The Analysis that Became a Rant or The Little Article that Could
It might have been the pot, it might have been the acid, or it might have been the mushrooms, but I remember at some point in my nebulous collection of psychedelic adventures, zombies finally made sense. I figured them out.
I don’t like the word “zombie” though. “Living dead” is getting better—it’s a nice oxymoron. “Walking dead” though… they got it right with that name.
See, “Zombie” is too abstract—it’s not connected with anything tangible, it’s just a funny sounding name that we associate with mindless, autonomic bodies brought back to life.
“Living dead” is better because it hits closer to home. We have deeper associations with the words “living” and “dead”—they mean more to us than “zombie” ever will. But, there’s something wrong with the name.
“Walking dead” on the other hand hits it out of the park. It just nails it. Why?
It does the same thing that “living dead” does—it anchors the name and the idea of the creature into something more tangible than “zombie”—but then “living dead” goes wrong with the “living” part, because we instinctually know that part of the name is a cheap gimmick.
It’s clever, for sure, but we know the zombies aren’t “living”. “Living” for us as humans is something natural. We associate it with “the lights being on”, with a “soul” in the body, maybe even a ghost in the shell (wink, wink). And so, we look at the dead body moving on its own, and we know that it’s not “dead” in the normal sense, but we also know it’s definitely not “living” in any sense.
But, “walking dead”, that name works. You don’t have to think about walking at all in order to do it. You can literally walk in your sleep, it’s so easy and mindless to do. Walking is just your body moving in a pre-programmed way and it literally takes no effort at all—just try thinking about how you actually walk, I’ll bet you don’t even know how walking works.
“Walking dead” implies something that’s just robotic, mechanical, thoughtless or instinctual. It basically calls zombies objects capable of moving (and eating, of course). There’s nothing there. The body moves, but it moves like silt moves in a riverbed, or how snow falls from tree limbs or rocks fall down slopes—there is no thought: it’s purely mechanical.
That term, “walking dead”, removes any sense of agency, animacy, life or consciousness from the zombies: they’re corpses that move; they’re objects that walk.
But, what does this mean symbolically?
What are the walking dead?
They’re mindless people-shaped objects that incessantly consume anything and everything around them.
They’re the hungry, unthinking corpses that stalk the few conscious survivors of the undeath plague in herds.
They’re the masses of thoughtless, mechanical animals made of rotting flesh and decayed nerves.
They’re the shambling costumer, the bottomless, indebted consumer, the TV mind-slaves; they’re the drones, the sellouts, the zealous recruiters of self-dissolution; they’re the frenzied finger-pointers, the inquisitors refusing to look in the mirror, the self-anointed priests of popular opinions.
They’re the walking dead: they’re programmed, they lack self-reflection, they lack the ability to judge their own actions or beliefs, and they lack an understanding of where they’re beliefs and behaviors even stemmed from—more importantly, they even lack a desire to understand.
This idea—this symbol—reflects so succinctly the collective behavior of “the masses”. It’s the idea of herds of people who lack self-reflection or any deeper level of consciousness (perhaps the lack consciousness altogether) and who act on basic instinct and primordial, emotional drives.
So what is the point of the zombie or zombie survival flick?
I began this article with a quote from one of the greatest unknown lyricists, Mark Lenover. Here’s a quote from one of the greatest known lyricists:
“Run desire, run, sexual being Run him like a blade to and through the heart No conscience, one motive Cater to the hollow”
“Screaming feed me, here Fill me up, again And temporarily pacify this hungering”
Maynard James Keenan & Billy Howerdel, “The Hollow”
The zombie narrative reflects humanity’s social reality in that a vast majority of the population is turned “off”—the lights aren’t on, no one’s home, some thoughtless machine is pulling levers behind the scenes—while a small minority of people are survivors.
Perhaps the plague, virus, disease, etc. is society itself—the pressure of millions of people-shaped objects wanting to turn you into one of them—wanting to consume you and degrade you to their mindless level. Perhaps it’s culture, or a specific kind of culture which infects people, or maybe it’s a natural symptom of a society.
So, what about the survivors? Who are they?
What do they represent?
They’re the people fighting to survive the thrall of society or culture—the people who fall prey and become another walking dead are those who give in to apathy, lethargy or self-destruction; or they fall prey to some trauma—physical, social or psychological; or they are overwhelmed by the herd and succumb to the swarming mob of people-shaped meat-objects.
And why do the walking dead wish to feast on other humans? Specifically, the flesh of humans who are still alive? Why are they unable to or have no desire to sustain themselves off dead or undead human flesh?
Because people have no desire to kill and consume other people who are already a part of the herd: we have no desire to transform people who are already transformed, and nothing can be gained from consuming what we already are.
The people who survive the gauntlet of society and culture become targets for zealous conformists and mindless consumers. People don’t “consume” products created by people similar to them, people from the same socio-economic class as them, or people from that they’ve conformed to/with—the people who create the things we consume aren’t like the pepole consuming their goods.
The people who remain original, the people who remain conscious, the people who remain alive and passionate: these are the people the masses wish to feast on.
The herds of walking dead feast on Disney, Walmart, Amazon and others—and while the living may still use these companies, they do not “feast” on them, they are not consumers in the same sense.
The “herd-minded” consumer consumes to blindly satiate an instinctual hunger; the living, thinking individuals understand their actions, and they “consume” to fulfill a conscious, understood necessity, or to aid in assisting some goal.
So there are two elements to this: a hatred of life—an anti-life (an unlife)—driving people-shaped objects to destroy life; and then there is an absolute desire to consume that life. It is a hunger or desire to obtain something, which results in the destruction of the desired thing.
And the emotional kicker to this all is the endless nihilism and suffering of hope.
Those who survive remain conscious, remain thinking, calculating, rationalizing agents—they remain alive—and yet their life is infinitely more difficult because of this. They remain alive and conscious only to be conscious for their own unending peril, pain and hardship. So why continue? Why go on?
Why go on—why struggle so hard against the smothering night and the bitter cold—when one can just let go, become a part of the herd?
Why struggle against something that seems so inevitable? Why wage an impossible war? Why stand against the ocean of mindless walkers?
What is it that is so important about life that people are capable of weathering the most violent storms in order to maintain life—to keep the fire lit, and to carry and pass the torch into the lightless chaos of tomorrow?
The possibility of something better and the hope for a cure: the hope for an end to the infinite dark.
This is what ever zombie narrative inevitably teases us with, and this is what life teases us with: what if, one day, we could end all this pain?
What if, one day, we could cure the walking dead, restore humanity and restore a society into one that loves life and living? What if we could cure the disease of anti-life and mindless consumption?
That’s what keeps us watching, and that’s what keeps the fire lit.
“And these words changing nothing as your body remains And there’s no room in this Hell, there’s no room in the next And our memories defeat us, and I’ll end this duress But does anyone notice? But does anyone care? And if I had the guts to put this to your head But does anything matter if you’re already dead? And should I be shocked now, by the last thing you said? Before I pull this trigger, your eyes vacant and stained And in saying you loved me made things harder, at best And these words changing nothing as your body remains And there’s no room in this Hell, there’s no room in the next But does anyone notice there’s a corpse in this bed?”
My Chemical Romance, “Early Sunsets Over Monroeville”
Conclusion: Episode/Issue #1 of The Walking Dead
A good story reflects reality.
A good symbol reflects a deeper, more complex truth about reality that a literal description cannot.
Zombies, living dead, walking dead: a society moving in herds, which no longer cares for life nor its continuation, and seeks its annihilation and assimilation through mindless consumption.
The Survivors: the ones who rage against the herds of people-shaped objects.
A good narrative speaks in a language of symbols, characters, events and associations.
In the first issue of The Walking Dead comic series and in the first episode of the show, the protagonist, Rick Grimes—a protector and upholder of law, and thereby a protector and upholder of culture and society—is shot and put into a coma. He wakes up in a hospital to find the world in shambles.
He is weak and barely alive. The previously orderly, clean and sensible world he lived in has become a ruined hellscape, devoid of life. He finds that society has been overrun by the Walking Dead, and then finds that a small number of people are still alive.
He then begins protecting these people, these individuals, and upholding life itself.
Rick himself “dies” and returns to life—he goes to the abyss, the place of chaos and darkness, common mythological trope—and returns to the “overworld” or the “normal” world.
Here, we can take a literal interpretation of the story: he wakes up after an actual zombie apocalypse.
Or, we can take a symbolic interpretation of the story: he wakes up to see the world for what it really is.
He wakes up and realizes his own weakness and vulnerability; he wakes up and realizes how important life and consciousness really are; he wakes up and devotes his life to protecting and leading people, not dictates of society.
Perhaps Rick didn’t wake up and see a transformed reality; perhaps Rick woke up transformed and saw reality.
I wanted this to be a two-parter, but goddamnit, this movie’s just too good. However, to be perfectly honest, I wrote a ton today, and there came a time my brain was just too fried. So, a third article will be written to tidily wrap this all up.
This article finishes the surface-level analysis, and next article will synthesize the analysis from the first two parts and delve into some of the themes a bit deeper.
With out further ado, here’s Part 2, leaving off right where Part 1 ended.
Living Together / Raising the Child
This part of the movie is relatively short.
First, we see Mary trying to take care of the new child—which is nothing short of a grotesque monster, but we’re forced to empathize with it because it’s a baby—and she is having an incredibly difficult time with it. The baby fusses, the baby cries, the baby refuses to eat and so forth.
Henry comes back from work, secretly checks his mail and opens up a box with some sort of dried organic thing inside of it (it looks like a small, dried worm or leech). Henry comes back inside, sees Mary and the Baby, the lies on the bed. Mary asks if there’s any mail, Henry tells her there wasn’t, and then Henry briefly gazes into the radiator.
There’re a few obvious things to talk about here. Mary is incredibly exasperated by living with the baby. The baby itself doesn’t make living with it hard.
It’s physical appearance is not something it can help, but it nonetheless rounds up any parents’ nightmares about how their child might be born: it seems to be deformed, it is wrapped in bandages, and it seems its body would not be able to function properly otherwise, and, on top of this, it incessantly cries and wails.
The baby here is something extremely grotesque—on the high end of parents’ fears of how their baby might come out—and yet the two parents must try to love the baby (ironically, Henry, until the very end, seems to be better at this than Mary). It’s a locus of problems, insecurities, frustrations and an entire network of psychological issues.
It’s all the worries, doubts and regrets we have about pregnancy, childbirth, childcare and children themselves all rolled into one.
The dried slug-creature comes into play later, so there’s not too much to discuss here other than wondering why Henry is hiding it. I think the dried slug might be Henry’s sexuality, which he is now hiding from Mary, and this will be developed a bit throughout the analysis.
The radiator likewise comes back later in the movie, and I think this radiator might be a sort of source of warmth in the cold, with the contents we later see in the radiator being the more symbolic or psychological sources of warmth.
That night, Henry first places the dried worm (which now seems less-than-dry) into a small cabinet hanging on the wall. He then seems to make a sexual advance on Mary, which she promptly denies and the two try to get some sleep. The baby continues crying. Henry manages to sleep, but Mary cannot. She eventually begins yelling at the baby to shut up before trying to go back to sleep again.
The baby will not stop crying, and Mary still cannot sleep, so she eventually decides to leave for her parents’ house so she can try to get some sleep. She leaves Henry with the baby, telling him he’d better look after it.
After this, there are a few notable events. The baby gets sick, which is a disgusting sight to see, though Henry seems to take care of the baby relatively well. Then, Henry tries to leave the apartment, but every time he does, the baby begins crying to he returns. Henry lays in bed to sleep, and his radiator begins emitting light and sound.
Some major notes for this are, of course, the return and rejuvenation of the worm, which makes an appearance just before Henry tries to have sex with Mary again. Mary refusing might either be Mary’s general frustration at the situation, or it might be Mary’s realization that it was sex that led to all of her current problems and frustrations. She may be both weary of sex and may be resentful towards Henry for doing this to her.
Henry’s ensuing issues with the baby might be the first signs of his own resentment towards the baby, though so far he seems to be doing a better job at parenting than Mary. However, this frustration seems to be a little more evident in the moment when he’s trying to leave the apartment.
Here, we have the first of two hallucinations/dreams/visions of the girl in the radiator.
She has exaggerated cheeks, a constant smile and an innocent look to her. Perhaps she is meant to be child-like in some way, or perhaps she is meant to be like an innocent version of Mary before they had their child, and is a sexually idealized woman. There have been some theories that this girl is in fact Henry’s subconscious.
Though I haven’t seen it, the argument could also be made that this girl is Henry’s Anima (a Jungian term).
I won’t go down that line of thought too much, though my own line of thought may be precisely this.
I think the girl is sort of a projection of a sexualized woman. She is innocent, though potentially in a somewhat seductive way, she is young, she is happy, and she is associated with the warmth provided by the radiator. Also, and this is a big “also”, the cheeks she has are almost like a mask, and while their “purpose” might be to accentuate her looks, her innocence or her attractiveness, they are a bit grotesque.
So, in a way, this idealized mask that the girl wears mirrors the possibility that she is an idealized projection of Henry’s attraction.
The woman is also dancing across a stage in the radiator, and the strange sperm-fetuses we saw in the dream sequence at the beginning of the film begin falling from above her onto the stage. At first she dances around them, but then she steps on them and squashes them.
This might be the woman acting like a spermicide, or even committing infanticide. All of Henry’s problems, including his potential sexual frustration and Mary’s frustration/resentment/cold shoulder, stem from their child. So, Henry’s idealized female-figure would be one that either: cannot get pregnant; kills sperm; or kills fetuses.
Affair with the Girl Across the Hall
After this, it appears that Mary is back and is sleeping in the bed with Henry again. She is constantly moving around, making biting noises and taking up much of the bed. Henry finds another one of the sperm-fetus-creatures in the bed, presumably coming from out of Mary’s vagina, and pulls it out of her. After throwing these against the wall, the light in thee room dims, then a single light illuminates the cabinet with the worm in it.
The cabinet opens, and the worm seems fully rejuvenated now and begins moving around, making small noises. It moves into the dark, then we see it moving across a rocky landscape (possibly the rocky landscape from the beginning of the movie). The worm begins moving in and out of several holes, growing larger each time and its squeals growing deeper in pitch, until it emerges as a large worm with a gaping mouth.
Next we see Henry sitting alone in the apartment through a large hole in the wall (similar to the hole in the roof of the house at the beginning dream sequence). The Girl Across the Hall (who I will now start to call “Gathy” [Girl Across the Hall = GATH = Gathy]) comes into the apartment. She has a seductive, almost predatory, expression and body language.
Henry silences the baby while talking to Gathy, and the two eventually start having sex in Henry’s bed, which now has a large, hot-tub size pool of white, murky water in it. The two are having sex in this pool of whitish fluid, and Gathy sees the baby across the room and seems frightened by it.
The two continue to have sex, then slowly sink into the murky pool until they have completely disappeared. We briefly see Gathy staring into the dark, though we’re not sure what she’s staring at, and then we see the giant rock floating through space. I would wager that she is seeing the strange infant, and the giant rock might be the womb the baby came from. Gathy may right now be realizing that Henry created the grotesque monster through sex, and that she just had sex with Henry (more on this later).
Henry having sex with Gathy is him attempting to return to the life he had before the child, sex without care or perceived consequence. The pool of whitish fluid obviously has a biological vibe to it, and likely refers to sperm. However, it may also be a return to the womb, or a return to innocence—a return to an opaque place that consumes one in warmth, ignorance and bliss.
If it’s not obvious, the worm does seem to be associated with sex and a mix of libido and sexual frustration. The sperm-fetuses Henry pulls out of Mary may be his disgust at Mary, aided by his growing resentment of the child and Mary’s own behavior in bed. Henry might be realizing or acknowledging, as the other characters seem to have, that sex with Mary resulted in something grotesque he resents.
Girl in the Radiator, Eraserhead and Infanticide
At this point in the film, we’ve really lost all hold on reality, and Lynch provides us with a roller coaster of visions and dreams and surreal events. I will try to analyze each sequence here as we go, since there is quite a lot.
Girl in the Radiato
Immediately after Gathy is staring into the dark and we see the rock hurtling through the void, we see the Radiator Girl again. She begins singing:
“In heaven, everything is fine
“In heaven, everything is fine
“In heaven, everything is fine
“You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine
“In heaven, everything is fine
“In heaven, everything is fine
“In heaven, everything is fine
“You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine
“In heaven, everything is fine.”
This, I took as possessing a dichotomy to it’s meaning, but overall, it’s about an idealization of life and a comforting narrative about the nature of reality.
First, “In heaven, everything is fine” is a comforting phrase repeated like a prayer, chant or mantra. It is the desire and hope that everything will turn out okay in the end, or that there is something better to be found, achieved or accessed—it’s a sort of escapism and belief that the grass is greener on the other side.
Then, there’s the line, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine”. This line indicates a separation of individuals and possessions. Possibly a divorce, or possibly just a state of two people living individually and distinctly from each other, but still co-existing in a positive state.
Then, there’s the line, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine”. This line sort of contradicts the other line and seems to indicate a union of individuals and possessions. This might be a marriage, or simply two people living peacefully and happily together.
It also reflects an idealization of Henry’s life before and after Mary had their child. Henry previously may have previously idealized his relationship with Mary as having no consequences, and their entire relationship was sort of built atop a more hedonic relationship of sexuality.
After this, once Mary had the baby, Henry may have idealized his new relationship with Mary as being a happy, unified relationship—the nuclear family—where mother, father and child live happily together.
The idealized yet grotesquely-masked Radiator Girl sings this to Henry, presenting both halves of his life in an idealized way.
After this, Henry steps onstage with the Radiator Girl and a series of events happens in sort of rapid-fire succession (or as close to rapid-fire as Eraserhead can get at x1 speed). I will also say, parts of this analysis really feel like they go off in the deep end for me, but I think it all at least makes sense (and it’s a David Lynch film, I can think whatever I want about it).
Henry interacts with the girl onstage, then, after a couple flashes of light, she disappears. We briefly see a vision of the man pulling the levers from the beginning of the movie, the sperm fetuses littering the floor are swept away by the wind, and finally a dead tree emerging from a tarp-covered pile is rolled onstage.
Henry retreats behind a small barricade, then his head falls off and bounces onstage. From the hole where his neck is, the head of the child emerges, screaming and wailing, until Henry’s head falls through a pool of blood or dark fluid onstage. It falls into the industrial cityscape Henry had been traversing earlier in the film.
A small boy picks up the head and takes it to a shop. The boy is taken to a man in the back room who is operating a strange machine, and the man operating the machine drills a hole into Henry’s head and produces a stick of, presumably, brain matter. He puts the stick into the machine, and uses the stick to create eraserheads for pencils (get it?).
The boy is paid for his efforts, and some eraser dust is flung off of the man’s table before Henry wakes up.
There’s a lot here that happens in a short amount of time, so I’ll try to go through this relatively quickly.
Henry confronts his idealized projection of a woman, and she disappears. We briefly see the man pulling the levers—the idealized projection vanishing and briefly being erased with the entity in control of fate, reality, the universe, or maybe just Henry’s own thoughts and actions.
The sperm is blown away, possibly sanitizing the stage or blowing away Henry’s fears, and then the tree is wheeled onstage. The tree has no leaves—it is lifeless—and it grows from a plastic hill that is disassociated from the rest of the earth/ground (it is on a mobile vehicle rather than being planted on the ground).
This may be the lifelessness present in a society which has uprooted itself from a natural way of living, the barrenness of such a life, or perhaps Henry’s own desire for lifelessness or fruitlessness in the world (his desire for a barren, sanitized love-life free of the consequences of children).
Henry’s head falling off and being replaced with the child’s head is a few things. Henry has died, either physically or metaphorically. His identity is destroyed, he’s nothing more than a headless, mindless body, and either his identity or his mind has been replaced with the baby. This could be that Henry’s new identity is that of a father, and all other identity is now gone (even the identity that seeks sexual comfort). It also harkens back to the idea of a succession of generations.
Henry helped create a child of the next generation, and now his life is subordinate to the new generation’s life (which will eventually take Henry’s place in society/life once the baby has matured).
Now, the part where Henry’s head is taken away and sold to make erasers.
This part, despite being what the movie is named after, really took a while to make sense to me, but I think I’ve got it.
The three men at the shop are like three aspects of modern society, especially in the economic sense.
There is the storefront clerk, the shop owner/manager/boss, and the expert or professional working in the back room. We have the service/servant class, we have the professional or craftsman class, and then we have the managerial or ruling class. All three form a sort trifecta representing the needs, expectations or pressures of society, as manifested through business and the economy.
The boy could be Henry’s son, or it could be a child-like Henry himself, selling his head (selling his identity or his cognitive ability and attention) to the ruling/managerial class. Henry is sold, and his brain is turned into something that erases. What is being erased here?
Well, Henry is being erased (his identity and his mind), but also Henry’s brain is being used to erase mistakes people make, or erase things people don’t want anymore after they’ve created it with a pencil (a pencil being a phallic object).
So, there’s a few things happening here at once. Henry’s identity and thoughts are being sold to a manifestation of society. Henry himself is being erased. This means the child that brought Henry’s head/identity/thoughts to this place is in part responsible for Henry’s erasure. But also, Henry is turned into something that erases. He erases mistakes and other undesirable creations.
And that’s exactly what Henry does.
Sometime after Henry wakes up, he goes and knocks on Gathy’s door, with no response. When he returns, the baby begins coughing or wheezing, except it sounds almost like a mocking laugh. Then, Henry sees Gathy with another man, kissing and feeling her up. When Gathy looks at Henry, he sees the infant’s head instead of his.
This is Gathy associating sex with Henry to the creation of the infant. She identifies Henry as the father of something grotesque.
In the next scene, Henry cuts open the infant’s bandages, revealing its organs beneath. This is another “pulling of the veil”, where something idealized or hidden from the eye by outward appearances is revealed for what it truly is.
Then, Henry uses his scissors to stab the infant’s organs. This is an act of destroying the thing he created—something either perceived as or projected as being grotesque—and it is also an attack on the grotesque reality that has been revealed to him.
The baby dies, with a yolk-like fluid oozing from its body (possibly a connection to eggs), and then a foam substance begins growing out of the baby’s body, engulfing it. Then, the baby turns into something similar to the sperm-fetuses.
Henry begins seeing giant versions of the baby’s head moving around in the dark. The electricity is going insane at this point, and then the power goes out. Henry is left alone in the dark with the giant head of the baby, which then turns into the giant rock.
The giant rock explodes, revealing that it is hollow, and the dust from the explosion resembles the dust from the eraserhead. Inside the rock, we see the man with the levers again. Sparks are flying from the mechanism. This cuts to the final moment of the movie.
Henry is standing in a place of blinding, white light, and the Radiator Girl comes and embraces him. Henry here seems to be at peace.
The giant infant head, for me, is a number of things. It is like a ghost, in that it is something that comes back from the dead to haunt Henry. It is something giant, something that has grown to immeasurable proportions, something that is larger or greater than Henry. It is something that exists in the dark, which flits in and out of existence on a whim, it seems.
It is like a giant monster lurking in Henry’s unconscious (the dark), which has grown to immeasurable proportions through Henry’s actions. It could be guilt, it could be the ghost of his child haunting him for what he has done, it could be the cathartic accumulation of emotion swelling into some monstrous projection that is confronting Henry, or that Henry is confronting.
And then, the rock, if it is a womb, explodes. Is this birth? Is this re-entry into the womb? Or is this also the destruction of something that has brought Henry so much frustration and resentment?
The man with the levers is struggling to maintain control over his machine. Perhaps it is fate struggling to contend with Henry’s actions—perhaps Henry has now broken out of the pre-ordained structures of reality—or perhaps it is Henry’s mind itself struggling to contend with his own actions. The machines of either fate or decision and action-making are malfunctioning, with either God or Henry’s unconscious struggling to maintain control.
Finally, Henry is bathed in white light and an overwhelming crashing of white noise all around him. He has entered into a transcendent place or state—much like at the end of The Lighthouse—where his idealized projection of women has come to embrace him.
He has destroyed the part of his life that has caused him and Mary so much frustration and resentment, he has broken the mechanisms of fate or his programmed decisions/actions, and has reunited with his idealized perception of life (the life he wishes he could go back to after having the baby).
Big O could’ve gone down in anime history alongside Neon Genesis Evangelion as one of the best giant mech anime of all time, and even as one of the best anime in general of all time.
However, Big O suffered not only similar flaws as Neon Genesis, but enough other of its own flaws that it is hardly even remembered (ironically). It’s a forgotten relic of the late 90’s and early 00’s: a giant robot anime that tried to fuse neo-noir Gotham-City-style action and mystery with the Modernist techno-dystopia style of movies like Metropolis, Bladerunner and Dark City.
Underlying this neo-noir, Modernist dystopia are questions of existentialism: free will, purpose, meaning, the relationship of the individual to society and the universe, the nature of being. And here, we can begin to see how Big O inevitably failed where an anime like Neon Genesis succeeded. Big O spread itself out across too many themes.
Both shows ran for 26 episodes, both were unique takes on the giant mech genre, and both were incredibly ambitious—delving into depths many “deep” anime only scratched at. The problem with Big O was that it was too scattered, too schizophrenic and too self-aware. Where Neon Genesis never felt like it was trying to be anything other than Neon Genesis, Big O felt like it was trying to be Kafka, Huxley, Orwell, Joyce, Bradbury and Asimov all at once.
Where Neon Genesis had a solid structure, a solid core to it (albeit a structure/core that was difficult to articulate at times, but was at all times clearly felt), Big O feels unstable, loose and uncertain. It’s difficult to even know how one should feel about it.
And, as one final critique, Hideaki Anno is simply a better story writer. Neon Genesis was able to wedge its characters and the central plot into our minds almost immediately, then develop the characters, plot and themes at a perfect pace (until, of course, the very end). Big O just has too much going on: too many sub-plots, too many mysteries, too many revolving-door-characters and standalone story-arcs.
The plot of NGE builds and stacks itself, like the stories of a tower, where Big O schizophrenically assembles the disparate and thinly-associated pieces of a broad puzzle. 90% of the characters appear in only one or two episodes; most individual or standalone story-arcs support the broader plot and themes, but are much more self-contained; and the philosophical themes of the story can never agree with each other on what questions they ought to be asking.
While this style of storytelling—the neo-noir, mystery/detective style of a succession of standalone plots supporting a larger plot—can work incredibly well if executed properly (such as in Cowboy Bebop), Big O was too cluttered to execute it as well as it should have been.
However, I did in fact start this analysis saying, “Big O could’ve gone down in history…” and I mean it. I want there to be no confusion here, despite my criticism, how I feel about this anime.
I love this anime.
Big O has such fucking style, such unique blends of themes and aesthetics, and such memorable, if not at times flawed, characters, plot points, scenes, settings and tone.
God, I fucking love this anime.
Big O was ambitious. In many ways, it was an homage to the science fiction, noir and modernism of the 20th century, and borrowed quite a lot from series like NGE and Batman (yes, there’s a lot of Batman in this show), but in many was its own, wholly unique show, tempered by the style and storytelling of anime.
This show is incredibly fun and unique—the robot fights, by the way, are sweet and plentiful—and the show contains quite a lot of depth to it, as well as good complexity beneath all the not-so-good complexity. And so, with the rest of this article, I will delve into the depths and attempt to come to terms with Big O.
There is a lot I won’t be able to cover. There is a lot you will simply have to experience for yourself and try to understand in your own fashion. But this analysis will hopefully provide a solid framework to understanding Big O.
If you don’t want spoilers: stop reading, go watch the short 2 seasons of Big O, and come back and read this when you’re done.
I will try to keep the initial explanation of Big O as short as I can, but, if you know Big O well enough, feel free to skip to the Literary and Structural analysis. Or, feel free to skip the next part and come back to it as a reference (or just do whatever).
Setting, History and Plot of Big O
Big O is set in Paradigm City, “a city of Amnesia”. There are a number of domes throughout the city: giant, spherical, glass-and-steel enclosures that separate the rich from the poor. The city within the domes is affluent, clean and often beautiful—the parts of cities you see on post-cards or Google-image searches—and the massive domes provide artificial skies and sunlight. The city outside the domes are run-down, dirty and bleak—the parts of cities you see when you actually drive through the cities in post-card—and are fully exposed to the “real sky”, a perpetually overcast sky where the Sun, stars and Moon are never visible.
On one side of the city is an ocean, where hundreds of drowned skyscrapers peak out from the water’s surface. On the other side of the city is a vast, desolate wasteland—a desert where even more of the city’s past is buried beneath the sand (evidenced by images of buried buildings, abandoned military outposts and even a sand-covered amusement park).
It is suggested that there is no civilization outside of Paradigm City—no countries or other cities beyond the ocean and the desert—but there is a mysterious group known as “The Union”, led by Vera Rondstadt, who are comprised of “foreigners”. However, even the legitimacy of these people being “foreigners” is called into question.
There are a number of other factions in Paradigm City in addition to The Union, but the two most important ones are the Military Police, led by Dan Datsun, and the Paradigm Corporation, led by Alex Rosewater. The Military Police act, as the name would imply, as both the domestic police force and the military army of Paradigm City, though they are also work under Paradigm Corp as the corporation’s “watchdogs”. Paradigm Corp essentially controls or rules over Paradigm City and all the organizations and business within the city.
It is remarked at one point that a business Roger is asked to work for is controlled by a parent company, and Roger states that anytime “parent company” is mentioned, it inevitably refers to Paradigm Corp.
The nature, design and isolation of Paradigm City, the perpetually gray skies and the drowned and buried cityscape surrounding Paradigm City are all a result of the City’s past.
No one in Paradigm City can remember anything prior to 40 years ago, though there are many relics of the past—such as the titular mecha, Big O—and many citizens of Paradigm City have scattered or partial memories of the past. While these memories play a large part in the show, they are also a great mystery in the show, even after its conclusion
What we can surmise from these memories, and from revelations throughout the show, is that there was some great and likely worldwide catastrophe 40 years ago. We are shown visions of Paradigm City engulfed in flame. Giant mechas known as Megadeus, or the plural Megadei, are rampaging through the streets or flying through the skies. While there are only three individual Megadei in the show’s present time—Big O, Big Duo and Big Fau, with a number of other “Bigs” that don’ qualify as Megadei—in the memories of 40 years ago, we see vast armies of Megadei.
Hundreds of Big O mechas march through the streets, with hundreds of Big Duos flying through the sky, and at least one Big Fau. On top of this, we see a number of other “Bigs” battling the Megadei, many of which are also present throughout the contemporary story of Big O.
In addition to the Megadei, there are also human-esque androids that have survived from the past. While most of these androids are quite obviously robotic, a few of them, such as R Dorothy Wayneright (one of the main characters of the show). The existence of androids like Dorothy also calls into question who is and who isn’t an android. These androids were constructed in the past, and only a few survivors of the past apocalypse remember how to construct androids. The same goes for the Megadei—only a few people know how to construct or repair the Megadei, and even fewer know what the nature or purpose of the Megadei are.
With the past ever-looming over the present events of Big O, the plot revolves around Roger Smith, Paradigm City’s “top negotiator” (or just, “The Negotiator”) and the pilot of the Megadeus, Big O. While working for a plethora of clients throughout the City as “The Negotiator”, Roger Smith secretly pilots Big O and protects the residents of the City from various attacks and catastrophes, and slowly works to unravel the history and the secrets of Paradigm City.
The protagonist of Big O is, of course, Roger Smith and his Megadeus, Big O.
Roger Smith is characterized as a sort of Bruce Wayne/Batman character: a wealthy individual who possesses an array of technology and resources, and secretly protects the city as the pilot of Big O (which could be argued is Roger Smith’s alter ego). Roger Smith as The Negotiator works outside of the various political and social forces of Paradigm City, and, as the pilot of Big O, works outside the law.
At one point in the rememberable past, Roger Smith worked as a Military Police, but left, presumably, because of the police’s connection to Paradigm Corp and the resulting corruption of the police. Nonetheless, Roger is still friends with and frequently works in tandem with one of the primary officers/commanders of the MP, Dan Datsun.
However, as the history of Paradigm City unfolds, Roger Smith’s character likewise unfolds. It is suggested that Roger Smith is a creation of the Paradigm Corporation. It is also suggested that Roger Smith was one of many “creations” of the Paradigm Corporation from the City’s past, and even, possibly, a member or associate of Paradigm City.
If one reads between the lines a bit, it may even be that Roger Smith himself is an android (and once you see it, it’s hard to unsee it). For me, this is evidenced in Roger Smith’s mannerisms and behavior throughout the show, particularly in Roger’s dialogues with Dorothy. Roger’s speech patterns, logical processes and behavior seems to mirror Dorothy’s own, much more pronounced mechanical behavior and logic.
Dorothy is probably the second-most primary character in the show, though her place in the show is often rivaled with Angel (who plays arguably the largest role in the show’s conclusion).
R Dorothy Wayneright is an android created by Miguel Soldano, who was commissioned to create her by the affluent Timothy Wayneright. Timothy Wayneright presumably had a now-deceased human daughter named Dorothy, whom the android Dorothy was modeled after.
The show begins with Roger saving Dorothy as a part of his contract with Soldano, learning after this that Dorothy has a “sister” who is in fact a giant mech, or Big, who Roger defeats in robot-combat. Dorothy eventually decides to stay with Roger in his mansion and work for him out of gratitude. While initially she mostly does housework alongside Roger’s butler, Norman, she begins assisting Norman with the repair and maintenance of Big O and aids Roger in his negotiation contracts and his giant robot side hustle.
Dorothy is a unique android in several ways. While most androids in the city follow Asimov’s three rules of robotics, Dorothy frequently does not, particularly in her relationship with Roger (though this may be evidence of Roger’s own robotic nature). In addition to her passive aggression and, at times, blatant insults towards Roger, she begins developing a romantic attraction towards Roger, which, to the despair of Dorothy, Roger denies. This also shows that Dorothy is capable of human emotion, particularly jealousy, but she also is shown to possess other human capacities, such as fear, sadness, contempt, self-awareness, and (in one short but glorious shot) smugness.
Dorothy is also one of a few androids who appears on the surface level to be entirely human, and Dorothy has some sort of unexplained connection to Big O. On top of this, she has some sort of empathic connection to other “Bigs” and other androids or machines.
Angel appears early on in the show, going by the alias Casseey Jones, and then later as Patricia Lovejoy. After calling herself “Angel”, Roger remarks that she is a “Fallen Angel”. Angel works for Paradigm Corp, though she seems to have her own agenda. Later, it is revealed that Angel is a part of the Union, which is a group of foreigners living outside of Paradigm City (though it is mentioned by their leader, Vera, that they were actually “cast out” of Paradigm City 40 years ago) who rebel against Paradigm Corp/City.
Angel often works either alongside Roger Smith, or at odds with Roger Smith—their motivations and agendas oscillating between allyship and conflict. However, as the show progresses, Angel and Roger seem to develop a romantic relationship, which is at odds with Dorothy’s romantic attachment to Roger (which at one point results in Dorothy’s aforementioned smugness).
It is later revealed that Angel has two scars going down her back, which is even later suggested to be where “wings” have been “cut off”. There are frequent allusions to Angel being Lucifer, or something equivalent in the story’s narrative. In the show’s conclusion, she becomes the pilot of Big Venus, the fourth Megadeus. Big Venus—Venus being an allusion to the Morningstar, being a name for Lucifer—essentially “resets” the show and returns Paradigm City to the amnesic state it was at the beginning of Big O.
Schwarzwald (“Black Forest” in German) is only an active character in a handful of episodes, but he is a major character in these episodes, and his presence is felt throughout the show—particularly in philosophical narrations permeating the show, even after his death.
Schwarzwald, born Michael Seebach, is the pilot of the Megadeus, Big Duo, and is motivated towards exposing the truth of Paradigm City’s corruption, its many secrets and its forgotten past. In addition towards this motivation, which he frequently gives manic monologues about, he seems to revere the Megadei as godly creations, or perhaps even as gods themselves (the Megadei and other Bigs as gods being a semi-frequent theme throughout the show).
Schwarzwald uses his Megadeus, Big Duo, to combat Roger Smith and Big O, but, while initially having the upper hand, is finally defeated by Roger and “dies” in the event. However, it is implied that Schwarzwald’s “ghost” may still be lingering in the City, still searching for the Truth.
Alex and Gordon Rosewater
Alex Rosewater is the leader of Paradigm Corp, the corporation in control of Paradigm City, and eventually becomes the pilot of Big Fau, the “Third Big” or third Megadeus. Alex Rosewater looks down on the poor population of Paradigm City, who reside outside the domes, and uses the Military Police to pursue his own goals, rather than for the protection of the City. Alex possesses something like a God Complex, and believes himself to be a superior Dominus to Roger Smith (“Dominus” being a term referring to the pilot of a Megadeus).
However, while Big Fau seems to be technologically superior to Big O, Alex does not seem to be as capable of a pilot as Roger and cannot maintain control over Big Fau as Roger maintains control over Big O.
Gordon Rosewater is the father of Alex Rosewater, and in some ways seems to be the ultimate “king” or patriarch of Paradigm City. He was in charge of Paradigm Corp before Alex was, and it is revealed that the construction of the contemporary Paradigm City (the domes, in particular) and the construction of androids was done under Gordon’s rule.
In the present times of Paradigm City/Corp, Gordon resides in his own personal dome where he lives on a large and beautiful farm and raises tomato crops. The tomato crops are implied to be something of a metaphor for Gordon’s creations—including the androids, “humans” such as Roger and Alex, and possibly even the Megadei themselves. After Roger Smith’s first encounter with Gordon Rosewater, Roger begins questioning if he himself “is a tomato”—a creation, crop and commodity of Gordon and Paradigm Corp.
While Big O and the other Megadei aren’t necessarily characters in the same sense that Roger Smith, Dorothy, Angel and so on are, they do play an integral role to the plot and history of the show, and it is frequently implied that they possess some level of sentience. The Megadei and other Bigs are also semi-frequently referred to or revered as gods.
The three primary Megadei are Big O, Big Duo and Big Fau. With frequent allusions throughout the show to Behemoth and Leviathan from Judeo-Christian myth and lore, it has been speculated that the three Megadei are partially symbolic of Behemoth, Leviathan and Ziz, Big O is entirely land-based, which would align with Behemoth, a giant land monstere; Big Duo is capable of flight, with the Ziz being a flying creature in Jewish mythology; and Big Fau is capable of maneuvering through water, with the Leviathan being a sea creature.
While typically not included in the roster of primary Megadei, there is the fourth Megadeus, Big Venus, which, as stated before, could be symbolic of Lucifer. This may also complete the metaphor of land, air and water, with Lucifer often being associated to fire (the “fourth element” of classical philosophy and alchemic writings). In the conclusion of Big O, Big Venus seems to be the force that brings an end to the current iteration of Paradigm City, resulting in the new era of Paradigm City where everyone has lost their memory once again.
In addition to the three/four primary Bigs, there are a number of other Bigs, as well as giant monsters, including (but not limited to):
– Dorothy-1, Dorothy’s Big sister
– The Archetype, a proto-Megadeus that appeared in one of the Schwarzwald
– Bonaparte, a Big controlled by the Union
– The Bigs created by Beck, various Bigs created and controlled by the recurring side character, a criminal known as Beck
– Eel and Hydra Eel, organic Bigs that utilized electricity (which appear both in the contemporary story and in memories of the past)
– Leviathan, a serpent-like mechanical Big that came from the desert
Structural and Literary Analysis
As you may have surmised from my “brief” summary of Big O, there are a lot of details and moving parts to this anime, as well as many things I didn’t mention.
I’ve only “briefly” discussed the main components of the anime, and there are single episodes that could have their own, individual analyses written over them. Just like Big O’s Big Brother, Neon Genesis, there’s too much to comprehensively discuss in one analysis, so—like I did with NGE—this analysis will be a broader exploration of the show, attempting to provide something more like a foundation or framework to understand the many individual components of the show.
Hopefully, however, this will be a shorter analysis.
First, we have to examine the setting of Big O, Paradigm City.
Paradigm City has as handful of major components: its history, its design and the ocean and desert surrounding it.
However, while the design of Paradigm City and the geography it is embedded within are meaningful, the history of the City is most important to understanding Big O.
Paradigm City is a city with amnesia. No one can remember anything about its history prior to 40 years ago, with the exception of a small number of people who can recall fragments of its past in brief glimpses.
At the conclusion of Big O, Paradigm City is essentially reset to its initial state at the beginning of Big O. The City is being rebuilt, and, presumably, none of the characters remember the events that took place throughout the anime. There are implications that Paradigm City has changed after its latest “apocalypse”, with the City still partially destroyed and Angel and Dorothy being shown together, possibly as friends or companions rather than beginning the show not knowing each other.
However, we can also presume that the state of Paradigm City at the beginning of the show was different than the state of Paradigm City prior to 40 years ago, and we can presume that history will repeat itself again.
This, in many ways, is the state of society and civilization as it is now—as it ever is, was and will be in “the now”.
While our history looms over us as an ever-present ghost, or maybe more accurately as a revenant, so much of our history is lost to us. Even the history that we can remember, the brief glimpses of the past that is recorded in our history books, is lost to most of us. We are so caught up in the tides of the present that we forget the lessons of the past.
And with this forgetting of the past, we forget our place in history. Nietzsche described Modern Humanity as begin disassociated from the rest of history, as being unmoored from its past, and so having no clear understanding of who or what they are, what their place, purpose or meaning in existence is, and no understanding of where to move on from here.
With Paradigm City’s past being so shrouded, it’s nearly impossible to understand the ongoing, historical narrative that one is a part of.
It is implied that the Megadei were created, and even mass produced, by Paradigm Corp under the rule of Gordon Rosewater, but what was their function or purpose? Why were they created and what was their function?
We don’t even necessarily know that Gordon and his intentions were evil, as his character is highly ambivalent to the plot and meaning of the show. If we don’t know what happened 40 years ago and why it happened, then how can we understand what is currently happening.
In addition, it is implied that androids, even Roger Smith androids, were created and mass produced by Gordon/Paradigm Corp. What were their purposes? Roger Smith is shown in a flashback as wearing a military uniform while piloting one of the mass produced Big O’s during the great event that resulted in the end of the previous historical era. It is also revealed that Roger Smith as The Negotiator had a contract with Gordon Rosewater prior to 40 years ago, which is contrasted to Roger’s current distrust and contempt towards Paradigm Corp. What was Roger Smith’s purpose?
And what does Roger Smith’s shrouded history say about his current purpose in the present era?
Why does Robert Smith pilot Big O? Why is he The Negotiator? Why does he disdain Paradigm Corp, and why is he constantly seeking the Truth of Paradigm City’s history?
While Schwarzwald in many ways is a foil to Roger Smith, he is also a mirrored image to Roger Smith. Just like Roger Smith, Schwarzwald seeks the Truth, battles against the perceived corruption of the City, and pilots the Megadeus, Big Duo.
Schwarzwald might in fact be the underlying or unconscious manifestation of Roger’s obsession with uncovering the secrets of the past and present, and his motivation to do good for the world. Schwarzwald is like a ghost throughout the show—a spirit that refuses to die, even after physical destruction. Schwarzwald is the manic, unconscious motivations we shroud and repress, but that still emerge from beneath our surfaces in all our beliefs, motivations and actions.
This repression, however, may be healthy. The irony of Schwarzwald’s search for the Truth is how blind he is to his own actions and decisions. Where Roger is tempered by his self-awareness and his awareness of the ethics of his actions, Schwarzwald is reckless and blind to the destruction his own pursuit of Truth and righteous vindication engender upon the innocent and down-trodden.
Here, we can find something I’ve personally been thinking quite a lot about lately: the relationship of moral values and the resulting actions and motivations.
Schwarzwald is obsessed with uncovering the Truth and executing vengeance upon Paradigm Corp/City. These are his highest values.
However, while these values are important to Roger, they are subordinated under his desire to protect the citizens of Paradigm City. Whatever Roger’s past is, whatever his purpose and role in Paradigm City was and is, he is driven by his current moral obligation to protect the City.
Roger even mentions on several occasions that he is not defined by the past—something Gordon Rosewater also mentions. Gordon at one point says that he hopes one of his creations can break free of its pre-ordained purpose or role, and decide its own fate.
Still, it is ambivalent whether this is accomplished or even possible.
If Roger was a soldier and Megadeus pilot prior to 40 years ago, as well as a Negotiator working under Gordon Rosewater, and if Roger became a Military Police member before once again becoming The Negotiator and pilot of Big O, then has Roger simply returned to his prior role? And will he return to this role with the resetting of society?
Has and will Roger always be a soldier, Negotiator and Megadeus pilot whose role in the grand narrative of Paradigm City always been to protect the citizens of the civilization?
And one final, and quite obvious note, on Paradigm City and Paradigm Corp is the name itself, “Paradigm”.
The original and primary definition of a paradigm is as a pattern, a reoccurring set of events or circumstances, or an underlying structure.
Plato used the idea of a paradigm in his metaphysical notion of the Demiurge creating reality from a model or pattern.
Merriam-Webster defines a paradigm as “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly: a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.”
When speaking more cynically about a paradigm in the context of society, government, law, etc., the paradigm of a society is essentially the ruling ideology, the ruling narrative or the ruling way of thinking and being. While the definition of paradigm is a complicated one, the use of paradigm in Big O in all its complexity may be intentional.
In this way, Paradigm City may be a City of Patterns, a City of Eternal Reoccurrence. But, Paradigm City may also be referring to the ruling ideology that permeates a society or culture.
The Paradigm, on the surface, may be the oppressive and dominant paradigm of the City’s rulers and elite—the paradigm created by Alex and Gordon Rosewater. But underlying this, the Paradigm of Big O may be the cyclical pattern of history, and the cyclical pattern of roles that individuals play in that history.
Roger’s paradigm is that of protector and Negotiator—mediating between the citizens and the higher powers of Paradigm City.
In concordance with a paradigm is a paradigm shift, a revolution in the ways of thinking. While this idea of a paradigm shift originated and is used more in the sciences—with Einstein and Darwin being two of the biggest examples of people who caused a paradigm shift—the idea can be applied to nearly anything with an ideological, legal, social or philosophical framework.
In Big O, the paradigm shift is the shift in society Alex Rosewater and Vera Ronstadt both seek.
Alex Rosewater as the figurehead of Paradigm Corp seeks to cleanse the city of “undesirables” (poor people, essentially, but also foreigners and others) and create a better, more perfect world. Vera Ronstadt as the figurehead of the Union seeks to destroy Paradigm Corp and create a world that accepts the “undesirables”, and possibly even where the “undesirables” are in power.
It could be argued (though it would be a pretty reductionist argument) that these two forces and their desired paradigm shift are equivalent to the two primary political forces, particularly in Western society: Liberalism and Conservatism. However, the term “Liberal” has been somewhat bastardized as of late, so a better comparison would probably be: Progressivism and Conservatism.
At their ultimate examples, Communism and Fascism (in many ways similar, but still the hyper-products of far-left-wing and far-right-wing politics), we see direct parallels to Paradigm Corp and The Union. The Union seeks a grand levelling of a society, essentially calling for a destruction of culture where the disempowered rule, and Paradigm Corp seeks a grand cleansing of a society, essentially calling for a Holocaust of those outside the ruling culture where the empowered rule.
Angel, who works both for Paradigm Corp and the Union, and is frequently allied with Roger Smith, sits squarely in the middle of this Paradigm Shift, and inevitably is the driver of the final Paradigm Shift resulting in a New World, or new iteration of Paradigm City. She is the pilot of the Big Venus, the Morningstar—the Lucifer or Light-Bearer of the apocalypse who brings about and oversees the final battle of the revolutionary moment.
Not only this, it is (confusingly) revealed that Angel is the daughter of Vera Ronstadt and/or Gordon Rosewater—the Matriarch of the Union and Patriarch of Paradigm Corp/City. Angel worked throughout the show on both sides, working both for Alex Rosewater and for the Union.
And Roger Smith is the Negotiator, the person mediating between these two political forces. Roger is both a wealthy, powerful elite himself and is the protector of the average citizen, and he ultimately stands as the savior of Paradigm City. Roger Smith mediates between the various conflicting forces of society, and, in the end, confronts Angel as the revived pilot of the Morningstar.
The destruction of society and culture is stopped, the average citizen and the down-trodden are saved, and the cycle of history begins once again.
Now, there is still more to get into here, and this is in part where Big O starts to fray.
There is still the matter of the androids—of Roger as an android/tomato—and the Megadei. While these do fit within the underlying theme of the reoccurring conflicts and the revolutions of society, they can distract from this underlying theme, both philosophically and narratively or as events/plot points in the show.
So, the androids. The androids are creations of the state, creations of Paradigm Corp. In the end of the show, there are a few moments that imply everyone might be an android, or at least that it’s impossibly to really know who is and who isn’t an android. This could mean that everyone is a product of the state—everyone is a tomato, or a crop that is grown and harvested by the ruling class of society.
Roger, for example, often goes into existential spirals wondering if he is in fact a tomato, and this, connecting back with the cyclical paradigm shifts of history, gets into a question of free will.
Free will has always been a topic that comes up with Artificial Intelligence or Robotics of any kind, and one of our biggest fears is that sentient machines will rise up against us. Maybe this is the same fear that those in the ruling class have of those they rule: they will gain a higher sentience and self-awareness, causing them to rise up against those in power.
However, free will in Big O is more nuanced and much more personal than this. It isn’t necessarily about political movements, it’s also about us as individuals. Do we have free will? Or are we pawns in the machinations of culture at large?
For Roger, are his actions free? Or is his role in society pre-ordained by history and by contemporary culture?
There’s some ambivalence here though, because perhaps having this role in society is necessary. While Roger’s actions both reset the cycles of history and return him and everyone else to a more blissfully ignorant state, he does in fact save Paradigm City—moreover, the innocent people of Paradigm City.
And, there’s even more ambivalence here. Who is actually in charge of these roles? Who is in control of the narrative? Alex Rosewater certainly isn’t in control of the narrative, or in control of the roles people play in the narrative. If he was, Angel and Roger wouldn’t have “won” (or whatever you’d call what happened).
Gordon Rosewater certainly doesn’t seem to be in control of anything by the end of the show. Vera isn’t in control. Angel isn’t in control. Roger isn’t in control.
So what is in control? What is the paradigm or source of the paradigm that pre-ordains the narratives and roles of society? Is this simply “how things are”? Is this simply how things always were and always will be?
And of course, to follow Roger’s personal desire and Gordon’s desire for his creations, will it ever be possible to break out of this paradigm?
And would we want to break out of this paradigm? What would happen if we did? What would that reality be like?
And how could we break out of this paradigm without actually being an unknowing participant in the paradigm?
Is the act of trying to break free of these pre-ordained structures, narratives and roles in fact a part of the paradigm itself? Is the act of trying to obtain free will a part of what creates, drives or perpetuates the paradigm?
And finally, the Megadei.
Borrowing a bit from my Neon Genesis analysis, the Megadei and the other Bigs can likely be seen as a number of things, but, most relevantly, the Megadei are like transcendent manifestations of various aspects or forces within the paradigm.
The Megadei and the Bigs are manifestations of the various conflicting forces, ideologies, motivations within the grand narrative of Big O.
Big O is the manifestation of Roger and Roger’s motivations:
– Big O being the “Behemoth” or land creature is “grounded” or terrestrial, rooted in the reality of everyday people and everyday existence
– Roger seeks to protect the people of Paradigm City; Big O is the ultimate protector of Paradigm City
– Roger seeks to mediate between the various forces of Paradigm City; Big O is the vehicle that meets Big Venus in the end to “compromise” on a new society or reality
– Roger seeks free will and the ability to act as his own individual; Big O is that power, or at least what gives Roger the ability to act as his own individual
Big Duo is the manifestation of Schwarzwald and Schwarzwald’s desire to seek the truth and strike vengeance on Paradigm Corp/City. Big Duo is literally “above it all”, Big Duo is capable of flight, and is capable of reaching heights that are impossible to reach for the other Megadei. Schwarzwald is also blind to his own actions, blind to what his manic ambitions to him and others. The final destruction of Big Duo flying into one of the lights at the top of the dome alludes to Icarus, and mirrors Schwarzwald’s desire to see the truth of the artificiality of Paradigm City. Schwarzwald as a ghost or spirit might be manifested in the “resurrection” of Big Duo later in the show.
Big Fau is the manifestation of Alex and Alex’s motivation. It is gaudy, it is technologically superior, and it is used to bring about the destruction of the undesirable aspects of Paradigm City. In addition, Alex throughout the show believes he is in control of everything, including Big Fau, but in the end is just a pawn himself. Big Fau acts on its own accord, and seems to control Alex more than Alex controls Big Fau.
The list goes on.
Beck’s Bigs are gaudy, useless, lack the capabilities the other Bigs have.
Bonaparte, the Big controlled by the Union, is an amalgamation of various other Bigs, just as the Union is an amalgamation of various foreigners of different backgrounds, lower class individuals from different walks of life, and even androids and human-android hybrids such as Alan Gabriel.
Big Venus is a manifestation of Angel as “the fallen angel”, as the central figure in the paradigm shift, and as the child of two conflicting political forces (the creation of God that eventually opposes God and brings about Armageddon), but also more literally as the Morningstar, as the light heralding the new day (the new day being the new cycle of history).
The Archetype is the manifestation of the unconscious and unconscious forces, but also of the past and the underlying influence the past has on the present.
The Eel, Electric City as a blue collar residence eventually used by the Union; the Construction Robot, working class hijacked by the Union; Chimera, the horrors of science; Osrail, the revenant of revenge; Eumenides, a Big used for assassination/vengeance.
The Megadei and the Bigs are all the manifestations of some grand, underlying force of society. They are a collective of individuals who share an ideology or common motivations, or they are an inevitable force of culture and society, which emerges as a grander force or active agent.
The only exception might be Big O, as Big O might be more of a manifestation of individuality itself. However, even if Big O is this manifestation of individuality (Roger the “Negotiator” being the Ego of the psyche), Big O might be a manifestation of the collective desire for individuality present in society.
And while I could go on for several thousand more words on giant robots, this is a good place to stop.
Big O, like its Big Brother, NGE, is a dense, complicated and opaque anime.
There’s a lot to digest, and it doesn’t give its secrets away readily.
I remember watching this show as a wee lad and being both incredibly excited by the giant robot fights and incredibly confused by everything else. But, even as a young lad, I knew there was something to this anime.
As an older lad, I still love the robot fights and am still incredibly confused by everything else, but I think less confused.
The show is definitely underrated, and I don’t think it or many other giant robot anime have been given the proper acknowledgement or understanding they deserve. The metaphors I’ve discussed, both in this analysis and the NGE analysis, of robots being manifestations of socio-cultural, individual and potentially metaphysical forces and realities are grossly under-analyzed and under-appreciated.
Still, Big O doesn’t do itself any favors.
I’ve simplified the show quite a bit, and so it might sound like I’ve got Big O pinned down, but I really don’t.
Big O feels like it contradicts itself, or that it’s confused as to what it’s trying to portray, but the show is such an elusive tangle of exposition and events at times that many of these internal contradictions and confusions are nearly impossible to even pin down.
It might simply be the execution in parts of the show, and the show did have a somewhat rocky production at times, but so did Neon Genesis—so do most shows and movies.
It could be that Big O was trying to do too much—to be too much—and that the show became too cluttered with its own aesthetics and its own ambitions.
It could also be that I’m a dull, incompetent, uncultured swine who doesn’t understand the nuances of modernist neo-noir/giant-robot/vintage-sci-fi fusion anime, and I’ve certainly taken this into consideration.
Still, I do think the best way to see where Big O went wrong is to look at where Neon Genesis went right.
Both shows are incredibly complicated, dense and opaque, rife with tangled philosophy and psychology, and both possess a large cast of complex characters.
However, Neon Genesis had a solid focal point or central plot-mover that moored the complexity of the show: the battles between Eva and Angel.
Big O doesn’t have this focal point to the same degree.
The show is about Roger Smith working as The Negotiator, and all the shenanigans he gets into. It’s also about Roger Smith protecting Paradigm City with Big O. It’s also about Roger Smith uncovering the truth of Paradigm City and its past. It’s also about Roger Smith’s conflict with Paradigm Corp and Alex Rosewater. It’s also about a lot of other things.
While Neon Genesis had many sub-plots, tangential exposition, and labyrinthian character development, the entire show, from start to finish, was focused on the Eva-Angel conflict, which, ultimately, was about the Third Impact.
The events of the past were the result of previous Impacts, the present events were the inevitable steps leading to the Third Impact, and the finale of the series was the Third Impact.
While, yes, the various focuses of Big O were all centered on the apocalypse of the previous era, and the finale of Big O was the new apocalypse that brought about the next era, these were all too disassociated from many of the events of Big O. It didn’t feel centered, and Neon Genesis was very powerfully centered on the Eva-Angel and Third Impact plot.
Maybe Big O was too opaque. Maybe it didn’t give us enough information, and the information it did give us was hand-fed and little was left to the imagination. The pieces of the puzzle were always present in Neon Genesis, and we were given the freedom to put a few of the pieces in ourselves; whereas the pieces of Big O’s puzzle were like disparate islands that eventually (kinda) came together in the end, but only by the hands of its creators.
Big O is nonetheless a terrific anime. It’s flawed, but everything is flawed.
The confusion and schizophrenic plot development of Big O might just be the confusion and schizophrenic state of modernity as it is. Big O is cluttered: life is cluttered. Big O is confusing: life is confusing. Big O is scattered, the pieces don’t all fit perfectly, and a few are missing: have you figured out life yet?
And flaws aside, when the pieces of Big O are put together, they’re absolutely brilliant. What the creators of Big O tried to do—and the things they did do—were incredible and impressive.
Flaws aside, Big O is a fun fucking anime. The setting of Paradigm City is wicked cool; the constant mystery mixed with the action mixed with the retro-modern aesthetic is A+; the characters can be a lil’ flat at times, but they’re still great and very memorable; and the giant robots and monsters are sick, bruh.
What do we know about the world we live in, the people we
live with, and the person we are?
Light comes in through the cornea, and is refracted into
your pupil, then through a hard lens, where the light is focused into the
retina. Our retinas capture this constant bombardment of trillions of
light-waves/particles, and process this light with millions of special nerves
called rods and cones. These rods and cones convert light stimuli, which are
picked up by the optic nerve, and sent to the brain.
Your brain processes the optic signals with the limbic
system first, where our brain scans for threats or rewarding opportunities. The
limbic system first “communicates” with the Automatic Nervous System, which
governs our fear response, our fight-or-flight instinct, and our sexual
attraction instincts. If there’s an immediate threat, such as a snake on the
ground, or a potentially rewarding opportunity, such as a person you find
attractive, your brain and body begin responding before you know what you’re
Finally, the processed light-signals are sent to our
neo-cortex, where we consciously “see” the light.
Similarly-complex sensory systems detect what we smell, what
we hear, what we feel and what we taste, and this is the foundation of how we
understand the world around us.
These senses alone are nowhere near what you need to
actually understand what’s happening around us. Humans have an incredibly weak
sense of smell, we can only detect a narrow range of light waves, our
easily-damaged ears can only hear a certain range of sound, and we only see so
far, or so close, with limited clarity. The parts of our brain that process
these signals can misfire, or misunderstand what it’s looking at (optical
In addition, our senses alone don’t tell us how a thing works.
We only began to understand gravity in 1687 with Newton, then
with Einstein in the 20th century, and we still don’t fully
understand how it works.
In fact, we don’t understand how most of the universe works.
27% of the universe is made of Dark Matter, which
constitutes 85% of the total mass in the universe. 68% is Dark Energy.
That’s 95% of the universe that we don’t understand. All the stars, planets,
black holes, comets, asteroids and space debris make up only 5% of the
But let’s go smaller.
The universe is much so much bigger than what we experience
normally, we at least know what’s happening on Earth.
As a species, we’ve all but mastered mechanical, electrical,
optical, thermodynamic and nuclear physics… To a degree.
We now know vast amounts about of biology, evolution and
genetics… Relatively speaking.
We have a deep and accurate understanding of psychology… In
And we’re more informed about the world around us than ever
Except we’ve learned enough to see how little we actually
We now know enough about quantum mechanics to know that the
subatomic world is bizarre and nonsensical, and often violates “laws” of
nature, such as the Law of Conservation.
Not only does it
violate the Law of Conservation,
but quantum mechanics is incompatible with Einstein’s Relativity, and has led
to decades of scientists trying to reconcile the two.
Decades later, we still haven’t reconciled the two.
Do we at least understand how people work? Why we are the
way we are? Why we act the way we act? How we’ve come to be who we are?
Well… Yes and no…
To a certain degree, we understand how humans work. We
understand what our bodies are made of, how our muscles, bones, cardiovascular
system and so forth work, and how our nervous system works.
We understand that genetics and the environment affect our
physical and psychological development.
We understand that genetics, our brain, past experiences,
learned behaviors, hormones, psychological states, emotional health, and
physical health all play roles in our behaviors and decisions.
We understand how evolution has shaped and changed us over
billions of years into modern humans, and how epigenetic adaptations on the
We have a pretty solid, foundational understanding of how
the human body works, but this foundational understanding has shown us the vast
amounts of our genetics, biology, physiology, and psychology that we don’t know.
Let’s take something as simple as hair. We have hair
follicles in our skin. They grow using nutrients from our body, and they grow
according to chemical signals from our nerves.
However, everything is also controlled by our genes. Everything
from the follicles, to the structure of each hair, to how fast each hair grows,
is coded by genes. And, there can be multiple genes that code for the same
thing. You can have multiple genes controlling the color, length and coarseness
of your hair, or one gene that codes for several different traits. These genes
can be turned on or off, they can perform different functions based on the
hormones in your body, and they can also code other genes.
However, genes are only one part of the equation, and things
like your diet or how often you exercise can affect individual traits. Everything
in the body is interconnected, and it’s highly
We’re only just beginning to know the ins-and-outs of our
There are still mysteries to evolution, unanswered
questions, and long-debated ideas.
There are still mysteries about genetics, how genes work,
and how genes affect our anatomy and psychology.
And there are still mysteries about the brain. We’re still
trying to understand all the ins-and-outs of brain function, of how we think
and process information, and why we behave the way we do.
Consciousness is a perfect example. We still don’t even know
what consciousness is, or if consciousness is real or an illusion. We don’t
know why we’re conscious, or what causes consciousness. Yet, consciousness is
one of the most important aspects of being a human.
But what about the basic world around us. What do we even
know about something as simple as a desk-lamp?
It’s an object that “stands” on our desk. It has a “lightbulb”
you can put in or take out. You can “turn it on” to make light come out of the
But how does it stand without falling? How is it constructed?
What materials does it made of?
What even is a lightbulb? How does it work? Why does it work
the way it works? What is it made of? Is it incandescent? Is it an LED bulb?
How does an LED work?
Yes, you can take the time to answer all these questions,
even down to what metals and gases are used inside a bulb, and the reasons why
they are used, but can you do that for everything? And can you do that for
everything all the time?
What is the desk made of? How is it constructed? What
materials? Why does it even work?
What about a flash drive? Or headphones? Or your computer?
Why are we able to look out a window and see what’s outside?
Why does one flower look prettier than another flower? Why are the walls of a
room painted the color they are, and, for that matter, how does paint even work?
Yes, we can stop and explain everything around us, but how
often do we do that? How much do we actually know, from one person to the next,
about the fundamental objects of daily life? How much do we take for granted
when we walk out the door, or even when we wake up in our bed?
Jordan Peterson has a great explanation of this. A car is a
thing-that-gets-us-from-one-place-to-the-next, until it stops working. As soon
as it stops working, it becomes a chaotic-object-of-anxiety-and-ignorance—a
terrifying monster made of valves, wires, pipes, pulleys and gears. But as soon
as the car gets fixed, it transforms back into a thing-that-gets-us-from-one-place-to-the-next.
Even more basic than basic objects around us, do we even
know what’s going on half the time?
What’s happening on the other side of the four walls around
you? What’s happening next door? What’s happening down the street? What’s
happening in the next town over? What’s going on in your state, or your
country, or the rest of the world?
Unfortunately, we barely even know what’s happening outside
our front doors.
When we do see something happening, how much do we actually
know about it?
If we see two strangers arguing, do you have any clue what
it might be about?
What’s going on in those people’s heads?
What’s going on in anyone’s head, for that matter?
A friend of mine explained something called a “black box” in
computer programming. A black box is a piece of code where you can see what
information goes in and what information goes out, but you can’t see what
happens inside that code. For example, you input X into the black box, and the
black box outputs Y, but you don’t know why the black box took in X and put out
Humans are a lot like this.
As I’ve already mentioned, we’re complicated motherfuckers. We
barely know why we do the things we do, let alone why other people do the
things we do. We barely even know basic information about people and their
What was someone’s upbringing like? How did their parenting,
their early experiences, their education, their environment, and so forth
affect their personality? What’s their health like? What matters to that
person? What does that person go home to each day? What goes on in that
Even things like what a person ate on a given day, how much
they slept, or the state of their gut bacteria on a given day can alter their
So how much do you know about the person you’re talking to?
How much do you really
know, and how much do you make up, or assume?
How often do we make assumptions about people we know? How
often do we make assumptions about who they are, what kind of person they are,
and the reasons why they behave how they behave?
How often do we project an easy-to-understand, cookie-cutter
identity to a person? How often do we then treat them as if they were a
cookie-cutter person, instead of treating them as the complex, dynamic human they
The problem is, we can’t do this for everyone.
We can’t take the time to deeply understand each and every
individual we come in contact with. We have
to make assumptions about them.
At the very best, we have to make educated guesses about a
person, but even these guesses can be way
off the mark.
Let’s take it a step further.
How do we know how we know things?
How can we be sure we know what we know?
How can we be sure we know anything?
It seems almost stupid to ask (“You just know, you know?”),
but it’s really hard to pinpoint how we can be sure of what we know.
Even asking, “What does it mean to ‘know’ something?” is a
rabbit hole in and of itself.
We only know what our brain tells us to know. We only know
this because our brain tells us we know this. Our brain can be wrong, our brain
is forgetful, and our brain is biased. Our brain can be lazy, tired, confused,
misguided, and deliberately irrational.
Beyond that, how sure can we even be about the things we
There’s a thought experiment about a brain in a jar (which
may or may not have originated with HP Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness”).
Let’s say you’re a brain in a jar, with all these wires
hooked up to your brain. These wires send signals telling you what you see,
what your body looks like, what you’re doing, and what emotions you have. As
far as you know, you’re a person walking around in the world, doing your thing,
but in reality, you’re a brain in a jar.
This sounds sci-fi-ish (it’s one of the ideas behind The
Matrix), but there’s legitimate speculation in the scientific community about Simulation
Theory. Simulation Theory states that we may be in a reality simulated by a
computer-like technology, or some higher form of technology that transcends our
knowledge of physics. We could be living in a computer-fabricated universe,
dictated by lines of 6th-dimensional computer code.
We are reaching an age where our technology and our
computing power will be so powerful that we ourselves might be able to create
our own simulated realities. We already have virtual reality goggles, we can
already create computer-generated realities and interact with these realities
(video games), and people like Elon Musk are already creating technologies that
can directly link our brains to computers.
What’s to say a civilization before us, or a civilization
“above” us, or an indescribable entity in some multi-dimensional tangent of our
own reality, hasn’t already created technology that can simulate a universe?
What’s to say some civilization hasn’t created our universe
in one of their computers, and has made a simulation that is so sophisticated it
replicated consciousness and physics? (Except it starts to fuck up in black
We kinda don’t know.
Many great minds have pondered, many great minds have
searched for answers, and many great minds still haven’t figured it out.
We simply don’t know. We don’t know a lot.
We know some things.
We know coffee makes people (not all) hyper. We know some people shouldn’t eat
gluten (actually, probably no one should eat it, but it’s whatever). We know
monkeys and humans both get weirded out by direct eye contact.
We know the Earth spins, and we basically know why, but we
don’t really know why gravity works,
and we’re still arguing about how gravity
We know humans only live for a short amount of time, and
then we die, but we know this is controlled by genes and our biology, and we’re
starting to be able to control our genes and our biology, but we know enough
about genetic editing to know we maybe shouldn’t fuck with our genes until we
really, “really”, really know how our
We know enough to know we don’t know much.
We know enough to know the world is a crazy god-damn place.
We know enough to know humans are crazy motherfuckers. We know enough to know
the universe is stranger than fiction.
And beyond that, we don’t really know.
Which can be scary to think about. It can be terrifying to
know that our world may not be what it seems. It can keep you up at night,
thinking about all the people around you that you barely understand. It can be
anxiety provoking to think about what will or won’t happen tomorrow, or in the
next week, or in the next year, or what will or won’t happen before you die.
But it’s also kind of fantastic that we don’t know.
How boring would it be if we knew everything?
Einstein isn’t one of the greatest historical figures ever
because he knew exactly how the universe worked. Einstein went down in history
because he explored the unknown, even to his death. He relished in the things
he didn’t know, in the things he couldn’t explain, and devoted his life to uncovering
the secrets of the universe.
We don’t like spoilers because we want to find out the end
of movie for ourselves.
We don’t like people telling us what to do or how to do it
because we want to figure it out on our own.
We don’t like learning about the same thing over and over
again, because it doesn’t get us anywhere.
It’s okay not to know things. It’s okay if there’s a little
bit of fantasy in our reality. It’s okay if life is more theory than fact. It’s
okay if we have to fabricate a few details along the way (so long as we can
un-fabricate them at some point).
It’s okay, because what we don’t know is far more
interesting than what we do know.
We don’t know where this ride’s gonna take us, and that’s
half the fun.