Speaking as a Symphogear fan, the latest iteration of the franchise was a letdown. Not just relative to other Symphogear seasons either; GX was not a good show, full stop. Yet, some good elements are still present. While I believe the writers got plenty of stuff wrong, I do think they achieved something worthwhile with this season’s villain, Carol Malus Dienheim. Through her arc, and particularly in the final episode, we get a clear, concise and honest portrayal of how the writers believe revenge takes control of one’s moral psychology. But, Carol didn’t have to be a villain. It’s easy to see how things might have turned out differently for her, and grasping this idea enhances the end of her arc.
Caution: spoilers. Proceed at own risk.
Suggested Soundtrack for Listening – Grimes “Flesh Without Blood.”
In the (I guess medieval) days of yore, Carol and her father happily live as village alchemists. One day, a horrible plague strikes the village. Carol’s father miraculously creates a cure, but the devout villagers are scandalized by this action. No human has the right to create a miracle. So, the alchemist is burned at the stake in front of his very young daughter (whom they thankfully spared). His last words to Carol are a plea for her to “know more about the world.”
A very natural reaction to having your father unjustly murdered is to want revenge. The lonely little girl nurses a deep grudge against the world that took her father away. Here, Carol comes to a significant crossroads: Her father asks her to acquire knowledge of the world, and implicit in this request is the idea of loving the world. Yet, this world took her beloved father from her. She cannot being herself to choose love. Carol grows up, relying on her hatred for emotional strength. The desire for revenge is important to who she has become.
So, what’s actually happening at this internal crossroads? Carol reassigns the values of certain propositions in her moral calculus. This is a fancy way of saying that she’s re-ranking her (ethical) decision-making directives. Hating the world and wanting to destroy it increase in value, while acting on her father’s dying wish decreases in value. The former actually becomes an imperative for her, a chief guiding principle. In a very real sense, she chooses hatred over her father, since it isn’t just something that she ranks higher than his dying wish in her moral calculus, it is the wish’s direct contradiction.
Yet, Carol’s re-evaluation is not so definite. The root of her pain is love for her father, so I believe that, on a deep level, she does not want to feel like she is acting against him . Her solution? She deliberately chooses self-deception. Carol intentionally misinterprets her father’s request for her to know more about the world as a call for her to ascertain knowledge of the best method to end the world. “I will analyze the world in order to learn its weakness.” Throughout GX, Carol often refers to her father’s dying words as “a problem” he left to her. By interpreting his words in her own way, she believes she has solved the rubix cube in the cleverest way possible. She can burn the world all the while claiming she is adhering to her father’s wish.
In the middle of watching the series, Carol’s take on her father’s words really bothered me. It seemed too ludicrous for even a child to misunderstand something so badly. I was quite surprised then when Carol, confronted with what her father actually meant, admits she knows the truth but accepts a lie purely for the sake of convenience. She doesn’t disavow the true interpretation because it’s inaccurate; rather, she refuses to accept that her father asked her to love a world that unjustly killed him.
Here, I think it’s important to ask why Carol reassigned values within her moral calculus. Why does she knowingly live with a lie? Why doesn’t her love for her father win out over her hatred of the world? The answer is, in short, pain. Carol’s pain calls the shots; it does the heavy lifting when it comes to re-evaluating moral imperatives. Its intensity is allowed to burn unchecked, and over time it calcifies around her heart, making it difficult for her to see beyond it.
I don’t mean to insinuate that all this was inevitable. Well, for the purposes of the narrative of GX it is, sure. But what I mean is that, according to the worldview set forth by the show, Carol’s descent into villainy was preventable. It was possible for her to recover from her tragedy and become a well-adjusted person. The key ingredient lacking in her case is community. Carol is left alone after she watched her father burn. She is alone for the grief. She is alone to figure out how to return to ‘normal” life. She is alone at that crucial moment when revenge becomes more valuable than love. Imagine if she had a support system like Hibiki or Maria have. Throughout the whole of Symphogear, we are presented with the thesis that each of the wielders owes her well-being to the fact that she now belongs to a community (S.O.N.G.!).
Recognizing this lack within Carol makes the end of her arc quite poignant. Elfnein, a copy of Carol (body and mind) created to aide her plot, suffers a grave injury during he final battle. She is dying. Carol has used nearly all her memories of her father as fuel for her apocalyptic weapons. One girl is of sound mind, but her body is failing; the other is physically healthy but mentally empty. The two embrace, kiss, and become one person. This is good because they need each other, and not only because of their individual physical/mental imbalances. Carol and Elfnein both need community, both need to belong. The latter can be united to her ‘original” self, a being she was separated from; and the former can have communion with that other that she has been without since her father died. Carol and Elfnein converge into one being because they make each other whole, on multiple levels.
In Symphogear GX, we see how revenge becomes the dominant imperative in a character’s moral psychology. Looking at the broader philosophy of the show, we can also see how community can prevent this from happening or heal this disordered psyche.