In Need of Nepenthe: Face the Raven

After last week’s “Sleep No More” a Macbeth reference, this week’s episode title, “Face the Raven,” calls to mind “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. As I suspected, it is an appropriate poem for this episode. “The Raven” is about grief and loss; a nameless narrator grieves over his lost Lenore. After this episode (and possibly in the episodes before due that Doctor Who timey-wimey storytelling), the Doctor will grieve over the loss of Clara.  While I was not looking forward to Clara’s departure, I have to say that I loved this episode.

ClaraFacingtheRaven

Clara faces the raven, but not without the Doctor standing behind her.

This was Sarah Dollard’s first story for Doctor Who, but I certainly hope that it won’t be her last.  This story grabbed me from the beginning.  Rigsy’s return meant that we didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining how the Doctor gets involved in the situation or why Clara cares so much about him.  The focus gets to remain where it should be: on the Doctor and Clara in what seems to be their final adventure.  It was also a nice touch to bring back Clara’s “companion,” to remind us of how like the Doctor she has become.

The episode begins with a very light, humorous tone, a perfect beginning because it reminds us of why Clara enjoys traveling with the Doctor: it’s fun.  It all seems like business as usual as the Doctor decides that he will save Rigsy and it feels as though the episode is going in the direction of a fun romp.  As the episode progresses, however, it very subtly shifts its tone and Dollard very gradually raises the episode’s stakes until Clara’s death feels like the natural consequence of the events of the episode.

The plot sucked me in as well.  The countdown tattoo was an intriguing hook to get us to the trap street. Additionally, the refugee camp with a perception filter was a clever idea, and it’s an idea I almost wish could have been explored more.  I found myself wondering how some of the street’s denziens wound up there: what exactly does a Cyberman do to need to seek asylum?  The introduction of the Janus species was an intriguing one as well.  I know a lot of people felt the trap street was a rip-off of Harry Potter‘s Diagon Alley, but I enjoyed it.  I also liked the idea of Ashildr/ Mayor Me running a refugee camp.  It showed how much she has learned over the years that she was able to set up the camp, while her use of the quantum shade shows that empathy is still not one of her dominant characteristics.

An episode like this really benefits from having Maisie Williams playing the role of Mayor Me. While it’s still a bit ambiguous just whose side she’s on, Maisie’s performance at the end made it clear, without saying much, that she was horrified that she couldn’t help Clara.  I don’t think she means to do the Doctor any harm, but she will do what she has to do to protect her refugees. We still don’t know who it is that wants the Doctor (the logical bet would be Missy, but that may be too obvious), and in this episode she says that she made a deal with “them.” I guess we’ll find out soon.

Peter Capaldi turns in yet another great performance in this episode.  He obviously takes a bit of a backseat to Clara, but he is fascinating to watch.  He never upstages Clara during her death scene, but he is always reacting to what she is saying. He manages to hold his emotions in (as this Doctor would), but his face shows all the various emotions he is feeling. He shifts from rage to sorrow to love all without needing to say a word. Unlike the Doctor, I was moved to tears by his and Clara’s parting moments, and no small part of it was because of the heartbreak the Doctor was experiencing.

 

FACE THE RAVEN (By Sarah Dollard)

The Doctor attempts to threaten Me into saving Clara from the quantum shade.

All this leads me to the reason this episode worked so well: Jenna Coleman. Clara experiences almost every possible emotion in this episode and Jenna Coleman is fantastic at portraying them all. I can’t be the only one who’d love to see those encounters between Clara and Jane Austen, right? The opening of the episode showed Clara’s love of excitement (my one bone to pick would be that the scene of her dangling out of the TARDIS was a bit unnecessary and over-the-top since the opening moments already made that clear) and the consequences in this episode flowed quite naturally from her established personality traits and the choices she made.

This episode played almost as a Greek tragedy. Clara’s hamartia was what brought her down in the end. She was full of hubris, but also compassion. She wanted to help Rigsy so much that she did something foolish, without having all of the information. This is not unlike the Doctor, always putting himself in danger for the sake of others, sometimes without really knowing all the facts yet. Unfortunately, as he points out, he is less breakable that Clara, a point that she lost sight of in her overconfidence.  In this episode, Clara’s transformation into the Doctor seems complete. Ultimately though, what brought about Clara’s death in this episode was her belief not in her own cleverness, but in the Doctor’s. She believed that there was no problem that he couldn’t solve, which is why she could be reckless.

At first I wasn’t sure I would be satisfied by this episode’s conclusion because it was looking like Clara would die because of her recklessness and I wanted Clara to have a heroic death. However, she faces death as only Clara Oswald could, bravely and still thinking of others. She uses her final moments to first ease Rigsy’s guilt and then to help the Doctor.  She accepts that she is the one responsible for her predicament and does not want anyone else to share in any part of the blame.  Clara doesn’t waste any time bemoaning her upcoming death or feeling sorry for herself; instead, she takes charge of the situation and uses her final moments as best she can.  She knows the Doctor so well that she knows what he needs to hear. She takes on a very maternal role at the end, comforting the Doctor and ordering him to not seek revenge for her death.  She knows that losing her will hurt him deeply, and she doesn’t want her ultimate legacy with the Doctor to be a negative one. The last we see of Clara, she bravely faces the raven, not running away from it as others do.

 

RigsyTARDISGraffitti

Rigsy paints the TARDIS in tribute to Clara.

Still, I find it hard to believe that this will truly be the last we see of Clara. I will be very surprised if she doesn’t turn up in some way in the finale. Generally, the showrunner writes the exit for the companion, and I can’t imagine that Moffat would let somebody give Clara her final words. Whether it will be in a dream, a flashback, a point earlier in her timeline, or one of the Clara splinters I have no idea.  Even if she does get resurrected (as it seems to be one of the recurring themes), I don’t think it can diminish the power of her exit here. Currently, this episode is my pick for the best of the season.  Clara’s departure was very moving and a fitting exit for one of my favorite companions. Now I just need this Raven to take thy beak from out my heart…