The central theme in Episode 23 (and arguably the rest of the series as well) of Chiaki Konaka’s classic The Big O is the interplay between programming and freedom, determinacy and action.
Many events unfold themselves within this episode, from the off-screen battle between Vera Ronstadt of The Union and the killer android (or is it cyborg?) Alan Gabriel, which results in no real damage done to the latter whilst the former is dealt a wound in the side. She is visibly in pain when, later in the episode, she turns up and delivers a message to Roger, one she wishes him to relay to Angel: ‘A bird whose wings have been plucked will shed all it’s feathers and will return into the beast it was before it evolved into a bird.’
The meaning of the statement is obscure and never quite spelled out through the context of the show. We know only that Angel, named after a celestial being donning wings, has large scars on her back, presumably where a set of wings once lie. Or is the visual merely a symbolic signifier of her role within the events of the story, of her role as a fallen being whose presence is more a portent of doom than divine care? And as the obscure quote alludes to, has she only become a portent of doom by virtue of losing her wings? Wings that once elevated her above the moral speciousness of human action and whose absence make her little more than another primitive homo sapien beast in comparison?
The strict, narrative purpose of Vera’s quote will later be revealed as a memory from Angel’s past, a memory of her mother and of the cabin she was presumably raised within as a young child. But when she finds the cabin… and in that place of all places…. Well, that’s a tale for next time.
Alan Gabriel escapes his battle with Vera, though not unscathed. He was previously playing both sides in the struggle for Paradigm City’s fate: fighting as a spy and counterspy for The Union and Paradigm Corp. Now, Alan Gabriel has to throw in all of his chips behind Paradigm to remain a player of import in the ongoing game. For the time, he raises the ante and heightens the tensions by freeing Beck from prison once more and, using an execution order, and the promise of freedom and money, Alan twists the inventor into working to restore Big Fau’s memory core. The plan? To once again abduct Dorothy using a horde of mechanical scorpion machines and then to use the power of her programming to rig Big Fau back into operation, thereby allowing Alex Rosewater to resume his helm as the Dominus of the Big Fau Megadeus.
The Dominus of Megadeus. A role one is destined for, a role none but a true Dominus can perform without being expelled from the machine, perhaps violently so. We know that Alex Rosewater is the son of Gordon Rosewater and the rightful heir as CEO of his father’s company Paradigm Corp. However, at the farm, before Alex Alex dispatches his father, we learn that Gordon considers Alex to be just like all those other people working on his farm. He considers Alex and these large, humanoid working machines to be his sons. The question becomes whether Alex is like them in other ways. Whether he too has been programmed for a job. In this case, the job of running the corporation and operating a Megadeus.
Unlike Alex Rosewater who has seemingly accepted his fate and his programming by deciding to follow his father’s wishes, Roger the Negotiator, also almost certainly a replicant-like being, a created, not born, human being complete with emotions and all, is grapples with his fate. He knows he has been programmed to fulfill a social role, but has a rebellious nature. In the past, he was a police officer, but he quit that job and moved on to become a Negotiator who could help the people without answering to the Police Department’s head company: Paradigm Corp.
He was programmed to pilot a Megadeus and has innate operating knowledge of its systems thereby. However, instead of merely protecting the city from The Union and supporting the goals of Paradigm Corp., he has been tempted by the Black Forest Philosopher-Dominus Schwarzwald and realizes now just how corrupt the city really is. Roger knows of the existence of peoples beyond the domes of the city, people who have been systematically discriminated against and marginalized until their kind were expelled from the city or killed. People whose memory in the minds of Paradigm’s denizens have eventually faded into obscurity. But Roger knows Angel, and he knows, deep down, that she is not wrong for wanting to live a peaceful life in the city, and that The Union is not totally evil for wanting to destroy Paradigm Corp. to install a more friendly regime that would allow their people access to the city’s comforts.
Roger now pilots the Big O Megadeus as a rogue Dominus who has abandoned his programming and fights both the terrorist activity of The Union and the hegemonic totalitarian regime of Paradigm Corp. Though, just like all anti-fascist in modern history, his work only heightens the tensions between the most extreme factions. He has only served to bring more turmoil to the city by exposing the city’s people to the existence of outsiders. And what’s worse, he may now be relatively free from the dictates of his programming, but he has not gone far enough beyond good and evil to recognize a need for a new system, let alone to begin formulating it as a positive force in opposition to The Union and to Paradigm Corp.
When Dorothy is taken by the scorpion machines, Roger makes it back home just in time to watch helplessly while his love is removed once more from his abode and turned over to Beck for use in his Megadeus modification experiments. As she departs, Dorothy stops fighting back and calls out to Roger: ‘I am what I am. I am not like you Roger. I will always have this same body and this same heart.’ Time and again, the reference to a Jewish mythos, to the Leviathan and the Behemoth, to Angels, and to an end-times prophecy of destruction is brought into discussion. Here, Dorothy defines herself as YHWH does: ‘I am what I am.’ The effect in this context is of an orthodoxy burrowed deep into her psyche. An orthodoxy of stasis, of oneself as what one is born into. A Socratic truth delivered upon pondering oneself and coming to know oneself and in contradistinction to a Nietzschian truth of self-creation and becoming.
Roger recognizes this orthodoxy as the false god it is, as he too once believed it and has managed to come toward the light of truth and shake off the shackles of his programming to become more human than human in the process of accepting his manufactured nature and denying its maxims. He tells Dorothy not to give up, tells her that she must take control of her own destiny rather than resigning herself. The meaning is twofold in that she must take control now and escape the clutches of her enemies no matter how much she feels she belongs with them, rather than with humans like roger and Norman. The second meaning, and I may be reaching a bit here, is that she ought to try and take hold of her destiny to also overthrow her mere programming: that she should try to love him and live alongside him despite their anatomical differences: Roger the organic android and Dorothy the mechanical being.
At the last moment, Dorothy’s eyes open wide and we realize that she has picked up on the latter message all too well, though she is now physically incapable of following the first. Before I get too sappy here, I’ll stop. Especially since the next episode is there waiting in the wings to swoop down and upend our expectations, just as the final two ring the death knell and put the nail in the coffin, respectively, regarding the philosophical dialogue between determinism and free action. The result? A stance staunchly astride the former.
Cast In the Name of God,