Code Geass Review: All tactics, no strategy

SPOILER FREE (I think)!
This is a general discussion of the show. I don't mention specific plot points or, at worst, anything you wouldn't know after watching the first episode. This is all general criticism of the show and its conclusion. For a detailed breakdown and synopsis check out this review from http://kotaku.com/.

It’s a helluva ride

First, I have to say that I found the show riveting. Code Geass does an outstanding job of creating tension and keeping you engrossed in its alternate reality and the characters' chaotic lives. I binged it pretty much all the way through and by the end I kind of wanted it to be over just so I could get down off the ride (I probably should have taken more breaks). If you're looking for something to watch it's definitely worth at least checking out the first couple of episodes, there's a lot to like. Just maybe don't expect a satisfying finish.

I should also note that I watched this on Netflix with English dubbing and maybe the subtitles do a better job with the story. Nothing will make me forgive the fake chess though.

Woman mouthing the words wah wah wah

Woman mouthing the words wah wah wah

Womp womp

My biggest gripe is the way Code Geass resolves the tension it creates. There are so many god-from-the-machine moments that it could have been called Geass ex machina (yes, I'm super proud of that). This is all the more gutting because the show is so good at creating interesting characters and a realistic world for them to affect and be affected by. But far too often the story abandons these threads in favor of some new element that nullifies the characters' power to change anything and rewrites the rules of its world because it moves the plot forward. If that happened once in a while that would be great. This is a show about morality and, hey, sometimes you do the right thing and lose anyway; sometimes the evil bastards win. Do that too often though, and instead of feeling like the apathetic motions of an indifferent universe it just feels like lazy writing.

Morality is the main theme of the show and pretty much every major character has to struggle with it at some point and no one more-so than super-genius protagonist Lelouch vi Britannia. When he's not busy outsmarting everyone around him, he's struggling with the consequences of his decisions and mistakes. He and everyone else is forced to ask questions about what mistakes are acceptable, whether the ends justify the means and how much evil is okay when you're trying to defeat a greater evil. Code Geass is good at making these questions personal and relatable and the way characters make decisions and the results of those decisions matters a lot. But if you're going to suffer these moral dilemmas along with the show you have to know what the goals are but most of the time they're so vague that you’re not really sure what to care about or root for. At first that’s mysterious and intriguing but eventually it just feels like the writers don't have a plan. Sure you know the good(ish) guys are trying to take over some base (not a real example) but you don't really know why that's important, why it's more important than one of the other plot points or why they seem to think it's going to work.

Stick figure falling apart a line at a time until it disappears completely.

Stick figure falling apart a line at a time until it disappears completely.

The characters are complex except when they're not

The show has a big cast and Code Geass is good at spreading out screen time and dialogue in a way that makes keeping track of everyone interesting rather than tedious. People grow, regress and feel authentic as TV personalities go. Their changes matter a lot to the plot and there’s a lot of time invested in whether they are good or bad changes and if that’s even a useful metric. But in a lot of cases these changes happen too fast to feel authentic and without a shred of doubt or second-guessing—if only I could learn their secret! Other times their choices make sense, are thoroughly explained and come with just the right amount of wavering only to be undermined by a plot twist that renders all their development irrelevant. Bye agency…

This is especially bothersome when it comes to Lalouch predicting human behavior. If you're old enough to read this you know that humans often do things that make no damn sense. They're unpredictable, even to themselves. They're unpredictable in the show too, right up until the moment they need to act exactly as Lalouch needs them too. Again, Code Geass gets this right often enough that it's only more jarring when it gets it wrong. It's not a silly show where explanations don't matter except when it is.

Good luck Sherlock

The fun of watching a whodunit like Murder She Wrote or Law and Order is the idea that you can play along—the clues are all there, at least in hindsight. Code Geass tempts you to figure things out but flakes at the crucial moments. It's like Angela solving the case by saying “An assassin did it. I know because I found an invoice. I would have told you before but I waited because it's more dramatic this way.” Basically, you know Lelouch is going to come out on top but not in a way you can piece together yourself. Magic!

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch version) rubbing his temples in frustrated concentration

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch version) rubbing his temples in frustrated concentration

Much of the plot is based on Lelouch's ability to make impossible predictions and think in ways that leave his enemies baffled. The show goes all in on the Smart People Play Chess trope and again their success rate is almost-but-not-quite. Lelouch is, of course, an amazing player and he has an unusual habit of moving his king early in the game. If you're not into chess, moving the king early is almost never a good idea and the show uses this to illustrate the way Lelouch employs unorthodox thinking to his advantage. The idea is that people underestimate him because he seems to make amateur/childish moves when really he's lapping them. It's usually accompanied by some version of, “If the king does not lead, how can he expect his subordinates to follow?”.

This is all fine. The metaphor's clear enough whether you play chess or not and the show backs up this lofty quote with lots of instances of Lelouch's jumping into the line of fire. It's a little sad that they've chosen an example that doesn't really work in chess when there are so many other ways they could have made this point with perfectly legitimate chess strategies but whatever, everyone gets chess wrong.

Where the metaphor really breaks down is the tactics vs strategy theme. Lelouch talks about the difference quite a bit, usually with the idea that he's seeing the bigger picture; “The tide of war is determined by strategy, not tactics”.

Even if you've never thought about the difference between strategy and tactics you know all about it—strategy is your goal and tactics are how you're going to accomplish it. It's easier to change tactics when you have a clear strategy as many self-help books and cheerful you-can-do-it blogs will tell you. Chess is exceptionally good at teaching this and there are literally hundreds of examples a google search away and they didn't look up any of them.

So the strategy vs tactics thing could have been awesome. It's got plenty of depth for the writers to work with and it could have done a lot of heavy lifting when it came to explaining Lelouch's thinking and continued success. But the show doesn’t invest enough time in the metaphor or reasoning for a useful comparison. They prime you for an “Oh, now I get it” moment that never comes. Part of this is because you have no idea what the hell Lalouch is trying to do, so, when he rubs his hands together muttering, “exactly as I planned” you can't really argue (or understand).

What makes this even stranger is the way they avoid a lot of the cliches that can drag down a superhero story. Lelouch has a magic power and most of the time the writers do a surprisingly good job of using it sparingly, using it in clever ways and not using it to explain everything. But then, out of nowhere, it appears to save the day. It's almost like they have one team that writes a really good build-up and then they pass it along to the slackers to finish. Or maybe to some kind of corporate supervisor.

Bart Simpson picks up a cake decorated with the words “at least you tried” and throws it in the garbage

Bart Simpson picks up a cake decorated with the words “at least you tried” and throws it in the garbage

Unhappy ending

Sadly these flaky finishes continue all the way to the show's conclusion. As season three staggers through already-explored themes and clunky setup we're presented with a baffling scenario that leaves everyone wondering what the hell is going on. To be honest, at this point you pretty much know what's going on although you're really hoping you're wrong (you're not). While it has echoes of some of the deeper themes, the resolution is simplistic and unsatisfying. It works only because this is a show and they say it works. Its idealistic, reductive tone contradicts the more realistic aspects of the show, diminishing both.

All of that said, there are a lot of interesting arcs, especially when Lelouch fails or when he succeeds in ways that come at a terrible cost. There are some genuinely heartbreaking moments and when the show gets it right, you really feel for the characters. There is a lot of dramatic irony and knowing what a character is holding back or lying about is often tragic and moving. But when it gets it wrong, character choices seem unrealistic and forced. You can't tell when you should be emotionally invested or apathetic and it gets it not-quite-right often enough that you sort of stop caring.

All in all, Code Geass aims so high that it ends up being pretty damn good despite the shortcomings. There are intense moral questions with real consequences and lots of good story to chew on. If it had aimed a little lower it could have nailed a lighthearted story about heroes and villains. I can't help being sad when I think of how epic it could have been. Too often they weasel out of satisfying resolutions to conflicts of all sizes. They ask good questions and then phone in the answers.

In the end, the chess metaphor works better than they probably intended. Instead of using the games to illustrate strategy and personality, they made stuff up and threw explanations out the window. Oh well. It was a fun ride.