted Ammit’s judgement, as souls begin crashing into the sands of the underworld. We finally see the origin of both Steven and Moon Knight.
This episode is a lot, and let me put a general content warning here for a child’s death, and physical and emotional abuse.
We pick up with Marc, in a session with Dr. Harrow, who wants to hear more about this rhinocerous.
“Hippopotamus,” Marc corrects.
Dr. Harrow apologizes for the mix up, then explains that Marc is attempting to process his emotions using an organizing principle—in this case the idea that he’s a superhero in contact with Egyptian gods. He get violent, and one of the orderlies injects him with a ridiculously large syringe full of… something.
He’s back in the hallways with Steven and Tawaret. When Marc begins to buy into Harrow’s idea that this whole thing is a hallucination and and organizing principle, Tawaret counters with the alternative that they’re actually quite dead, and she needs to process their souls.
Marc is skeptical—this is THE afterlife? Tawaret explains that this is “one of many intersectional planes for untethered consciousness,” and that “a psych ward’s a first for me but we can roll with it, right?” It’s all okay, because she has cards for what they’re supposed to do next. She proceeds to flip through papyrus cards, until she finds the one with the speech about having your hearts weighed for judgement.
Marc rejects this idea, throws a pair of doors open expecting to find a therapy session. But no, they’re on a boat sailing over the sands of the souls of the dead. Tawaret takes their hearts out (they look like carved alabaster) and puts them on the scale, where, just as when Harrow tried this, they refuse to balance. Tawaret tells them to go back through Marc’s memories to try to open up to each other so their hearts will be prepared for death.
One of the memory rooms is full of the people Marc killed. (He says they were for Khonshu, but are some of the people he, um, mercenaried to death here, too?) Steven sees a child, demands to know why there’s a child in the room full of murdered people, and chases after the kid when he runs. Marc chases after Steven.
They run into a garden. There are Marc’s mother and father… and Marc’s little brother, Ro-Ro.
Marc takes his brother Ro-Ro to play Tomb Busters in a cave. The cave floods, Ro-Ro drowns, Marc can’t save him. (This happens offscreen as Steven, watching the memory, screams at the boys and tries to guide them out.) Marc’s mother blames her older son for the death of the younger. She won’t let him sit shiva for his brother (which the other adults, including his dad, allow???) and begins to drink heavily.
Steven is increasingly furious at these memories, insisting that Marc must be lying, because his mother didn’t behave that way. We see a birthday that his mother refuses to attend, and then another one where she gets drunk and starts screaming at him again. He runs away to his room, but when Steven tries to follow, Marc stops him, and suddenly they’re in the memory of the night Marc became Moon Knight.
Marc explains that after he got discharged for going AWOL during a fugue state, he went to work for his old CO, Bushman, a job went wrong, and there’s Layla’s dad, dead in the sand. Marc is dragging himself into a nearby tomb, shot up and bloody. He puts his gun under his chin to end it. He hears a voice saying, “What a waste”—it’s Khonshu, offering to save his life in exchange for service.
Steven, despite all the horrific stuff he’s seen, takes the time to tell Marc that he was being manipulated. That Khonshu was taking advantage of him. But obviously they can’t change the past, Marc says yes, and the suit is summoned for the first time.
The come back out onto the Ship of Ra, and see that souls are falling into the sand before their time. Seemingly, Harrow has unleashed Ammit. Tawaret makes a new plan to take them to Osiris’ gate, so they can go back through and try to stop Harrow. But before that, they need to finish balancing the scales.
Steven demands to see the room, and when Marc refuses, Steven tells him that if Layla dies back on Earth it’ll be his fault. Marc responds by slapping himself in the head and screaming “You can’t make me!”—and then he’s back in the asylum. Harrow assures him that he was not sedated, and that they’re making progress, but he needs him to open up to Steven. He gives him a glass of water, Marc looks into it, and they’re back in the bedroom.
Marc’s mother pounds on the door while Marc huddles on the floor saying “That’s not my mom” over and over again. Finally, his eyes roll back and he becomes Steven. Steven, obliviously, starts cleaning the room. Adult Steven watches this and realizes that he was named after Dr. Steven Grant from the movie Tomb Buster.
“You made me up?” Steven says, as their mom breaks the door down and reaches for a belt. Marc again drags Steven out, saying “You’re not meant to see that! That’s the whole point of you!” So, what happened in that room is that Marc’s mother would beat the crap out of him, and Marc created the persona of Steven as a way to escape the abuse.
Steven punches Marc in the face, distraught at the idea that he’s the creation. But as Marc points out, Steven was the one who got to have a happy life, with a mother who loved him. (He even got to keep the “laters gators” phrase.) He tells Steven that even after all these years, he couldn’t bring himself to attend their mom’s shiva when she died two months ago.
Steven starts screaming that his mum isn’t dead, and then we cut to Steven in the asylum.
Steven unleashes his inner sassy bitch and mocks Dr. Harrow, describing his look as “very Ned Flanders,” but then Harrow also says his mum is dead, and that Steven’s the one who checked into the hospital after her death. Then he backtracks, says he must be mistaken, and calls her to put Steven on the phone with her as a way to force him to accept the truth.
Which seems… like not a great treatment plan.
But it cracks Steven enough that he flashes back to the memory of the shiva from two months ago. Steven watches the memory of Marc trying to attend his mother’s shiva. He stands across the street, and finally tuns and collapses. He rips his kippah from his head and pummels it into the ground, then hugs it to his chest sobbing. Marc and Steven watch together as Marc transforms into Steven, thinks he’s had another sleepwalking episode, and “calls his mother” so she can talk him through direction. We can see on the phone that it’s not connected to anyone, but looks like he has a map app on his screen instead.
Two months ago, with the news of their mother’s death, the carefully constructed walls started to crack. Steven tells Marc that none of it was his fault, and Marc seems to finally believe him. Then they’re back on Tawaret’s boat, but they’re out of time. The souls of those Marc killed are crawling up to take them down into the sands with them.
Steven watches Marc fight at first, but realizes that if Marc can do it, then so can he, and begins fighting the souls himself using cricket moves. This works beautifully for a few moments, Marc is freed, and then… Steven gets dragged off the boat and lands in the sand.
As Marc screams “Stop the boat!” Steven tries to run after, but gradually the sands work up his legs and he petrifies, reaching after Marc.
Marc begs Tawaret to go back, but it’s too late. A beautiful sun is rising over the Field of Reeds.
May you be well when you hear this
So, hey, is everyone okay?
For the record, I’m not okay.
I’m honestly not sure where to start here.
First by saying that this episode is incredible. It fully commits to the emotional journeys of Marc and Steven, it treats the Egyptian afterlife with respect, it deals with the death and abuse I mentioned pretty delicately. We don’t see Ro-Ro die, and while we see Marc’s mother lash out at him verbally, the show doesn’t linger on her hitting him. We’re shown how hellish his childhood was, but it never devolves into trauma porn. She wouldn’t come downstairs for his birthday? His father wouldn’t protect him? And then he created an entire reality to try to hide from his pain, and create a safe space for himself, and the thing that brought it crashing down was the death of his abuser. Whom he genuinely loved, of course, because that’s often how that goes.
The idea that goofy ridiculous darling perfect Steven was a creation so he could keep loving his mother. The idea that this is who Marc wanted to be, a nerd who loved Egypt and took care of his fish and called his mum every day and didn’t eat animals. The idea that Marc has been protecting this part of himself, giving him a happy, simple life, even to the point of replacing the fish so Steven wouldn’t know it died.
I think what I’m trying to get at here is that I didn’t expect this show to go this way, or to do it so well. I’m writing from a place of astonishment, so this may be a bit bumpy.
I was pleased that we finally got a more obvious acknowledgement of Marc’s Judaism! I know that’s a larger element in the comics. I thought the way the writers drop us into the family sitting shiva with no explanation was a beautiful way to do it, too—no need for exposition, or showing the family at a synagogue, it simply shows this part of their life and culture. Much like how we’re seeing a vibrant, diverse, modern Egypt in the show, the writers aren’t bothering to slow down and explain things for the WASPs.
On that note, I also found the scene in the street extremely touching. Marc wears the kips with the full intent of going in and mourning his mother, but when he can’t he beats his kippah into the ground. He can take his anger and grief out on this symbol. But he also smooths it out and hugs it—clearly this means something to him. And again, the show doesn’t bog us down with whether he cares about it as a symbol, a mark of his culture and heritage, or if he practices Judaism more formally. In this moment and context, that doesn’t matter as much.
Although the fact that he completely accepts the ancient Egyptian afterlife process is kind of neat.
During Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s glorious first season of American Gods, we saw the traditional judging process. When an Egyptian woman who still worshiped the old gods died in an accident in her home, she found herself in a vast desert, facing the scales. In the context of that show, peoples’ beliefs determined what they would face after death. It’s seems that Marvel is taking a similar approach here, what with the “this is one of many intersectional planes for untethered consciousness” line. But I really like that the writers just expect us to roll with “Marc’s Judaism is important to him” and “Marc and Steven face an Ancient Egyptian afterlife once they’ve been shot.” I think it’s a good way to honor the comics character’s origins and give lots of focus to Steven’s love of Egypt, and Marc’s deal with Khonshu.
How fantastic is it that Steven finally gets to see Moon Knight’s origin story, and immediately calls bullshit? In the midst of a very stuffed episode, that moment of Steven standing up for his other self, telling him he’s been manipulated by Khonshu, and that none of this is his fault was incredibly moving to me.
But I feel like—okay. Part of me likes the backstory they’re giving us. The idea that Marc is an abuse survivor, that he blames himself for his little brother’s death, that this has been the thing fueling his own death wish the whole time, and that this trauma was what caused the break that created Steven, I think it’s all pretty solid. But this was an incredible amount of heavy emotional stuff to layer into an hour-long, penultimate episode, and I kind of wish it had been spaced out a little more. I was really excited to have weird fun with Tawaret, and the tonal shifts of this episode, while very deftly handled, were still a lot to process in the final hour of our superhero TV show. I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks about it—did the shifts ever seem jarring to any of you? Did anyone else need to hit pause a couple times to cope with what they were seeing?
Having said that: Oscar Isaac is so good in this show I don’t even know what to do about it. There isn’t enough capslock in the world. There are not enough reaction gifs. Every interaction between Marc and Steven is perfect—the love, the betrayal, the terror are all perfectly modulated. As I said, the scene in the street, beyond being a lovely moment of character development, was also just bravura acting. And the moment when Steven Bing-Bongs himself while Marc screams his name is so raw. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it as a representation of DID, the idea that one identity essentially sacrifices itself so the other one can go on to a paradisaical afterlife seems… not great? But as a dramatic scene it was incredible.
Ethan Hawke was excellent as Dr. Harrow, bland and placid and sarcastic and menacing all with the tiniest tweak of a line. The moment he calls Steven’s mom is as chilling as anything he’s done as Ammit’s avatar.
Also Antonia Salib was hilarious as the voice of Tawaret! In the midst of a dark DARK episode, the hippo goddess shone ever brighter.
But I still have a lot of questions! Are we not going to deal with the third identity? Or are they going to be revealed just in time for a cliffhanger ending? Is Ammit wreaking havoc back on Earth? How the heck are they going to wrap all this up next week?
I guess we’ll find out in the finale.
Schrader Scale (of Judgement)
Oh, this one gets a 9. We’ve got horrific familial abuse (Affliction). We’ve got Marc being abused and left for dead by a corrupt military CO (The Card Counter). We’ve got existential despair over a child’s death being forestalled by belief in a deity—in this case, Khonshu (First Reformed). We’ve got the rejection of psychological help in favor of violence (Taxi Driver, kinda). We’ve got suicidal despair transformed into violence against others (um, all of them). We’ve got a conflicted moment with an item of religious significance (um, most of ’em, but let’s say American Gigolo for funsies.). We’ve got making a deal with a potentially malevolent entity in the moments before death (The Last Temptation of Christ [although Jay Cocks helped with that one]). We’ve got resurrection (ibid).
It probably seemed a little far-fetched when I started this scale, didn’t it?
WHO’S LAUGHING NOW.
Dr. Harrow, sensing a breakthrough: “This hippo could break down the walls between you and Steven.”
Tawaret: “It’s been a minute since we’ve had a soul passing here.”
Tawaret: “This is one of many intersectional planes for untethered consciousness… a psych ward’s a first for me but we can roll with it, right?”
Marc: “I’m not crazy! I’m dead!”
Tawaret (on their hearts refusing to balance): “I do not have a card for this.”
Marc (on his cafeteria full of corpses): “I kept wishing I’d fail and one of them would kill me instead. The healing was a curse.”
Khonshu: “Do you want life, or do you want death?”
Marc: “I don’t know.”
Dr. Harrow (on the downsides of modern psychiatry): “We can’t involuntarily sedate patients! Not these days…”
Steven (to Marc): “You made me up?”