Bad Robot and Daddy Issues: Why Is Dad’s Approval More Important Than Mom’s?
Bad Robot has daddy issues. Maybe it’s because the robot keeps getting yelled at for running around in the meadow.
I’m a huge fan of the creative force that is Bad Robot Productions. You know, the production company responsible for such fare as Lost, Fringe, Westworld, the most recent Star Trek films, and a little independent film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Say what you will about lens flares, this company has been creating some of the most innovative and exciting projects in genre entertainment (and also, um, What About Brian?) for almost twenty years.
As I’ve been watching (and reviewing!) Westworld, and I eye-rolled Dr. Ford’s daddy issues when talking to Dolores in the most recent episode, it occurred to me that so many characters in Bad Robot projects are working through daddy issues. No seriously, a bunch of them. A recurring theme in several Bad Robot shows and films is that, in order for a protagonist to progress, they need to either work out their feelings about their dad, or mend their relationship with him.
Meanwhile, mom is often a fantasy figure who’s usually dead (though she’ll usually appear in flashbacks, or home movies, or sometimes even in a parallel universe). Even if mom is very much present, she’s easily dismissed by her child, who often thinks they know better than her, or are better than her. Interactions with mom, even when mom is more complex and central to a plot, are rarely the point. It’s the relationship with dad that starts the journey, or fuels it, no matter what the gender of the protagonist, although when looking at Bad Robot’s body of work so far, a majority of the relationships are father/son.
(POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR THE FOLLOWING SHOWS AND FILMS: Fringe, Lost, Super 8, Alias, Believe, Revolution, Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Westworld)
FRINGE: Peter and Walter
Fringe was one of the most creative, entertaining, and thought-provoking sci-fi series to come along in a long time during its five seasons. One of the things that stood out for me was its female protagonist Olivia (played brilliantly by Anna Torv), who in a post-Scully world was allowed to be feminine and have a life and interests outside of work and still be an extremely competent FBI agent that also happened to have enhanced abilities. This was also a rare instance of the “fridging” of a male character to further a female protagonist’s journey, as the mysterious death of her FBI partner and love interest, John Scott, is what prompts her to join Fringe Division in the first place.
However, while it was Olivia’s life that got the show rolling, the driving force of the story of the series was Peter’s relationship with Walter. From the beginning, Olivia needs Peter to get his father Walter out of the mental institution where he’s been locked up after causing the death of one of his assistants, but Peter is not really into his dad, what with him being a mad scientist and all. The whole show then depends on, and ultimately revolves around, Peter’s feelings about Walter.
At first, he resents his father for focusing so much on his work and being largely absent from his life. But later, when Peter learns that he is in fact the son of a “Walternate” in a parallel universe whom Walter kidnapped after the death of his own Peter, he realizes that there’s much more to this man that raised him than meets the eye, that his actual dad isn’t so great, and that he really does love Walter after all.
In the end, once timelines are reset and Peter and Olivia continue their life with their daughter unencumbered by Observer invasions, one of the last things we experience on Fringe is Walter, who sacrificed himself by escorting a child Observer to the future to prevent the invasion, having gotten a letter to Peter with a drawing of a white tulip on it, symbolizing forgiveness.
And where’s mom in all this? In the Prime Universe, when Walter brings New Peter home, she stays home with him trying to convince him that she is his mother, which he doesn’t accept at first. Eventually he does, begrudgingly, and Elizabeth commits suicide several years later over the guilt of all of it. Meanwhile, Alternate Universe Elizabeth, who is Peter’s real mother, is idealized in that Peter recognizes her as his real mother when he travels to the alternate universe, and they are able to bond.
In both universes, Peter’s mother’s love is a given, not something to be explored or fought for. Elizabeth Prime, while missing her own son, has few qualms about welcoming New Peter, despite the fact that Walter stole him from another universe. She accepts him as her new son. Alternate Elizabeth has missed him, and welcomes him with open arms when he returns. Mother Love is unquestionable. Father Love, it seems, requires effort.
WESTWORLD: Dr. Ford Works Through His Daddy Issues By Trying to Be a God
Only five episodes in, and we already have a character on Westworld whose role as the catalyst for all the events on the show stem from his feelings about his dad. We get our first glimmers of this in the the season’s second episode “Chestnut,” when Dr. Ford goes into Westworld and meets a Boy as he walks. They have an interesting conversation about their fathers:
Boy: Are you lost?
Ford: No, just strayed a little too far from where I’m supposed to be. Same as you, I imagine.
Boy: We’re on holiday. It’s boring. My father said we could do as we please.
Ford: My father used to say that only boring people get bored.
Boy: Mine, too.
Ford: I used to think that it’s only boring people who don’t feel boredom, so they cannot conceive of it in others.
We then discover that The Boy is actually a host over which Ford has control, which makes the similarities between them interesting. The fact that they both have UK accents, and their fathers seem to have similar philosophies make me think that The Boy is Ford having created the boy version of himself in the park to talk to and reconnect with himself whenever he needs.
In Episode 5, “Contrapasso,” we learn even more about Dr. Ford’s father (and his feelings toward him), as Ford talks to Dolores. We learn that Ford’s father would tell him that the world owed him nothing, and that he should be satisfied with his lot in life. Now, since we’ve never met/seen Ford’s father, he could either have been giving his son practical advice for life, or putting him down and stifling him, depending on the tone. What we do know is how it made Dr. Ford feel: basically like he had to create a park in which he was in charge of the whole world. That’ll teach him!
The entirety of Dr. Ford’s journey and the creation of the park is then entirely connected to his feelings about his father. We then see him acting like a father/God to the hosts, so really the entirety of the inevitable host rebellion will boil down to their daddy issues. Namely, that their father basically created them to be slaves. Yeesh.
And even when it comes to the fictional narratives, fathers are more present than mothers. Take Dolores, whose father we meet several times (and in several host models), but whose mother we only hear about once or twice, and all we know about her is that she gets killed. We know Lawrence is the father of a little girl, but her mother only exists to get shot by The MIB. And in the lives of the Westworld employees, Bernard’s storyline has to do with a father’s grief over the loss of his son. We see his son’s mother once, and she seems way more together than he does, her grief is not nearly “as impressive” as his.
The lone representation of real motherhood that we’ve seen on the show so far has been Maeve who, in a previous storyline, is running for her life with a girl that seems to be her daughter. Perhaps their story will be explored more in coming episodes so that the narrative of Westworld isn’t so dad-heavy, but right now, mothers are nearly non-existent. This is interesting, because mothers are generally responsible for “creating life,” but in the context of the show fathers create and catalyze, because they are gods.
SUPER 8: Joe Mourns His Mom, Has to Learn to Live With His Dad
Moving into the world of Bad Robot films, we have Super 8, which was J.J. Abrams’ first original feature film. In it, a boy named Joe loses his mother in a steel mill accident, which puts a strain on the relationship between him and his cop father, Jack. The entire film is, in addition to being about kids in the 70s making Super 8 films and also an alien invasion, about Joe and Jack finding their way back to each other. Mom appears in home movies that Joe watches, but she’s basically just this angelic figure in the background of both their lives from the start of the movie.
In the case of this film, the focus on the father/son relationship after a mother’s death makes a bit more sense in the context of real-life events. According to Abrams, he was writing and directing Super 8 as he was losing his own mother. In an interview with Esquire, he said, “What’s interesting is when I was writing the [Super 8], my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. In the script, one of the kids has just lost his mom. So it ended up I was writing a movie about losing your mom while I was losing my mom.”
The entire film was based on Abrams’ own life as a young boy in the 70s who made Super 8 films with his friends, and so this added layer of the grieving father/son dynamic fits right into that. Obviously, father/son relationships are worth exploring in film, and here we see an example of that where it seems to have actually been cathartic for the filmmaker.
However, Abrams has said in other interviews that he feels like he never got the script for this quite where he wanted it to be, and I wonder what might have happened if there were more mom in it. If we got to know what made Joe’s relationship to his mother special other than…she was his mom, and he has her locket now.
STAR TREK: Even Starship Captains Have Daddy Issues
Bad Robot even brought the daddy issues to the Star Trek franchise. The action of the entire rebooted film franchise begins when Captain Kirk’s father, George Samuel Kirk, who was the First Officer on the USS Kelvin, sacrifices his life for his wife and child by piloting the ship and ordering the crew to evacuate while they are being attacked by a mysterious Romulan ship that has emerged from a lighting storm. James T. Kirk is born, and because he’s never met his hero dad (and because his stepdad is seemingly kind of a jerk), he grows into a troubled young adult who steals cars, gets in bar fights, and loves the Beastie Boys.
His eventual desire to enter into Starfleet has everything to do with wanting to measure up to his father’s legacy, and he finds a father figure in Captain Christopher Pike, who encourages him to do so.
Meanwhile, we never hear about his mother Winona after Kirk is born.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS: Daddy Issues are a Skywalker Trademark
In a franchise that’s entirely dependent on daddy issues (Luke/Anakin, Ankakin/um, The Force?), TFA may be the Daddy Issue-iest!
I just….I can’t. Just watch it again.
However, as I mentioned, the daddy issues run deep for both male and female protagonists in the Bad Robot universe. Case in point:
ALIAS: Sydney Bristow’s Daddy and Mommy Issues
Sydney Bristow’s relationship to both her parents on the ABC show Alias, Bad Robot’s first, was way complicated as both of her parents were super-secret secret spies. Her father, Jack, was a CIA agent who was a double agent for the shady organization, SD-6. Meanwhile her mother, Laura, was actually a KGB spy named Irina who ended up being a thorn in Sydney’s side for her entire time on the show.
At the beginning of Alias, Sydney has a very strained relationship with her father, in large part because he’s managed to keep his life so secret from her. As the show progresses, however, and Sydney joins “the family business,” they become closer, and their relationship is a large driving force of the series as a whole.
By the final season, Sydney’s relationship with her father has gotten to the point where he’s going to doctor’s visits with her as she expects her first child, and he ends up sacrificing himself to stop an immortal Arvin Sloane while Sydney goes to face off against her mother. Sydney ends up naming her son Jack.
And how does Irina die? By choosing her ambition over her own child. She grabs at the Horizon, which would give her immortality, rather than grabbing her daughter’s hand, and she falls off a skylight.
While Sydney’s mother is way more nuanced and complex than any of the mothers I’ve already mentioned, Irina’s relationship with Sydney is not the one we’re tracking or rooting for. Irina is a double-crosser who ends up dying in the season finale in a much less noble way than Sydney’s father. Because as we know from nearly every story, fathers love and provide for their children, even when they’re gruff or prickly. Stepmothers are downright evil, and mothers are either non-existent, idealized and in the background, or can’t be trusted.
BELIEVE: Short-Lived, But Had Daddy Issues Nonetheless
The only other example of a female protagonist’s relationship with her father being explored in a Bad Robot show is Alfonso Cuarón’s short-lived series, Believe, which only lasted a few months on NBC. Here, a young girl named Bo has supernatural abilities, and is being protected by a mysterious organization from people who would exploit her powers. They break a wrongfully-convicted death row inmate, William Tate, out of prison, and enlist him in being Bo’s guardian and protecting her.
As it turns out, Tate’s being chosen to guard Bo wasn’t random. BECAUSE HE’S ACTUALLY HER DAD, DUN-DUN-DUUUUUN! This definitely softens him on the kid.
I actually dug this show, and was sorry to see it end so soon. Sadly, we didn’t really get to explore the extent of Bo’s daddy issues, but one thing remains consistent. Bo’s mom didn’t really come up. She had sex with Tate, gave Bo inherited telekinetic powers, and died in childbirth. The end.
And then there’s Lost, which gave everyone daddy issues regardless of gender, because daddy issues are fun!
LOST: It’d Almost Be Easier to List Everyone Who Doesn’t Have Daddy Issues On This Show, But Here Goes…
Jack and Christian Shephard: Jack chased the White Rabbit of his dad’s love and approval through six seasons.
John Locke and Anthony Cooper: sometimes, your dad just really, really needs a kidney, you know?
Claire Littleton and Christian Shephard: Oh, but wait! Christian is Claire’s dad, too! Not that he really participated much in her life. Jerk.
Kate Austen and Wayne Janssen: abusive, alcoholic stepdads are the worst. Killing them might feel good in the moment, but you might end up a fugitive and crashing on a mystical island.
Sun-Hwa Kwon and Woo-Jung Paik: it wouldn’t be so bad being born into a wealthy, powerful family if your dad weren’t such a manipulative, emotionally abusive douchenozzle.
Jin-Soo Kwon and A Really Nice Fisherman: When your mom’s a prostitute who abandons you, you might not be entirely sure who your dad is. In this case, Jin was raised by a really nice guy. But that guy was a poor fisherman and apparently….that’s not okay? So Jin develops a huge chip on his shoulder and becomes a harder person in order to earn the living he thinks he needs to be a man and be worthy of marrying Sun. One of the rare cases in which a character’s daddy issues are self-inflicted.
Michael Dawson and Walt Lloyd: Textbook daddy issues as father and son end up on the island together to force them working out their issues. What’s interesting here is that their issues are caused by Walt’s mom, but Walt doesn’t blame her and is never angry with her. Despite being a horrible human who basically used Michael to get pregnant, then cut him out of her and her child’s life entirely, she died angelically of an illness and Walt never thought an unkind thing about her. Why do that when you can blame your dad (who tried for years to be in your life, but was never allowed)?
Hugo “Hurley” and David Reyes: The most surefire way to get a flake of a dad who abandons you and your mom back into your life? Win the lottery.
James “Sawyer” Ford and Warren Ford: Apparently the only thing to do when you’re taken in by a con man is to kill your wife and yourself while your young son watches from under the bed.
Shannon Rutherford: Your dad remarrying a woman with an annoying son is bad enough, but having your dad die a few years later is worse. Solution? Sleep with your step brother.
Benjamin and Roger Linus: When your mom dies, you might have to figure out what your new normal is with your father. But when your dad blames you for your mom’s death, and your new normal includes a weirdo group called the Dharma Initiative that forces you to live on a weird island? Yeah, I might gas a bunch of people, too.
I think I’ll stop there. There’s more, but you get the idea. There are some scattered mothers in there, but they’re all pretty ineffectual and unimportant. The focus is very squarely on What Daddy Did for most of the characters on this show. Which is interesting, because the origins of the island itself have to do with Jacob and The Man In Black’s mother issues, but we don’t get to know that until the final season, and by then most viewers were too busy being mad about not knowing why there was a four-toed statue to care.
REVOLUTION: The One That Got Mommy Issues Right?
And there, in the darkness (no pun intended, although this is the story of a world that suffers a global blackout), is the lone project of Bad Robot’s that places value on a protagonist’s relationship with their mother. On Revolution, protagonist Charlie’s scientist parents, Ben and Rachel Matheson were both responsible for the worldwide blackout and electricity being no mas, but they also created the technology that could allow the world to get the power back.
Ben is murdered in the first episode, and Charlie thinks her mother died during the blackout, only to later find out that Rachel’s been working (under duress) for Monroe, co-founder of the Monroe Republic and de facto dictator of the country post-blackout. When Charlie is reunited with her mother, they haven’t seen each other in years and both have been through a lot. They are estranged, and when she learns that her mother was partly responsible for the blackout in the first place, Charlie has a hard time getting close to her.
However, they do reconnect and form a bond again, and the show provides a great depiction of how complicated nuanced mother/daughter relationships can be. Apocalypse or not.
Not that this show didn’t have its share of daddy issues too (see Tom and Jason Neville and Miles being Charlie’s real dad according to the comics).
Bad Robot has increasingly been a voice for positive change when it comes to inclusivity in Hollywood, which is a very good thing. However, certain tropes and habits remain firmly lodged in their work.
In the effort to create Nuanced Female Characters, one mustn’t forget to surround her with equally nuanced women. Rey in The Force Awakens is great, but she’s surrounded by men, rarely coming into contact with the other women in the story. Ditto Uhura in the Star Trek films. The female protagonists that Bad Robot has given us have generally had to operate in male-dominated worlds, as if the only way to be a capable woman is to prove oneself in the world of men.
These women are also generally more concerned with their fathers (either wanting their approval, or hating them) while giving very little consideration, either positively or negatively, to their moms. The mother/daughter relationship is a complicated one, and can be just as compelling as a father/son relationship in film or television. I wish we could see that more.
It isn’t only women’s relationships with women that should be explored or considered. We rarely see relationships between men and women that aren’t in some way romantic or where the male figure in the relationship isn’t the dominant power. Sure we see fathers and daughters, but what about mothers and sons? What if there were a story in which the desire for a mother’s approval were the driving force behind a male protagonist’s actions, rather than her death? What if, instead of a son wanting to grow up to be like his dad, we saw a son wanting to grow up and be like his mom?
Bad Robot’s genre projects have given us a lot of food for thought over the years, and as the company goes on, it seems to be taking making the world a better place through media a bit more seriously. Here’s hoping that a part of that is broadening their depiction of female characters in their work, and recognizing that Nuanced Female Characters shouldn’t exist in vacuums, but in relation to the nuanced world around them.
(images via Bad Robot Productions/ABC/NBC/Fox)
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