RWBY Volume 5 Episode 2: ‘Dread in the Air’
It’s rare that RWBY disappoints me. Today, I found myself let down by the way the creative team of this episode chose to kill off Sienna Khan (all too briefly voiced by Monica Rial). Which is a shame, because despite not featuring 3 of the 4 ‘main’ characters, this was a generally interesting episode with some fun action. Sienna Khan’s death happens in the later moments of the episode, but I’ve decided to talk about it first.
Sienna Khan was a character that was referenced in name by Salem (voiced by Jen Taylor) last season. Though it’s now apparent with Sienna’s dialogue that it was most likely her that Blake Belladonna mentioned in Volume 1 when discussing the idealogical trajectory of the White Fang.
All we knew about her was that she was the current leader of the White Fang. A complicated organization, even when taking into account their violence. However, that seemingly changed when Adam led the attack on Beacon Academy in Volume 3, working alongside hungry Grimm. Our perception of the organization up until that point, or at least for me, was that they were once noble, but now cronies for Roman Torchwick and Cinder Fall (voiced byJessica Nigri).
I believed that Blake’s reason for joining them was completely valid, and so was her reason for leaving them. I still do.
But I also understand why Ilia remains a member. I understand why Sienna Khan advocated for a more violent approach “when necessary” to furthering the rights of her species. There are deep examples of injustice layered throughout this show that speak to a larger institutional failure in how most kingdoms treat their Faunus populations.
Blake said it herself, the darker tactics garnered respect on a species-wide level, and their rights began to improve. Sienna Khan’s way improved life for Faunus, which Blake contrasts with the methods of the more peaceful leader who proceeded her. As of Volume 4, we know the ‘peaceful leader’ Blake refers to was her own father, which puts a much added weight on her initial choice to join Sienna Khan’s White Fang.
The White Fang’s similarities to the historical Black Panthers are quite clear. It also goes hand in hand with Ilia’s monologue about ‘passing’ when considered along racial lines.While we don’t exactly have a Dr. Martin Luther King figure in this show, I think the el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) figure was Sienna Khan.
The manner of their deaths are notably different, but their killers were also once their allies, which makes it inherently harder to stomach, just ask Judas, or perhaps Brutus is a better example here. But where they are most similar is their philosophies about race and where they fit in the world.
If you’re thinking I answered my own question of ‘why did they choose to kill her this way?’ with my mentioning of historical parallels, well it’s not so simple. I understand why for plot reasons that Adam needed to become the head of the organization. Adam is a bad man. He’s a murderous and abusive ex-boyfriend for one of our four ‘main’ characters in what was probably already a relationship with a remarkable age difference.
Adam has also crippled another of ‘mains’. He led the attack on Beacon…etc. We know he’s a bad guy with little to zero (It’s zero, other than his aesthetic.) redeeming qualities. There’s nothing left to prove there anymore. I bring this up because they way the scene was written and executed was done specifically to highlight his villainy.
Adam brings in another character, Hazel (voiced by Wiliam Orendorff) who is remarkably pacifistic for being in Salem’s inner circle. Hazel states more than once that there’s no need for violence. And he’s right. There are several easy to think of scenarios in which it would’ve been easy for Sienna to make it out alive, most of which would’ve made for a more nuanced plot.
Hazel wants to speak calmly with Sienna Khan, and we can only guess after that, since Adam derails Hazel’s version of how events should play out. With not much build up, Adam reveals all of Sienna’s bodyguards serve him now, and then he stabs her.
Also, Sienna Khan is the only character to be tied with a specific location in our world in a combination of name, reference character, and aesthetic. It all points to the Indian subcontinent. Shere Khan (Of Kipling’s The Jungle Book) is her reference character, while the name would’ve been enough to evoke the intertextual tie (Considering the former leader of the White Fang was Ghira, think Bagheera) she’s a Bengal tiger Faunus. Khan is also one of the very few names in the show that isn’t of European origin.
She’s also only the fourth named character to have lines with a skin tone noticeably darker than those around her; the first three being Emerald Sustrai, and Flynt Coal, and Amber. While Emerald appeared last season, she didn’t have any lines.
Emerald’s omission from the opening title sequence for Volume 5 is also suspicious since her counter-part Mercury Black was featured. Flynt Coal was likely a one-off character and it would be surprising to see him again, though I’d be happy if we do. Amber, the former Fall Maiden was defeated in battle by Emerald, Mercury, and Cinder at some point prior to Volume 1.
Amber was reduced to an incubator for the Powers of the Fall Maiden, and was kept alive in a coma (her injuries were severe enough to have killed her normally) for the sole purpose of passing on those powers (to a white woman). She died during transfer, took an arrow through the heart from Cinder Fall. To sum up, Emerald is the last real character with lines having a dark skin tone alive on this show, and her survival prospects aren’t looking so good.
I’m going to wind down this thousand+ word rant by saying, RWBY does not kill named and established characters lightly. There are only a handful, and the others sat much better with me. Penny’s death was disturbing, but it made complete sense from every angle. As did Pyrrha’s. They were sad, but they were soundly well written, all things considered.
Sienna Khan’s death just feels, wrong in a way I can’t exactly quantify. It was far too easy for a character who’s been built up as a badass, even if it’s by implication alone, being the head of a multi-continental organization known for its prowess in battle.
It was also gratuitous, with her being impaled, her eyes darting around in her last moments, Adam whispering how her death will be used as the ultimate propaganda…I could go on. What really got me though, was her fall down the stairs.
She hits every step, and it’s just awful. Now, I know what a well done death is supposed to make me feel. Especially if it is a character that I’m supposed to like. This death felt tonally dissonant with the show I’ve come to know, and it was tactless.
I found it unsettling in a way very few deaths in media have made me feel, and I really don’t think that’s how this show wants me to feel about a death they probably thought most viewers would take in stride. Also, I’m not including pictures of her death because doing so would inherently glorify it. You can watch it for yourselves.
The fact that Adam felt the need to stage Sienna Khan’s murder as the work of an outsider speaks more about the fact that Sienna Khan still had enough clout to challenge Adam’s rogue sect. Perhaps this divide in the factions leads to an Ilia defection down the line?
Okay, let’s talk about what else happened in this episode. Since I started near the end, I’ll just go backwards.
They Pilot doesn’t understand he’s in a show, so he says something incredibly stupid about how there might be Lancers (Flying stinging insect Grimm) hanging about. Great job Pilot, you jinxed it.
Another airship which happens to be on fire plummets past them and into one of the floating islands.
And here is where the aesthetics of the show, for this segment at least really feels like The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker came to life for a few minutes. The smoke art and animation, the ethereal floating islands, and the open sea bring back so many memories of this game for me. Also, the Lancers are very Legend of Zelda-like baddies.
We are confronted with an airship being torn apart by these scary new Grimm, and based on the voice of the ‘Mistral Pilot’ (Reina Scully), this is the ship that broadcast their distress call last episode.
The Lancers ‘hook’ into the hull of the airship while one of them hovers above for a Kamikaze run.
One of the things that surprised me this episode was how good Weiss’ pilot actually was. He had the advantage of an Atlas ship (With metal hull rather than the Mistrali wooden hulls that were unable to deflect the Lancer tails), but he was outflying the Grimm pretty well. It felt very Star Wars in a great way, especially with Weiss firing salvos of dust at their pursuers.
However, they enrage the Queen Lancer.
Which causes Weiss to use her new and exciting skill.
There really isn’t much summary here, it was a cool action sequence, watch the episode. Weiss and her protector eventually get the better of the Queen Lancer.
But not before the Queen Lancer manages to cripple the airship. They go down hard. Though Weiss slows the descent just enough that at least she doesn’t die on impact.
Watts+Tyrion+Cinder+Hazel+Salem = Team WTCH
There is something to be said with how joyful Dr. Arthur Watts looks when doing villainous things.
They arrive at the ‘Eye of Sauron’ (this thing doesn’t have a name, and even Watts has no idea how it works).
Watts initiates the briefing by being an utter bastard to Cinder. Cinder, speaks her first clear line since Ruby incapacitated her: “Shut up!” Watts is sad that Cinder’s recovered, and Lionheart proceeds to spill all the info he got from Qrow in the last episode. Cinder asks if ‘the girl’ was with him, and Lionheart confirms that Ruby Rose is in Mistral City. Watts is a delightful villain, I hope he stays around for a while. Through Lionheart, Salem (voiced by Jen Taylor) is informed that team RNJR+Qrow believe the Spring Maiden is with the Branwen tribe, in the hands of Raven Branwen.
Salem (Force) chokes Lionheart a little bit. She then distributes her assignments. Salem decides that Cinder and her team, along with Dr. Watts, will go treat with Raven and convince her to join the ‘real’ dark side. The kind of dark side that makes massacring villages look kind. Also, she mentions to Dr. Watts that Tyrion needs a new tail, since Ruby cut it off last Volume.
After terminating the connection via the ‘Eye’ thing, Salem has a moment alone with Cinder. The young Fall Maiden doesn’t understand why Salem makes the moves she does, specifically trying to capture rather than kill Ruby (It’s worth noting that Cinder mentions ‘the girl’ by name for the first time since their confrontation.) and approaching Raven Branwen as potential allies rather than conquerors.
Salem tells her that she should learn to get other people to do her bidding. She cites Lionheart as an example of this. Cinder is still a little upset that Ruby is getting a pass.
Salem warns Cinder that if Ruby has mastered the gift of the Silver Eyes, which we know she has not, then Cinder should be concerned about not getting killed. But Salem didn’t phrase it like that. She phrased it in a way that was very calculating. She doesn’t want Cinder to die, because if she does, it will cost her an asset. It’s that simple.
Salem also asks Cinder to send Tyrion in, as she wants to “have a word with him.”
Raven Branwen, Meet Weiss Schnee
Going back to Weiss, and the chronological close of the episode; Weiss wakes up and is approached by two bandits.
Raven (voiced by Anna Hullum) walks up to her daughter’s team mate and declares, “We’ve hit the jackpot.” I wonder if they’ll try and ransom her back to her father? I doubt Weiss will be back in Atlas anytime soon, but how devastating would it be if he wrote her off? Would Weiss being in trouble be enough to break Winter out of her loyalty to the new Dictator Ironwood?
Overall, I liked that we got an episode that mainly focused on the villains. I loved that Salem and Cinder’s scene had some subtle foreshadowing. I did not at all like the route they went with Sienna Khan’s killing. Such a waste of potential, story-wise, with uncomfortable representational issues wound up in it as well.
See y’all next week.