Episode 1 Recap: Part 3…The Contract:
The last post left off just as the ‘blue-caped man’ introduces himself to the grief-stricken Esteban. The conversation between the orphan and the dubious-seeming Mendoza is, I think, the most critical scene in the entire series. It brims with suspense, and a sense of weight and destiny.
This scene captures the theme of ‘becoming’, in more ways than one. Foundational character expositions also take place in this moment. The suspense and intensity is driven by the fact that despite the single conversation on show at a surface level, the real drama is taking place at the psychological level for the two characters. For one, it is a struggle between sudden bereavement and loyalty to his late guardian on the one hand, mixed with a desire to escape and leave everything behind (including everything that ties him to his guardian). For the other, it is a high-stakes challenge to gently win the trust of a little boy – all for his own personal greed, but which he must ensure remains hidden for now.
Mendoza uses his skills to serve his own ends with subtlety and patience – we will see him utilise this again many times. He knows Esteban has the power to command the sun, or at least the reputation itself might come in handy; he knows Esteban has a mysterious golden medallion – where did it come from, and what clues might it hold? This boy will be a useful tool to help find the Mysterious Cities of Gold.
He doesn’t know much else about Esteban’s background or personality, but he fully exploits what he does know in order to persuade him to come on the voyage to the New World with him. He knows that Esteban feels he has nothing else to cling to: he must feel he belongs nowhere, is detached from everyone now. So Mendoza offers him a lifeline, quite literally: a sense of purpose, of belonging and security to fill the emptiness of grief. But he must pitch it at just the right tone, or the opportunity could be lost (he doesn’t want Esteban running away again, as happened at the tavern). What follows is a master-class in manipulation:
1. First Mendoza tries a straightforward command (why not, hey? Sheer authority works a lot of the time): “it’s time to take the biggest decision of your life and leave Barcelona…” hmmm, wait a minute, Mendoza senses this is not enough….
2. So next, he tries to mentally detach Esteban from Barcelona and even Father Rodriguez, and to re-attach him to the New World: he utters casually ‘Your father was a brave man, he wouldn’t have hesitated…I meant your real father’.
3. Mendoza then drops the bombshell: he met Esteban’s real father; indeed he was the last person to see him alive; he is that man that rescued Esteban, and received the boy from his father’s own arms. In that very instant, Mendoza becomes, in Esteban’s eyes, the only surviving link between him and his real father, the only one who connects Esteban to his history and his real family.
4. With the heavy stuff out the way, Mendoza appeals to a 12 year old’s curiosity and sense of adventure – he knows from their chat in the tavern that Esteban has a fascination with the Mysterious cities of gold, even before the sad circumstances of Father Rodriguez’s death. Mendoza encourages his thirst for discovery: this one overlaps with Mendoza’s own interests. It’s where he forgets he’s supposed to be winning the trust of the boy, and comes across as the self-serving man that he is – he grabs the boy roughly by his shoulder, yanks out the golden medallion Esteban still wears around his neck to show that it fits with the golden disc he took (stole) for himself, and then goes on about how he has been researching the cities of gold for over 10 years…for a moment he gets wrapped up in his own enthusiasm and excitement, oblivious to the boy’s claims for the disc that rightfully belongs to him.
5. Mendoza then recollects himself and returns to manipulative mode – he makes a promise that they, together could be the first to discover the Cities of Gold! He slyly drops in the notion that they can be a team, as if they have a long-standing bond, where in reality there is none – but the remarkable thing is that he makes it sound convincing.
Still, it doesn’t work: Esteban is obviously not convinced – he casts a despondent look at the ground.
He must be thinking something along the lines of: ’Why would I want to discover the Cities of Gold, or anything, with you, I don’t even know you… it doesn’t mean as much to me as it does to you…my guardian has just died!!!!’.
6. Mendoza guesses as much…so he tries to distract Esteban again with an even more powerful motivation:
“…Besides – though I told you that your father disappeared among the waves after I saved you, it is just possible that he managed to survive!”
“What! Do you really think my father’s still alive??”
“He could be living somewhere, over there, across that vast ocean…”
!!…Now this is just low and deceptive. Why give the child false hope, frankly that’s a cruel thing to do. Or, is he being genuine? After all, no one actually saw Esteban’s father die…
We can’t tell if he means it, or is playing with Esteban’s head, or both. And THIS sets the theme for the entire series – this is Mendoza, par excellence.
7. Finally, for all Mendoza’s attempts to give Esteban a new goal and dreams of a new life, the person the boy cares about the most right now is Father Rodriguez, who he has just lost…so with a last throw of the dice, Mendoza reminds him of the old man’s dying words:
“Remember what Father Rodriguez told you – you should use the special powers you’ve got to help others, in the New world, Esteban – what do you say?”… (Esteban is too mesmerised and confused to question how he even knows what Father Rodriguez had said).
Esteban is now silent. Contemplative, in awe and looking anxious, he doesn’t protest – so with a last appeal to the boy’s courage, Mendoza makes his parting entreaty – ‘Will you make that decision and come along with me my boy’?’ Mendoza suggests that Esteban meet with him at the quayside at dawn, and he’ll smuggle him on board the ship Esperanza – Mendoza is the navigator for the Captain’s fleet. They will then travel for months across the dangerous ocean to the New World.
Though morally questionable, we’ve got to hand it to Mendoza for doing a pretty good job, and for throwing everything into it – even we, the viewer, feel a huge sense of adventure and anticipation of unknown possibilities creeping up on us after his pep talk. But will it have worked on Esteban?
In the small hours of the night, with dawn approaching – Mendoza stands at the harbour waiting anxiously for Esteban. “Still not here. He’s not coming…” he says, with a resigned tone that gives away his disappointment.
But then, out of the dark, Esteban finally comes running up – all a-smiling, in smart shirt and breeches. Well done, Esteban, what a courageous boy he is! Trusting, throwing caution to the wind, willing to make a new start, and spontaneous – very endearing qualities, but we hope he’ll be taken good care of, he seems naive.
As for Mendoza, he gives a smile, but only just – ‘You made the right decision Esteban,’ is all he says…ha! We know it means more to Mendoza than that! 10 years of enquiry and research!! And is that all you’re going to say to this little boy who is about to leave everything behind? This incident is perfectly indicative of Mendoza’s reserved exterior. He is old-school, undemonstrative, and not willing to encourage attachment, as if to say: ‘If this child is going to accompany me on this long voyage, he will have to learn to be a man and look after himself.’ Mendoza can’t be bothered with sentimentality, he isn’t here to replace Father Rodriguez or to be Esteban’s babysitter. And sure enough, after boarding the ship, he leaves Esteban below deck, alone in the dark with no light. He can empathise with children’s feelings when he needs to, but there is a limit to it.
Our plucky young hero Esteban is left alone – night shuts in around him. Nearly tripping over, he curls up all forlorn next to a great big cargo box, and falls asleep.
As the morning dawns, and bright golden rays of the sun come filtering through into the deep lower deck, Esteban awakes.
Suddenly, he hears the big cargo box behind him bang and rattle. Startled and afraid, Esteban does the obvious thing and runs away.
No, he doesn’t – he goes and opens the box, of course…and who should emerge but the kidnapped Incan girl Zia. She’s gagged and her hands are tied up (what? Mendoza!!), but she stands as defiant as ever, while Esteban falls to his knees, trembling with shock and fear: ‘Y-y-you!!’ he exclaims, pointing at her with sudden recognition.
Back on deck, Mendoza turns and smiles triumphantly at the camera before he walks away, presumably congratulating himself – he has just heard Esteban’s cries, and knows he and Zia have come face to face, the very two children who will lead him – so he thinks – to the Cities of Gold. It is also a knowing glance made to the viewers – a statement to say he planned it this way all along, and his plan worked: Mendoza is pulling the strings here, but no-one else knows it, only the viewers do. And that is the last insight we will get into Mendoza’s mind for a long time…for the rest of the series we’ll be left guessing what his motives are.
The episode closes with Esteban and Zia (now freed from her shackles) looking nervously and wondrously out into the vast ocean as the ship leaves Barcelona, possibly never to return. In Esteban’s imagination, the innocent clouds change shape and reform into the hideous face of a Mayan serpent-monster – an ominous premonition of the dangers and strange encounters awaiting them in the New World?
**Comments on Episode 1: Child of the Sun**
I love this episode because for me, it really epitomises what a good introduction to a story should be. We are invited to listen to the tales of the sailors in the tavern – we, and Esteban are just observers at that point, outsiders to the story. But suddenly, we like Esteban are pulled into the tale – the task of finding the fabled Cities of Gold have in fact fallen to us. The episode shifts from an apparently fickle inconsequential beginning – where the main concern is the city festival – to the weighty subjects of death, bereavement, and a brilliantly complex and mysterious backstory. So many questions remain unanswered, and we are left eager to find out. The episode ends with us embarking on a journey – a literal one across a vast ocean, but of course it reflects the figurative beginning of the journey ahead of us: the sense of adventure and trepidation is palpable. Moreover, important relationships are set in motion, the most intriguing of which is between Esteban and Mendoza.
I’m going to quote from Saya here, who articulates the nature of their relationship at this point very nicely:
“Esteban loses his guardian and protector. In a way, it’s skipping straight to the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Like Dumbledore, the guardian needs to die because it is what cuts you loose and allows you to develop as a main character. Although Esteban has already put himself under a new guardian in Mendoza, it is qualitatively different in that he made a choice to accompany him; in a sense, their deal is businesslike, and both have their own reasons for the other’s company.”
But at the same time, while it is just a business partnership, we can’t help but notice some of the phrases that Mendoza uses when speaking to Esteban which go beyond that – phrases which invite the boy to depend on him, to form a camaraderie, and to feel reassured:
– ‘Esteban, do not be afraid’.
– ‘Will you make that decision and come along with me my boy?’
– ‘Esteban, nobody knows [where the Cities of Gold are] We will be the first to find them!’
– ‘You made the right decision.’
– ‘Follow me.’
– ‘Hide here; once we’re at sea, I will come and get you’
And in turn, Esteban does listen, agree, and follow. Again, here’s what Saya says:
“Esteban is going to look for his father, and I like the thematic symbolism that this presents: Father Rodriguez as the father he has known all his life, his real father – the hidden figure – who is the goal of his quest, and Mendoza – an unknown quantity, but instinctively you feel that their relationship will be more complicated…”
Esteban surely cannot have any inkling of Mendoza’s selfish interests behind the whole plan. In effect, Esteban has been persuaded to let himself (unwittingly) be kidnapped! We can only assume Mendoza didn’t bother to use the same tactics when he kidnapped Zia…or he did, and they didn’t work.
As for the other relationships we are briefly introduced to – Sancho and Pedro are evidently good and long-time comrades; but also, we realise they have a connection with Mendoza. They alone on the ship are in on Mendoza’s plan (and motives) to bring Esteban on the voyage with them, and help to smuggle the boy on board.
We discover later on that they are in fact employed by Mendoza – but their are not just in his employ, they seem to have a genuine loyalty towards him. And though he might speak down to them, Mendoza in turn does trust the two sailors and often gives them such tasks to carry out.
Final word then, to Saya, who brilliantly puts across what is great about this episode:
“I love its deftness and subtlety: creating character depth without resorting to overt exposition or wasting screentime to do so. It’s animation that feels like live-action: it takes time with quiet moments, like a sunset or a sunrise, and this wonderful, evocative music is really half its beauty. I’ve always loved its instrumental background music, but it strikes me music is something hard to get just right. It adds a layer to the storytelling with atmosphere and mood, and is central in providing emotional cues.
When you’ve only got 23 minutes to tell a story, you use every bit of it: what I immediately noticed writing this recap is how it’s crammed full of detail (but not crowded), and not a second goes to waste. I’m impressed with the care taken in the details: it’s such an obvious labour of love, the creators crafting a world you can believe in.”
That’s the 3-part recap/analysis of Episode 1 done – thanks for reading! You can check out Saya’s blog here, kudos to her! Her blog got me reflecting on deeper themes in the series. I would love to hear your thoughts of episode 1, what you think of the characters as we are introduced to them for the first time, and what you make of the style of storytelling adopted in the cartoon?
So, onto episode 2 here