“But whatever you want… you cannot want to die.”
CN: Discussions of self-harm and suicide.
Obviously, there are problems with “Taking the Stone.” The effects are bad. The costumes are really silly. All of the guest characters speak in a kind of alien patois that’s meant to indicate how isolated and strange they’ve become due to their shortened life spans, but mostly just sounds bizarre. There’s a whole B-plot about Rygel stealing from a cursed grave that goes nowhere important and does nothing interesting.
And yet. And yet. There’s something to it. Underneath all the cheesy death cult posturing and the aimless wandering through identical tunnels, somewhere beyond the lackluster mystery plot, this episode taps into some kind of real emotion.
So, let’s back up. Chiana discovers that her brother Nerri is dead when the life disc that she’s implanted in herself connecting to him goes dark. She briefly asks John to talk, but John brushes her off, so she steals Aeryn’s prowler and jets off to a graveyard planet inhabited only by a teenage death cult. Aeryn and John follow her down and try to convince her to come back to Moya, but Chiana insists that she wants to stay and “take the stone”—make a potentially suicidal cliff jump that one in five characters we see on screen dies from.
The rest of the episode is basically just John trying in every conceivable way to make Chiana come back to Moya. There’s some vague mystery stuff—John and Zhaan figure out that the kids are dying from radiation that’s exacerbated by the caves they live in, and for a while it kind of seems like the leader, Molnon, is an evil mastermind. But ultimately, there’s no grand conspiracy here. The kids are taking the stone because they earnestly believe that dying young is better than getting old. Everything about the death cult, from Molnon to the radiation to taking the stone, is really more in service of the theme than the plot.
So what’s the theme? It’s not about suicide, really. Chiana doesn’t want to die; she’s just in so much pain that self-destructive acts start to seem sensible. “Taking the Stone” is less about suicide than it is about the total reformation of self in the wake of trauma and grief. Chiana woke up one day in a terrifying and chaotic new world, and this jump is the only thing that she can think of that will give her some sense that she’s still in control of her life. She’s in pain, and the jump is an outlet.
In the process of trying to find out the deal with Molnon, John does basically the same thing. He eats a mushroom that has a one in four chance of killing him. He presents it to Chiana and Aeryn as something that he did purely for pragmatic purposes—to get Molnon to talk to him—but by the end of the episode, it’s pretty clear that it was motivated, at least in part, by a self-destructive urge similar to Chiana’s.
To the degree that “Taking the Stone” has a moral, I don’t know that it’s one I necessarily agree with. I think there are better ways to deal with grief than giving into self-destructive impulses. But on the other hand, I don’t know that it actually has a moral. The only really hard stances the episode takes are that 1) death is bad, and 2) Chiana’s recovery is, both morally and pragmatically, in her hands and no one else’s. I don’t think that Chiana’s jump at the end is presented prescriptively, as a guideline for how to deal with grief. I think it’s there because it’s her choice, in the end, and that was the choice that felt true.
All of which is to say that whatever else this episode is doing with its sets, its effects, its directing, or even some of its writing, it never fails to strike a nerve in me simply because the emotions feel real. Which is why, I’m sure, it very much does not work for a lot of people; emotional resonance is a complete crapshoot, and if you’re not getting that out of the episode, there’s not much else to get.
- The other reason that I’m completely incapable of being objective about “Taking the Stone,” of course, is that it’s an episode entirely about John and Chiana’s relationship, and their parallels as characters. After half a season of dancing around the question of what exactly they are to each other, this episode forces them to confront what exactly their relationship is, and where the boundaries lie between them. John spends a lot of the episode acting exasperatedly parental towards Chiana, and Chiana certainly plays the moody teen role to a tee. But it’s also the first episode to explicitly float the idea that they have a sibling relationship—John is trying to make up for the loss of Chiana’s older brother, and Chiana mentions “little sister” when she’s listing to John all the things she’s isn’t. And their dynamic in this episode isn’t not sexual; for some reason there’s an extended scene where John caresses Chiana’s face, and of course, there’s the moment when Chiana says she’s “only your tralk in your dreams,” and then kneels on the ground in front of John’s crotch, to demonstrate.
So basically, John and Chiana are forced to confront what exactly they are to each other, and the answer they come away with is… they love each other! Specifics TBD!
- Aeryn’s role in this episode is a little bit weird, and I don’t know where I come down on whether she’s in-character. She’s essentially the voice of the narrative, there to impart hard truths to John about the fact that however much he’d like to, he can’t just cart Chiana off to Moya and expect that to fix anything. That’s a level of emotional insight that’s atypical for Aeryn—which the episode acknowledges. But Aeryn’s undergone a lot of character growth recently, so it’s not completely unreasonable that she’d have some more insight here. And the opinions she puts forth are pragmatic and clear-eyed, which are very Aeryn traits. Plus, it’s not like she suddenly gets good at emotional conversations—her conversations with Chiana are extremely awkward.
- Similarly, it’s pretty unusual for John to brush off a friend like he did at the beginning of the episode, but given that this is an episode that’s partly about the fact that John is acting extremely erratically in the aftermath of trauma, I’m gonna give them that one. The nice thing about Farscape is that it’s not like this is the first and only episode where John acts strange—he’s been very off since “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory,” and this episode just happens to be one that’s partially about that.
- I thought it was really good that they called back to John’s line in “Durka Returns” about how Chiana can jump ship anytime she wants. It’s the sort of thing that would be easy to forget about, given how immediately Chiana integrated with the cast, but bringing it up now is a good way to give Chiana’s character a throughline. And having it brought up and then ultimately overcome makes it clear that, when Chiana returns to the ship at the end of the episode, she’s in for good.
- I really liked the last shot, with John and Chiana making fun of the death cult’s hand gestures.
- I have so much respect for Gigi Edgley for turning in a pretty good performance while wearing the stupidest wig of all time.
- “Be nice.” “I’m not good at nice.”
- “You robbed the dead?” “And believe me, that wasn’t as easy as it sounds.”
- “Aeryn, when I need a psych report on Chiana, I’ll let you know.” John really is consistently acting out for this entire episode.
- “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not your kid, I’m not your sister, and I’m only your tralk in your dreams.”
- “You are the pin-up girl for frontal assault!”
- “Well, let’s get her on the dog and bone.” “Whatever that means, Crichton.”
- “Curse my mivonks!”
- “Why does it always end in tears?”
- “Hey, old man.” “Hey, little girl.”
This is the first episode to explicitly parallel John and Chiana’s characters and arcs, but it’s far from the last. John and Chiana have parallel stories for much of seasons three and four, and are often treated in similar ways by the narrative. I won’t get ahead of myself, but look forward to a long essay in the review for either “Losing Time” or “What Was Lost.”
The sibling dynamic between John and Chiana will become a lot more explicit when John’s little sister Olivia becomes part of the show in season 4; we’ve already established that John is sort of standing in for Chiana’s brother, but once we get a picture of John and Olivia’s relationship, it becomes clear how much Chiana is standing in for John’s sister. Of course, that happens at almost the exact same time that 16-year-old John loses his virginity to Chiana, but look. It’s Farscape, okay.
Another thing that I love about Farscape is that John’s behavior is off in all of the episodes following the Aurora chair, but a) no one ever spells out that John is acting out because of trauma, you’re just supposed to realize that, and b) it’s not like he ever has an epiphany and gets fixed. He does, eventually, stop having some of the problems he’s having right now—he gradually becomes less distant, and less erratic on a day-to-day level—but he’s been changed, and that’s never going to be undone. And again, the show only ever really explicitly comments on that once, maybe twice.
Next Monday, May 24, the crew gets blinded by the light, in 2×04, “Crackers Don’t Matter.”