It isn’t evil being green
Saturday, September 26, 2015
When watching a movie, most people just assume things.
We automatically go with the movie’s morality. We side with characters that the directors and writers want us to side with. They go out of their way to stack the deck against the bad guy or gal.
Sometimes they do it by playing to ugly prejudices. Physical deformities, foreigners or a swishy male villain are particular go-to favorites. They certainly always make sure the bad guy is seen doing evil things.
But if you strip away all this artifice and set-dressing and off-the-shelf moral cues, one might find a different story. For instance: The Wizard of Oz.
I’ve long argued that The Wicked Witch of the West is the movie’s only postmodern character. Played by the great Margaret Hamilton, who later wrote the software for the Apollo moon landing, she’s the only one in the movie who realizes she’s an archetype – a wicked witch.
While the others in the film are also archetypes, they don’t make note of that fact. They choose not to refer to themselves as the “naive common-sense farmgirl” or “rustic farmhand,” or “gay stereotype tin woodsman” or “gay stereotype lion” or “gay stereotype scarecrow” or, well, “gay stereotype fake wizard.”
Repeatedly declaring oneself wicked is itself a bold claim. It’s central to her personal branding efforts, but it seems to be mere affectation. The film lacks strong evidence of actual wickedness from either her or her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East.
The latter, unseen except for her feet, is infamous for her control over Munchkinland and its residents, yet consider these facts:
- Residents of Munchkin Land are nicely-dressed, healthy and well-fed.
- Municipal government persists, both on the local and county level with a clear chain of power to a central authority as evidenced by the statement “As the mayor of the Munchkin City, in the County of the land of Oz.”
- Rule of law remains important, as the Wicked Witch of the East is subjected to a coroner’s inquest – albeit a hasty one – before officially being declared “not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead” and the proper paperwork filed.
- Unionization is allowed and presumedly encouraged, as a group of candy industry workers representing the local chapter of the Lollipop Guild are given space and time on the celebratory dias.
- Vibrant, officially recognized civic organizations also exist, such as the local branch of the Lullaby League that is given welcome wagon duties.
- Arts and humanities have flourished, allowing the Munchkins to mount a lavish, spontaneous song-and-dance medley that lasts several minutes and encompasses the entire village and all its residents.
While it’s possible Munchkin City is a North Korea-style Potemkin Village, nothing in the movie overtly shows or even hints at this. The only details of her “evil” reign are vague accounts in the Munchkins’ songs, and we all know history is written by the victors.
We are left to conclude that the Wicked Witch of the East was at worst a benevolent dictator in the Roman Empire model. Yes, Munchkinland did likely undergo conquest in the recent past and an occasional pogrom to tamp down dissent, but the witch was otherwise laissez faire as long as proper tribute and deference was paid.1
The sketchy circumstances surrounding her offscreen death only lead to further fears of conspiracy and coverup. The Dorothy and Munchkins’ inconsistent accounts of the event raise more questions.
Why would a powerful witch with a magic broom and imperialistic ambitions be thumbing for a hitch? And what was she doing in the middle of a ditch in the first place? Was she lured there to be assassinated?
More importantly, how could Dorothy have witnessed any of this?
The geopolitical picture doesn’t get much clearer once the plot machinations kick in. The movie is built on two central conflicts that Dorothy doesn’t understand yet inserts herself into anyway.
- The dispute of over ownership of the Ruby slippers.
- A political dispute between the Wizard in Emerald City and the Wicked Witch who controls the western provinces of Oz.
Most of the Witch’s “wicked” actions actually are driven by Dorothy’s poor choices or ill-considered alliances in resolving these conflicts.
Early on, Dorothy shows little to no remorse over the death of the Wicked Witch of the East.
She is seen dancing and celebrating at the crime scene when the Wicked Witch of the West arrives to mourn her lost sibling and collect her belongings. The witch is confronted by this horrifying revelry overseen by Glinda – who couldn’t be bothered to help the Munchkins during their oppression yet shows up to take credit and gloat after their release. She rubs the Wicked Witch’s face in it.
She taunts her by claiming the witch has no power there. “Be gone with you, before someone drops a house on you, too.”
Some well-timed contrition on Dorothy’s part might have defused this tense situation but she escalates it by turning it into a probate dispute.
As the Wicked Witch of the East’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West would clearly stand to inherit the Ruby Slippers, but they end up on the willing feet of Dorothy. 2
This is where it gets tricky. Yes, the witch does threaten to kill Dorothy, but Dorothy put herself into this position. She could have just turned over the slippers or refused to accept them outright. As a result, she finds herself in the firing line.
“No! Fool that I am! I should have remembered! Those slippers will never come off as long as you’re alive,” the Wicked Witch says, awkwardly delivering key exposition about the rules of the Oz universe.
This scene makes it clear that once Dorothy accepted the stolen property she sealed her fate. The rules governing ownership of magical shoes are often harsh, but they are what they are. The only way to ensure their lawful and correct return was her death.
However, the dispute over shoes ignores an even more important factor in the escalating conflict, namely Dorothy’s mission that brought her to the Witch’s castle.
When Dorothy arrives at Emerald City she and her conspirators are immediately swept up in a world of glamour, power and decadence.
The lion, drunk with power, sings a song of a plush life of satin robes (not cotton, not chintz). His song dwells on the absolute authority he will wield as others finally kowtow to his whims once he seizes control of the jungle. Even the trees will bow, he imagines. 3
Without making any effort to examine Oz’s geopolitical and economic situation, Dorothy and her group immediately throw in with the Emerald City central authority.
Although the mission she is sent on is defined as the more innocuous goal of capturing of the Wicked Witch of the West’s broomstick, its true nature could not be clearer. They were to be the Wizard’s personal SEAL Team 6.
And this isn’t just wild supposition about the mission. Outside the Witch’s castle the scarecrow is clearly seen carrying a gun.
One could argue that this kill order was a defensive move on the part of the Wizard. The Witch would clearly kill him should she ever learn he’s a fraud.
But it also seems a power grab on his part, a chance to eliminate yet another a powerful foe. This would reshape the strategic power balance of Oz in a more Emerald City-leaning fashion in both the East and the West. And an easily disavowed third-party would be handling his wetwork.
The Witch has every reason to fear the approach of a Dorothy-led armed strike team. They had already gruesomely killed her sister, leaving her, according to the Munchkins’ musical account of the incident, to twitch in the throes of death as the house crushed her to a mere stitch.
The Witch’s response, dispatching an army of flying monkeys to capture and detain the kill team, seems much more proportionate and measured than at first glance. She specifically instructs the monkeys that she wants Dorothy “alive and unharmed.”
While Dorothy’s eventual dispatch of the witch via a prolonged, presumedly painful, melting process is certainly excusable as self defense, had the witch been successful she could have made much the same claim about her own actions.
The witch met her end because she acted too cautiously in the face of an existential threat. She made the Bond villain mistake of needlessly keeping Dorothy alive or using comically ineffective methods to assassinate her, such as a poppy field that was easily countermanded with careful application of deus ex machina.
Dorothy, on the other hand, saw the bucket of water and acted. History often turns on these types of moments.
The Witch was just a victim of her times, someone caught up in the larger scope of events and unable to navigate them. She died unaware of how she fit in the larger picture, of who was really pulling the levers of power.
It’s like what Lenin4 said. You look for the person who will benefit.
This person was someone who knowingly put Dorothy in danger repeatedly. Someone who lied and manipulated Dorothy to her own ends.
Someone who sent Dorothy out to do her dirty work. Someone who could be barely bothered to intervene in life and death situations she put Dorothy into.
Someone who stood back and played all sides against each other, leading to the deaths of two Wicked Witches and exile of the Wizard. Presented with this power vacuum, that someone now stands to become the most powerful person in all Oz.
Everything she does in the movie is inexcusable. She is, in all ways, a terrible person.
Originally, the movie was to end with Glinda telling Dorothy that she always had the power to go home. “Just click your heels together three times.”
Dorothy would pause for a second recalling her brushes with death, the endless nights longing to see her beloved aunt, the agonizing wait for her execution in the Witch’s castle, the knowledge that she would be haunted forever by screaming faces of the lives she took …
The implications of Glinda’s statement would finally sink in.
Dorothy would then scream “You bitch! You lying whore!” and beat Glinda over the head with a ruby slipper.
- We are left to wonder what the aftermath of Dorothy’s killing of the head of state was. Did the mayor undertake a bloody purge of his enemies? Were Wicked Witch collaborators hunted down and dispatched? Was Munchkinland sent into a bloody, prolonged civil war?
- No will is mentioned in the context of the film so we are left to assume normal inheritance rules would apply.
- Presumedly a lyric about having a castle pool full of sleek, buff rentboy lions was cut because of the Hayes code.
- V.I. Lenin! Vladamir Illich Ullinov!