With this season’s finale looming even closer, things are getting more intense than ever in this episode – and it’s another breathtaking turn from Tessa Gratton, whose efforts with this series so far have been tremendous. Seriously; I am in awe.
Let’s discuss Tremontaine.
This episode opens with two of Tremontaine’s most dangerous characters returning to where they belong, reclaiming their place and making their plans to stay there, and to show any doubters that they won’t be shaken from their perch so easily. You might guess who one of them is, but we’ll come to her. First up is Shade.
After his and Florian’s confrontation with Kaab, in which Florian was wounded and both men were forced to ‘withdraw’ – but in Shade’s mind, they had to run from a girl and he is not happy about it – our murder-coat-wearing killer is anxious about being away from Riverside. Stuck in hiding in the Middle City, where the cover of Florian’s merchant family home has provided shelter, all Shade can think about is how out of place he is. And how much he wants to make Kaab pay for forcing them to run, and for hurting Florian. Shade opens the episode going all out in moody antagonist mode, even indulging in what I couldn’t help thinking of as a little Batman-esque rooftop posing while he works out a solution to his and Florian’s problem.
Their reputation in Riverside is tarnished thanks to Kaab’s challenge and Tess the Hand’s influence and her distaste for them, but all of that is salvageable. When you get right down to it, Shade is thirsty for blood and he wants Kaab’s, but he’ll settle for striking back by taking out someone close to her. His first thought is to go after Micah (and you better believe I hissed out loud at this idea), but he eventually realises, while following Kaab through the city, that there’s someone even better to serve as a target. He can’t get at most of Kaab’s family thanks to the security at the Balam compound, but there’s one member of Kaab’s family who feels more at home beyond its walls, in the city proper…
Arthur, who just came from visiting Rafe, getting a faceful of surprise confession – and, it must be said, the most heartwarming turn toward better character development that Rafe’s taken yet – and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, still willing to be supportive and to wait for him, if he needs time to let their friendship become something more.
This scene between the two young men, besides giving me hope that there are better things ahead for Rafe even after the collapse of his affair with William, made what follows it hit me all the harder because I got a glimpse, just for a moment, of the not-so-sweet-and-gullibly-innocent man that Arthur might have been if he hadn’t fallen for Shade’s murderous ruse.
“Maybe someday we can… When my school is started and I’m standing on my own, and I don’t need you, I just want you.”
“That sounds fair,” Arthur said breathlessly, “though I don’t want to wait very long. Build your school quickly.”
A small, painful laugh burst from Rafe. “You’re better than I am.”
Arthur shrugged, and a tiny bit of arrogance like nothing Rafe had seen before in the Kinwiinik’s expression appeared. “You don’t know how good I can be.”
AND NOW WE’RE NEVER GOING TO.
Oh, Arthur. You dear, sweet fool. I’m actually going to miss him. THIS WAS NOT OKAY.
But, onward. Because we’re not done twisting the knife in my feelings yet, are we Ms Gratton? Oh no.
Diane is back in the city, and mentally speaking the duchess is in a bad place. Not even at the dramatic height (or perhaps the low?) of season one did we see Diane so given over to a mood like this. She’s checked on the proverbial game board by Davenant, or so it seems (ANSWER ESHA’S NOTE, DIANE), and though she has every other playing piece in position, she herself has no clear move to make. Everything Diane wants is at her fingertips, but it’s not quite close enough – and the effect on the woman herself is heart-rending and unnerving all at once. Stuck for a way out of her dilemma, Diane hasn’t slept well, and all of her pesky emotions keep nagging at her. She’s even showing affection towards Micah, and while it’s perfectly understandable that even Diane de Tremontaine can’t resent our precious cinnamon roll, it’s also very, very telling that Diane is so averse to letting her emotions control her that even showing the slightest bit of affection is, to her mind, akin to an affliction.
Sudden affection squeezed Diane’s heart, and she worried she might be coming down with an illness of sentiment she could hardly afford.
No wonder Honora ran off at the earliest opportunity.
I joke, but this explains Diane perfectly and breaks my heart for her at the same time, because for all that it reminds us of how cold she’s trained herself to be, it also reminds us that Diane IS capable of affection, even love. That despite her best efforts, she’s still human and sometimes it still shows. She might abhor her own ‘weakness’ in that sense, but one can only stay so obsessively on guard for so long before cracks in the armour appear. What’s most striking about Diane’s character isn’t that she’s vulnerable in these ways; it’s the lengths she’s willing to go to not to let that vulnerability get the better of her. Even if it leaves her lashing out at the people who are willing to try to help her.
Namely, in this case, Vincent and Kaab.
Vincent returns to Tremontaine House to apologise for leaving his lady in the lurch during the Highcombe debacle, and Diane is wound so tightly over Davenant that she lets Vincent have it, speaking viciously to him not merely because she’s upset with him, but because her temper needs an outlet and lo, there he is. What I wasn’t quite expecting, and clearly Vincent wasn’t either, was for Diane to try to order him to kill Davenant for her. Straight up assassination, no challenge, no duel. Vincent refuses and tries to reason with her, telling her he knows that such a thing is unworthy of her. Naturally, Diane promptly throws him out before those damnable feelings can get the better of her.
Oh, Vincent. You have no idea.
It’s seeing Diane struggle with the idea that anyone could think she’s better than she is, that breaks my heart for her. While it’s true that she made – and makes – her choices in life willingly, the hardest truth of Diane’s nature is all the more stark against the fact that this time, she seems to have very little choice at all. Of course the idea of killing Davenant and solving her problem that way was going to occur to her. Vincent may not be aware of the blood that’s already on Diane’s hands, but that doesn’t mean Diane’s come so far and climbed so high that she’s forgotten it.
That crow is looking more and more symbolic all the time.
Then there’s Kaab who, after her own visit to Rafe to try to smooth things over, learns of his bargain with Diane and, after some puzzlement, comes to the realisation that the only reason Diane might possibly want to spare her husband’s life at this point is because – gasp! – she actually loves him. Thus Kaab comes up with a possible solution to the question of how to truly keep the duke safe, and decides to offer it to Diane not as a bargaining chip, but just because it’s right. After all, she has no need to blackmail the duchess when the Balams already have the dirtiest dirt possible on her, a ready-made bomb ready to detonate.
Kaab is capable of being a great deal like Diane in terms of smarts, but when it comes to her passions, her emotions, she could not be more different from the Duchess Tremontaine. If Diane’s emotions are to be held at arm’s length, then Kaab goes hand in hand with hers. It would be deeply affirming were Diane anybody else, but she’s not. Kaab offers to let William find sanctuary, peace and possible instruction with her people in Binkiinha, who understand the effects and potential uses of shadowroot better than anyone, and she isn’t asking for anything in return.
That’s what trips Diane up here, and ultimately what pushes her over the edge of distrust and into active revulsion. Kaab dared to acknowledge that Diane might have a softer side, and to Diane’s mind her offer is a way of manipulating her, because that is precisely what Diane would have done in her place. She can’t understand or can’t accept that Kaab’s offer is a selfless one, and so, like she did with Vincent, she uses what she knows to punish them both for their perceived insolence.
Kaab still has that duel to attend to, and her opponent swordsman walked away, leaving his lord in need of a replacement. Enter the generous Duchess with a loan of her house swordsman, and …
THIS WAS NOT OKAY.
This is where my knowledge of what’s going to become of Vincent nearly destroyed me while I read this episode, because Vincent’s own weakness is the potentially damaging strength of his convictions. He is so determined to devote himself to the life of a swordsman that he’s already walked away from what might be the love of his life. He walked away from Tess and Kaab when the choice was between staying and very possibly being comfortable and happy, or pursuing that same goal. Are you seeing a pattern here? Because I am.
Third time is whatever the exact opposite of a charm is, because when he’s faced with the fact that he must duel Kaab to the death – god damn it, Vincent – he steps up rather than backing down, and even goes so far as to push the buttons he knows will spark Kaab’s temper when she threatens to simply walk away from it.
I love him, but none of what he’s doing, to himself or to others, is all right anymore. Vincent Applethorpe is compelling as hell, but I want to shake him and smack sense into him and I want what happens in Swordspoint to never ever happen.
And yet… I can’t look away. Compelling as hell, remember?
Damn it, Vincent.
So. I am going to need a breath or two before the next episode arrives. My nerves, man. They are shot. HOW WILL ALL OF THIS END?