Of Covenants, the Congregation, and Alchemy

I have to admit: I was kind of worried about this episode giving me ideas for the blog. The first viewing I was so engrossed with what was unfolding only two things really stood out to me (the final two topics below). Then I watched it again, and whoa, there is a lot happening in this episode. And, of course, spoilers abound here, so read at your own risk! (Spoilers include bits from subsequent books, the broad narrative, and episode specifics.)

One of the first things that I noticed as Matthew and Diana were driving up to Sept Tours was the looming church. It’s evident in other shots, too, including the trailer. And while I can’t say much about this yet, I was so excited to see it already there. I keep coming back to subtle details in this show because they’re so amazing. The church isn’t important yet, but it is there. The weaving of details and narrative throughout the first half of the series has been enthralling. (Note: I lied. I actually noticed *three* things in my first watch, but I only wrote one of them down…) Like the rosary we see Matthew praying in the first episode, such references to who he is are important reminders that Matthew is not just this vampire-cum-scientist attracted to Diana. He’s a person with his own layers, and one of these, crucially, is his faith. The religious tolerance of the books – and seemingly the show – is refreshing. The narrative’s push for equality and respect is not just for creatures, races, and genders, but for other things that often (unnecessarily) divide people, like religion. I’ll pick this all up next week after we see into his church and this side of his personality, but, for now, it felt worth flagging. (Also, I got way excited about the medieval architecture of the church, so that excitement had to come out here for my own sanity… Oh, and Lucas and Bianca’s tomb! Pass the tissues, please.)

In episode 3, we were introduced to the idea that Matthew is Diana’s “shadow man” when Em reminds her of the tales her mother told her when she was little. This is highlighted again in Sophie’s recollection of her dreams/visions of Diana (who, admittedly she does not yet realise *is* Diana, even though Agatha and the viewer do). She comments that she can see Diana clearly, but the man she is with is less clear. While she does not out-and-out say he is in the shadows, the viewer is left to make that connection. Matthew lurks (and sometimes he does so a bit creepily) in the shadows, but he is also key to Diana. As we’re coming to learn, he is also Sol, or the Red King, in alchemy. One of the first stages in alchemy is nigredo, or blackening (also known as putrefaction), when the alchemical substances had to be reduced to one combined substance so that it can be purified in subsequent stages (and the number of these, unlike in the show, does vary throughout the history of alchemy). Eventually the substances will become the stone, which will redden as it becomes purer before it can turn things into gold.

In many ways, the battles that Diana and Matthew face and challenges that they overcome are their alchemical stages: they are blackened, whitened, yellowed, and ultimately reddened. They have to confront not just their own prejudices, but that of their families and that of creatures more broadly. In confronting that, they meet and are separated repeatedly (as are alchemical Sulphur and Mercury, aka the masculine and feminine, the hot and cold, Sol and Luna). Alchemy does not just have the potential to reveal – through Ashmole 782 aka the Book of Life – what is wrong with creatures, but also can reveal Diana and Matthew’s journey. (The Book of Life SPOILER so skip the rest of this paragraph if you would like to avoid!) This is acknowledged in The Book of Life to some degree when Diana comments on the alchemical child’s similarity to her own, implying that the Alchemical Wedding is an image of her and Matthew. Chapter 34: ‘When I first saw this image of the philosophical child, I had been struck by how it deviated from standard alchemical imagery. Now I couldn’t help but noticing that the baby resembled my own daughter, her tiny hands clutching a silver rose in one hand and a gold one in the other as though proclaiming to the world that she was the child of the witch and the vampire…’ While Diana (and the viewer/reader) does not initially realise that the manuscript holds the key to everything that will unfold once it responds to Diana’s call slip, it does. The journey, then, becomes an alchemical process that results in the alchemical, or philosophical, child (umm, children).

Agatha, importantly, seeks Sophie out in this scene to ask about her visions and her statue. Previously, Agatha looked at Sophie like she had lost the plot a bit with the statue of Diana/White Queen/Luna. Suddenly, as she hears the Congregation’s debate the situation with Diana and Matthew, things are starting to click into place. For being third class citizens, the daemons we have so far encountered are certainly not only in the know, but aware of the wider trends that are happening amongst creatures, as well as the importance of Diana more rapidly than the others. It is Sophie who identifies her as the White Queen, and Agatha, importantly, connects Diana to the goddess. Hamish forces Matthew to acknowledge that Diana is not just another warm blood or witch in his acquaintance. Together with Nathaniel, it is these four daemons who push the story forward while tying together the different aspects of it.

As in “real life,” it is often minorities who shoulder the burden of drawing attention to society’s problems and trying to do something about them. Agatha, while she is arguably playing it safe at this moment by telling Sophie to stay away from it and by telling Nathaniel to comply with the Congregation’s demands, knows that there is change coming: she just does not realise how it is going to impact her just yet. Eventually, she will come around to Team Diana & Matthew (aka Team Change aka Team Bishop-Clairmont). And the problems that the daemons identify become central to the wider concerns of the creature elite.

Some of the most intriguing props we have seen so far are the Congregation keys. The keys themselves are small silver objects with various symbols engraved into them. In the book, only the de Clermont key is described. Here, however, we see all nine representatives have a key. Each set of creature keys join to become one before the three composite keys are inserted, and the doors into the main chamber are opened. The message here is clear: the creatures must come together, both within their own types and more broadly. While the vampires, and the de Clermonts, are centralised in the line-up, they are all relatively equal given the numbers and that all nine keys are required.

Once again, we have hints at the importance of creatures coming together. In the case of the Congregation at this point, it is to supervise the Covenant and keep creatures in line, and from being discovered. This is grounded in the belief that the creatures must be kept separate. Yet, as is slowly becoming more and more obvious, this is what leads to their downfall. By enforcing their separation, they have effectively doomed themselves. They are not, as the science will tell them shortly, all that different from each other. In fact, they are at their most powerful when they come together. As will be seen, this coming together results in something different; something that, because it is different and largely unknown, is feared. And that fear – and lack of knowledge – is what drives creature segregation. (Sound familiar?) Once the creatures acknowledge this – specifically, once those in a position of power accept this and do something about it – they can solve the individual problems identified thus far. These problems – vampires unable to sire, witches losing power, daemon homelessness, suicide, etc. (etc. here is not meant to belittle daemon – and very real – problems, but to note that they have a literal list of them that cannot be encapsulated as can be done for witches and vampires) – can be rectified by the joining of creatures. Vampire + witch = new power, new genetic vigour. Daemons coming together = a sense of community and the ability to address daemon problems, which are partly caused by a lack of community and, thus, a misunderstanding of daemon-ness.

(Sidenote for anyone going but this is an art history blog, why do you keep getting political/get back to the art/objects/material culture: This. Is. Art. History. We look at things and contextualise them and ask how they reveal people, politics, societal changes. Art can reveal things that documents cannot or do not; it also comments on things that are revealed in writing. It is not just facts about the art or the period.)

The other thing that becomes obvious now that we have seen the Congregation is just how male (and white) it is. Admittedly it is less so than in the books. But, this also heightens the issues of representation and just what the Congregation represents. In a very real sense, it represents a(n) (old) patriarchal system that is designed to maintain its own power without adapting to the needs of who it should be representing. The exchange between Gerbert and Baldwin is telling: Gerbert accuses Baldwin of the de Clermonts losing their grasp because of Matthew’s actions (and also doubly referencing how ‘we’ vampires used to rule with an ‘iron fist’) to which Baldwin responds ‘It is the 21st century, Gerbert. We must at least show a semblance of democracy.’ Right then, Baldwin, we need to have a chat. (Dear Viewers, I promise Baldwin grows. In fact, his character growth over the series is beautiful. He’s not all bad. I promise! Even if he can be worse than Matthew at times…) You are kinda missing the point of a democracy at this point. Ideally, it should reflect the diversity of those it is meant to represent. (I said ideally. And we’re working on that. We = both in the narrative and in society.) And the Congregation definitely does not do that, as Knox says to Satu about Agatha: ‘Agatha is always telling us about how we should up our women count, which doesn’t go down well with the vampire colleagues.’ Agatha then replies that it seems to her ‘that every vampire that has been appointed over the last 900 years has been a white male.’ Two (!!) female Congregation members! Woohoo… Hopefully this will change as the series develops to reflect the development of creatures and the Congregation.

When I saw the (famous) Neolithic carved balls (petrospheres) on display at All Souls Con in Philadelphia, I got super excited. (Sorry, Mom, for losing power of words and getting so excited when I was meant to be explaining to you what they were…) I racked my brain for how they could come into the story. Well, I did not see that coming. We do not really know what they were actually used for. The prehistoric balls are carved with different designs and knobs. (The National Museum of Scotland has some 3D models online here, which are fascinating to have a look at. The NMS also highlights one of the most famous examples in their collection here; it looks strikingly similar to the prop!) As “mysterious” objects, they’re prime candidates for being turned into something magical. There are over 400 of them known (90% from Scotland), and suggested uses have included weapons (which, in a sense, is how Knox uses his) and mathematical things; regardless of exact use(s), they likely demonstrate some form of power or status for the owner. Such an object is an interesting choice for what is, in essence, a sort of power conduit that gives a witch control over another person, at least in terms of movement.

In the final scene of the episode, we see Diana’s dramatic release of witchwater. It is brought on by Matthew leaving her when they are threatened by the Congregation, and Matthew learns that someone broke into the Oxford lab. Diana, who has not been in control of her powers for most of the story so far, is certainly not at this moment. Her powers are tied to her emotions – fear (witchwind) and loss (witchwater) have caused the strongest reactions so far. Notably, the water does not just fall from the sky, but towards it as well. Her control over the water is magnificent. (Marthe noted earlier that she had not smelt such power in ages – this is important because Diana isn’t just powerful, but she’s extra powerful, for reasons that will explained later. The power reminded her of Spring, a time of new beginnings.) The first hint we get that the witchwater is coming on is when she cries and a drop falls over her burn/mark from Ashmole 782, signaling the connection between manuscript and power. Going back to the alchemical illusions I mentioned earlier, want to guess what is necessary for the various stages? Water – evaporating into smoke and becoming liquid again. Creating a cycle that was visualised in manuscripts as cyclical. In their own way, the manuscripts that depict the processes which occur in the alembic (aka the alchemical vessel whose shape is imprinted onto Diana’s skin) depict the water falling and rising. In one, illustrated below, this happens with the changing level of ingredients (identified as water, earth, air, and fire) in the alembic and with the bird flying upwards and downwards at different stages.

The show visual is a different visual from the book, which describes Diana as all but becoming – and surrendering to – the water that starts as her tears (Chapter 23): ‘My tears fell normally but swelled as they dropped into globules the size of snowballs… I opened by mouth to take a breath because the water streaming down my face was blocking my nose, and water gushed out in a torrent that tasted of the sea… As the water poured forth, my control slipped further…’ This is a moment that reminds the reader-viewer that images in text and images in visuals are different, even if they achieve the same thing. (As an art historian, this is something I have to remind myself of all the time!)

In the imagery of the show (whether this is intentional or not), Diana becomes central to the alchemical process, not just in the language used to describe her by other characters, but because of Ashmole 782’s branding of her combined with the visualisation of her power. [Spoiler for the next book, Shadow of Night] Her familiar – Corra – is a firedrake. And in some manuscripts, it is this beastie that is shown in the vessel as representative of the processes. Deb’s knowledge of alchemy and alchemical symbolism comes into play here: surely it is no accident that the book’s images and characters (and thus the TV show) draws on and plays with alchemical imagery. Alchemy is at the heart of the All Souls world, and its characters embody the symbolism of it (which Diana studies, and is thus able to interpret as reflecting her own journey). In ways such as the witchwater, the TV show brings this to the foreground, building on the visuals of Ashmole 782 and the books as it brings the story to life. It is so subtle that it is easily overlooked as being alchemical in nature, but recognising it as such forces us to recognise the objects that influence it.

Oh, and once again, the final shot/seconds brings us back into the separating and coming together patterns of the final shots of the previous episodes, continuing the momentum and power of the story.

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Finally, one of the first things that caught my attention (and spoiler alert of the biggest kind for the end of the season): Matthew’s tie in the dancing sequence at Sept Tours. He makes a Big Deal of taking it off before asking to Diana to dance. And then *bam* it’s back on at one point. Now, this could be a continuity issue, and thus a zebra, but I’d wager it’s actually looking forward to the timewalking that happens later on, before Diana and Matthew go searching for Ashmole 782 in the past.

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