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February 19, 2012

The Second Animorphs Essay! Burning Up!

Last time on Cross-Up…things were posted!  Bad jokes were made!  Art was made in Paint, and I’m actually surprised that it was better than just a stick figure!  Also, Animorphs was mentioned ad nauseum!  Will this blog continue to hold the decade-old series on a high pedestal?  Or will a nostalgia filter blind me as badly as the documented world’s oldest stripper?

Find out now, on Cross-Up! 

(insert guitar riffs here)

Erhmhmhmhmhmhmmmm…well, I hope you’ll excuse the minor diversion, but I must admit I’m excited.  It’s time to talk about Animorphs again!  Mommy yes!  And much like last time, I want to focus on who I think is one of the series’ most interesting characters. 

I mentioned this a while back, but during a run of my collection, I had a bit of a crisis of faith.  For years now I’d thought of myself as a Jake fan -- a supporter of the group’s de facto leader.  But recently I started thinking to myself, “Hold on a minute,” I began, stroking my chin whilst munching on a hot dog.  “Jake is interesting, sure, but isn’t there someone even more intriguing right next to him?  If I was a more volatile person (or ten years younger), I might find Jake’s reliability and goody-goody nature downright boring.  Isn’t it better to consider more action-oriented characters in a favorable light?”  I nodded to myself while leaning back in my chair.  “I am a fan of hot-blooded characters, so to speak; maybe I should put more stock into understanding what makes them tick.”  But of course, I didn’t have to think too hard about the perfect example; as always, Animorphs provided me with the answer I needed.  “Yes, yes, of course.  If I’m to be a fan of the ‘hot-blooded character,’ then I have to pledge my loyalty anew!  And thus, from here on out, I should favor the very definition of passion in the series!  Yes, it’s perfect!  From now on, my favorite character shall be --!”

And then I choked on my hot dog and died.

Anyway, this post is about Rachel.

Rachel, the Warrior

Doling out lethal injections of sass on a moment's notice.

You know, it’s funny.  When I started reading the series, I was in third grade.  Nine years old.  I remember picking up the book, seeing some reference to junior high and being confused by the concept of class periods.  But more importantly, I didn’t have a frame of reference for that age group.  So I just figured that, by virtue of seniority, they knew what they were doing.  They could handle themselves better than I ever could if I was an Animorph (especially since my signature morph would be a stingray -- which in hindsight would make me the team’s Aquaman).  They were older than me, so by default I looked up to them.

But looking back -- now that I’m physically ten years older than they were at story’s outset -- I’m surprised Applegate didn’t just have them all self-destruct by book ten.  Fighting aliens and going on life or death missions sounds like it would make an awesome video game (though I hear that the actual Animorphs game for the Game Boy Color was a crappy Pokémon rip-off), but when you get a glimpse of what it would really be like to fight a guerrilla war and understand the depths of fear and the unyielding pressure, you stop feeling any sense of envy and start praying that destiny never rings you up.

And…then there’s Rachel.  Oh boy.  This one’s gonna be a doozy.

Well, have you ever heard that saying “adversity builds character?”  Well, neither had I until I found it on a Google Search.  The point being that sometimes, rotten moments and turns and events in your life can bring out the best part of you -- being able to save your brother when your house catches on fire, or summoning superhuman strength to stop a truck about to crush your mp3 player.  I’d argue that Rachel’s much the same way…at least, I WOULD if it wasn’t blatantly stated how much the fight against the Yeerks meant to her.

Much like Jake -- well, much like all the Animorphs -- Rachel would have just been another regular dumb kid if not for cutting through the construction site that fateful night.  More so in her case; she’s a tall, blonde, supermodel-styled fashionista who knows all there is to know about shopping (with her own complex logic when managing money).  It’s a superficial layer of course, but stereotyping on appearance is kind of common where I come from -- and again, as a thirteen-year-old girl she’s probably got it even rougher.  Granted, underneath that layer lies a feisty and tough spirit, one that’s willing to bend the fingers of any dude that hits on her.  But if I can take this to a meta-level, haven’t we seen that archetype before?  The pretty girl who’s tougher than she looks?  Sultry and sassy?  When you think about it, where’s the fun in that?

That’s why the fight against the Yeerks was necessary for Rachel on multiple levels.  Giving her some real adversity gave her character a chance to develop in unexpected ways -- but more importantly, it gave her -- for lack of a better term -- “legitimacy.”  Let’s think of it this way: suppose there were two Rachels.  Rachel Alpha is the one who didn’t go to that construction site, and thus spent the rest of her days as a regular shopaholic blonde.  Rachel Beta is the one who did, and therefore gets to transform into a bear every other day.  What do you suppose they would brag about, given the chance (with no risk of exposing their secrets to Controllers, of course)?

Rachel Alpha: “I totally broke that guy Chad’s arm for trying to hold my hand earlier.  Also, I bought this amazing sweater yesterday!”

Rachel Beta: “I fought against a hive mind of space bugs that collected into a giant mass of death until I barely had stumps for arms left -- while I still had amnesia.  Anyway, wanna go to the mall?  I saw this amazing sweater!”

Yeah.  Rachel Beta has a little bit more to discuss.  And I’d wager that she knew it too.  Rachel takes on aliens and gun-toting soldiers and risks being buried alive or trapped underground or torn apart by ants with disturbing regularity.  If there’s any way to show that shit just got real in a fight, it’s to have Rachel (and it is almost always Rachel) have her lose a few limbs…and keep fighting anyway.  In the first book, when everyone was trying out morphing for the first time, they chose animals that were either simple -- a dog for Jake, and a cat for Tobias -- or comparatively docile -- horse for Cassie, gorilla for Marco.  Rachel’s first morph in the entire series is AN AFRICAN ELEPHANT.  When you can become an animal that’s a biological bulldozer, you tend to think of boys hitting on you as a minor diversion at best. 

Legitimacy is what Rachel needed in her life.  In the same sense that a war veteran has a bit more credibility than the kid who threw the winning pitch in a dodge ball game, so too did Rachel need a conflict to satisfy her needs.  Now, this is just conjecture, but I think it’s arguable that Rachel always secretly wanted an avenue to express her power.  First morph?  African elephant -- the largest land animal, and an unstoppable force once it gets moving.  Signature morph?  Grizzly bear -- a form with raw power, and generally allows her to rip the hell out of anything in her way (and notably, Rachel goes for a male bear because they’re larger).  What’s the morph she uses on the cover of her first official book?  A housecat.  While that doesn’t sound too impressive, bear in mind that point-for-point, the average cat is still a lot more powerful and agile than the average human.  And bear in mind that in-universe, Rachel describes a housecat as being cool, calculated, coiled power. 

Why would a thirteen-year-old girl need power?  Again, this is a part of my conjecture, but…well, what thirteen-year-old girl WOULDN’T want power?  Think about it.  She has a little bit of autonomy what with being able to venture to the mall and around town, but there’s a lot in her life that’s out of her control.  Getting bossed around by teachers and principals and adults in general; consistently sucking at gymnastics (by virtue of her height, in her eyes); being unable to make a difference in her parents’ divorce, with her sisters reaching an age where she can’t just scare them into compliance.  They’re things that a girl her age might have to deal with…but since Rachel isn’t exactly normal anymore, it’s only natural that she looks for an escape.  A platform where she’s in control, and fully in her element.  To some extent, you could say that shopping fills that niche.  No one in the series -- or real life, I’d wager -- has more of a commanding presence on the shopping battlefield than Rachel, so that gives her some release.  But in a world where she has to go toe-to-toe with giant cannibalistic centipedes, she needs something more.  So rather than be consumed by the pressure and pain of war, she delights in it.  She makes the best of it by putting herself in a position of control -- of power.

And that, I believe, is part of the reason she’s so gung-ho all the time.  She wants to be a warrior.  She needs it.  The fighting, the power, the rush of combat -- all things she’s aware of, and accepts more readily than any other Animorph…including the alien cadet who very narrowly avoided becoming a warrior prince.   If there’s a battle to be had or a risk to be taken, you bet your bippy that she’ll leap headfirst into the action.  That’s just the kind of role she wants to play.

It’s a shame that whole “reality” thing has to get involved.

I won’t lie -- I’m a sucker for foils.  In my own writing, I try to slip in as many dueling forces as I can; not just between two characters, but amidst almost everyone in the cast (one story features a guy who’s essentially a foil to everyone he meets).  Give me enough time to absorb the subtext and meaning of a story, and I’d wager the first thing I bring up is the relationship between Chum X and Lass Z. 

Animorphs -- you know, being the greatest contribution to art since the cave painting -- is no exception.  Even though they’re cousins, Jake and Rachel are phenomenally different characters…in spite of having a few common traits.  Both of them are competent leaders; Jake rules the roost most of the time, but if he’s out of action Rachel can step in and do the job.  Both of them have a best friend who’s also a fellow Animorph; Jake has the cynical Marco, and Rachel has the idealistic Cassie.  Both of them have family issues; Jake’s got his Yeerk-enslaved brother, and Rachel wants to bond with her dad (side note: Rachel once took pleasure in knowing that her dad -- denied of a son three times -- thought that she was as good as any boy, if not better.  Hmmm…).  Undoubtedly, they’re the tallest two Animorphs -- though it’s hard to judge accurately, since we never got a height figure for Ax.  I suppose that you can think of them as the team’s pillars of strength.

Pillars of strength for different reasons, of course.  Jake’s the leader, Rachel’s the warrior.  One stands for internal strength, as in the ability to delegate and safeguard the team.  One stands for external strength, as in the ability to tear the face off anything that comes her way.  And just as Rachel could count on Jake to make smart decisions for their welfare, so too could Jake count on Rachel to get things done…along with an ancillary role.  Let’s put it this way: if Jake had to file all the problems the Animorphs faced into a cabinet, there would be a few distinct labels.  “What’s our new morph?”  “Oh crap, it’s the Yeerks!”  “Time to mosey on outta here!”  “Ethics, man!”  And finally, “Dammit, Rachel!”  Seriously, it seems like a lot of the group’s problems are caused by Rachel doing something crazy or reckless.  For example:

Jake: “All right, we’re done spying on this actor the Yeerks have their eye on, and they’re not on to us.  Let’s get out of here, morph out of seagulls, and --”

Cassie: “Oh no!  Rachel is turning into an elephant right here above the water with nowhere to run and the Yeerks looking right at us!”

Jake: “Dammit, Rachel!”

Or how about this one:

Jake: “All right, guys.  There’s no telling who’s got a Yeerk in their head and who doesn’t, so let’s be careful.  Nobody morphs or does anything stupid while in morph, like --”

Cassie: “Um, Jake?  Rachel just morphed into an elephant to scare some circus tamer into not using cattle prods on his elephants anymore.  And she might have talked to him a little.  Just thought I’d give you a heads-up…”

Jake: “Dammit, Rachel!”

And here’s a gem:

Jake: “Stay on your toes, guys.  We’re up against an alien dust cloud that hunts us down whenever we morph.  It’ll be tough, and it’d be better if we had Rachel with us, but since she’s at gymnastics camp --“

Cassie: “Hey, Jake?  I just found out --”

Jake: “Cassie, no.  NO.  Every time you use that tone, it means that Rachel’s done something stupid or reckless.  I swear, she’s going to…wait.  She’s not here.  That means she’s not screwing things up for us.  That means we’re --“

Cassie: “Jake, she didn’t go to gymnastics camp.  She ditched and decided to go flying.  Without telling us.  So now we have no idea where she is.  And she’s lost her memory.  And she can still morph, which means she can get hunted by that alien dust cloud monster.”

Jake: “Dammit, Rache- wait, how did you find all that out?”

Cassie: “…Time paradox?”

Jake: “Well I guess that makes se-“

Cassie: “Caused by Rachel.”

Jake: “Oh, come on!”

I know there was no cursing in the books proper, but it was heavily implied that they were regularly.  And I’d bet good money that Jake was the one with the biggest swear jar.

I don’t think Rachel’s stupid.  Far from it; she and the other Animorphs each take their turns displaying levels of cunning, understanding, and plain intelligence that belies their ages.  And it’s hard to say she thinks it’s all just a game.  She was there on that night and watched Elfangor get killed by Visser Three.  She knows the risks.  She knows if she screws up, she’ll die.  She knows that it’s four human kids, one hawk kid, and one alien kid against an incalculably large alien invasion force. And yet she’s constantly doing reckless things that could get her killed.  Why?  For the rush, arguably.  Jake knows it; he likens her to an alcoholic in one book.  Cassie knows it; the rare moments of sarcasm that she shows are in regards to Rachel being a battle-nut.  Marco knows it; he even calls her Xena at times (and Rachel’s actually excited to spot Lucy Lawless at one point). 

And therein lays the crux of Rachel’s “role vs. reality” struggle.  If she WAS an idiot, it would explain so, so much about her choices and actions.  But she’s not.  She’s aware of everything that’s happening.  She’s aware that she’s the warrior, and everyone expects her to turn into a bear and go on a smashing spree.  In the same sense that Jake’s struggle with being a leader harmed him, so too does being a warrior harm Rachel -- only this time, it’s hard to say if she comes out better for it.

Spoiler: she doesn’t.

Rachel is aware of what she is, and what she wants to be, and worst of all what she’s becoming.  While she’ll act all gung-ho as expected in books where she’s not the POV character, the books where she’s on center stage say…a lot.  Some very troubling stuff.  Now as I’ve said, I don’t have the complete collection on hand, but I think that from what I’ve read (and read online), there’s enough to make a case.  So, to wit:

#2, The Visitor: Rachel turns into a cat to spy on her friend Melissa, since her dad is a known high-ranking Controller.  Parallels and contrasts are drawn between Melissa’s relationship with her father (who she’s convinced doesn’t love her anymore) and Rachel’s estranged father.

#7, The Stranger: Rachel’s father offers her a choice to stay with her mom and sisters --and the Animorphs -- or live with her father as he takes a new job as a big-time news anchor.  Subsequently, she’s forced to choose between continuing a (losing) fight against the Yeerks, or get whisked away to a reserve for humans.  Here, Rachel starts to show crack in her warrior armor.

#12, The Reaction: After morphing a crocodile, Rachel has to deal with an illness that causes her to morph uncontrollably whenever she gets emotional…which happens a lot.  Jake proceeds to have several “Dammit, Rachel!” moments but she decides to do her own thing anyway.

#17, The Underground: Rachel continues to dig almost relentlessly as a mole as she and her friends try to create a new entrance to the Yeerk Pool -- in spite of the crushing horrors of being virtually blind and risking a cave-in, and heading towards a place they all consider hell.  She also breaks a committed man out of an asylum (“Dammit, Rachel!”).

#22, The Solution:  The ending of the David story arc.  Stressed from a lack of sleep, David’s betrayal, and a massive mission on their hands, Rachel explodes as David makes his way into the school.  After nearly stabbing him in the head and threatening his parents, Rachel confronts Jake and asks him why he let her go after David -- to which Jake responds, more or less, “because he needed someone who would make him afraid” and “she was the right one for the job.”

#27, The Exposed: Rachel is still reeling from the David incident, and trying (and failing) to balance her normal life with her Animorph life, thanks to her issues with a guy unfortunately named T.T.  She forces herself to go really freaking deep underwater to get a squid morph for the others, though her plan backfires and now Tobias has to go underwater with her (“Dammit, Rachel!”).  She’s begun to become even more self-aware as her role as a warrior -- unable to say “Let’s NOT do it,” always jumping in to do something crazy.  She’s losing her old self.  And she’s getting ever closer to Tobias (who I’ll get to on a later date), while moving farther away from normalcy.

#32, The Separation: Rachel morphs into a starfish and gets split into two halves.  That’s…about all I know, I only read like eight pages.

But at any rate, there’s a definite change between Rachel of #2 and Rachel of #27.  She’s done some things, seen some things, said some things; whereas they pushed Jake to become a stalwart (if darker) person, they pushed Rachel to become…uh…well…

What DID Rachel become?  Or rather, what was she to begin with?  If her role was a warrior, what was her reality?  The answer, I think, is simple.  She was always a warrior -- the only difference was that she becomes one even more so than before.  The war against the Yeerks unlocked her potential, and made her into something that deep down, for better or worse, she always wanted to be.  What she needed wasn’t courage or resolve or belligerence; what she needed was an enemy to fight.  And to a lesser extent, she needed someone to point her in the right direction so she could go on smashing or diving into the bowels of the earth.  It’s a crazy desire, but think about it: how many kids (yourself, even) had dreams of leaving behind their normal world of school and chores to live out a life not unlike a video game?  Yes, Animorphs twisted the hell out of that wish, but even though Rachel got the memo that her new job would suck, she just crumpled it up, threw it in the trash, and morphed to elephant to barrel through a few walls.  Did she take a darker turn?  Yes.  Did she become psychopathic?  Maybe.  Was she always a psycho deep down?  You could argue that.  But think of it this way: every step of the way, Rachel had to know what she was turning into, yet progressed regardless.  Why?  Because she had to do -- had to be -- what no one else would.  War is hell, they say; it requires sacrifice, bloodshed, fear, a loss of innocence, and at times ruthlessness.  But that wasn’t going to drag Rachel down.  If she was destined to descend into hell, she’d make the most out of it.  And in the right light -- as Jake’s foil, and beyond -- doesn’t that make her a hero, too?

Well, that’s about all I can say about Rachel.  Interesting character, to say the least.  Mind you, I’m not saying that I enjoy her descent; what I find interesting is the fact that she could change so subtly yet effectively, as well as how in spite of that she always managed to get the job done.  She was a warrior through and through -- and even though I know that her fate is less than savory (spoilers are everywhere on the internet, yo), she took us all on a wild ride.  She’s just one of many reasons why I’m resolved to collect the remaining books one day -- so I can treat myself to the finale I’ve lusted after for more than a decade.  Until then, I -- as I have been for years -- will try to stay away from spoilers.  I want the surprise to be fresh, and the revelations as succulent as a fresh tangerine.

*slurps lips across face*

*murmurs to self with a sultry glint in eyes*

*smears tangerine juice over face and wears a shirt made of the peels, humming “Physical” and nodding rhythmically*

…Marco’s next, by the way.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some totally not-creepy things to do.

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