POP Archives Deep Thoughts: The Owl House
[Spoiler Warning for The Owl House - All of it!]
The Owl House, like Amphibia, Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, and the reimagined She-Ra, is one of those cartoons I wish I'd had growing up. Not only are these shows unapologetically queer, they also empower young girls to find strength and community in femme spaces without sacrificing their own joys and ambitions in order to be "one of the guys". The shows are similarly safe spaces for young boys to explore their emotions and critique the toxic masculinity of traditional animated programming for children. Yes, there's magic and inter-dimensional travel and what-not but that's secondary to the character relationships that elevate the narrative beyond long-form toy commercials.
Unfortunately, The Owl House didn't get to end its story on its own terms, not really. After a successful second season, it was reported that The Owl House's third season would be its last and would be significantly shortened to three 45-minute specials as a means of wrapping up the show. Given the narrative and thematic complexity of The Owl House up to that point, the specials were a consolation prize, at best, compared to how even a shortened season of episodes would have allowed the story and characters to breathe. According to show creator and Executive Producer Dana Terrace, The Owl House "no longer fit Disney's brand," which coincidentally enough happened after Luz and her rival turned crush Amity Blight confessed their feelings, became girlfriends, and kissed on screen. Weird, right?
That's not to say that Season 3 is bad, far from it. The animation is gorgeous and the writing absolutely striking and on point. Everyone who worked on The Owl House put their heart and soul into it and it shows in every frame, but the breakneck speed at which the specials move shows how much more The Owl House had to give and wanted to say. As a viewer, it's frustrating to watch because even as the specials attempt to answer the big, over-arcing questions of the series there are just as many additional questions that crop up in the wake of those answers.
But, I digress.
For the uninitiated, The Owl House is the story of Luz Noceda, an outcast teenager who stumbles into the Demon Realm - a world of magic, adventure, and systemic abuses of power. Luz finds herself on the Boiling Isles, a community built on the remains of a dead Titan. She eventually befriends Eda Clawthorne, the cursed "Owl Lady," a young Titan named King, and the titular Owl House's door owl Hooty, becoming Eda's apprentice as she searches for a way back to the Human Realm.
There's so much more to cover when it comes to The Owl House, but for the purposes of this article, it's important to know that throughout the series, the cruel yet charismatic Emperor Belos has been working towards an event known as the Day of Unity with the help of a powerful, child-like being known only as the Collector. Upon betraying the Collector - because of course - Belos believed his plan of draining all magic from the witches of the Demon Realm to open a door back to his original home in the Human Realm had all but succeeded. Belos, however, didn't count on the Collector getting free. And with all the emotional maturity of a six-year-old endowed with god-like magic, the Collector took over the Demon Realm, placing their Archives atop the head of the Boiling Isles' dead Titan like a crown.
As a character, the Collector was shown sporadically, in shadow form, as Belos put his plans in motion during seasons 1 and 2, though it was clear that they were very powerful but also very young. Upon being released by King, their youth was even more apparent in their design and their desire to "play games" while turning the Demon Realm into a nightmarish playground. In season 3, we get some backstory on the Collector and their siblings, the Archivists, which speaks to a greater cosmos of stories lost due to time constraints on the specials.
To summarize: the Archivists and Collectors are celestial beings who seek to archive and catalogue all life within the Demon Realm. When the Archivists encountered the Titans, another race of powerful beings who could resist and counter their power, they decided to wipe them out. The Collector was sent to the Boiling Isles under the pretense that he was going to have playmates and friends. The Archivists' true plan, however, was to use their younger sibling as a distraction while slowly wiping out the Titans until only one adult and their child remained. Furious, the last adult Titan blamed the Collector and banished him to the shadow form seen in the first two seasons, trapped in a mirror as punishment. It was this Titan who made sure their child, King, survived and whose body eventually became the foundation of the Boiling Isles.
It's such an impactful amount of information given in a very short amount of time - the majority of it explained in the final special "Watching and Dreaming", but it raises so many questions! What prompted the Archivists to want to catalogue all life in the Demon Realm? How were they cataloging them? Are the "preserved" specimens still alive? What drove them to commit genocide on the Titans? Was the Collector the only youth amongst their siblings? Where did the Archivists and Collectors come from? Could they have pushed into the Human Realm?
Again, these are questions to which no canon answers will be provided, which is, again, frustrating because one could see a different version of Season 3 where some of these ideas were explored and expanded upon. Guess I'll have to go write some fanfiction, or something.
The Archivists as a group, however, are thematically in line with The Owl's House's larger narrative about categorization and institutional power. The Archivists are a macro-scale version of what it means to dissect and catalog and impose systems to accrue power. Their fear of the Titans stems entirely from fear of their power being challenged, something no other life form has been able to accomplish since the Archivists have seemingly been the dominating force. Similarly, Belos' entire plan for the Day of Unity relied on the witches of the Demon Realm conforming to a coven system that placed them in groups that specialized in a particular type of magic: Potions, Abominations, Illusion, etc. Upon entering a coven, witches received a mark/sigil that Belos would later use to focus the magic of the Draining Spell. It's why he turned the Boiling Isles against the concept of wild magic, which was the default of the realm. Wild magic is exactly as it says on the tin. It doesn't conform to a system. It is whatever the user wants it to be. Without a mark, wild magic practitioners couldn't be captured under the Draining Spell. The only way Belos' plan could even happen is if he had the power to make people buy into his coven system and turn those same people on their own community who didn't conform.
It's messed up but it's exactly how real world institutions operate. I can't even be mad about the depiction of the Archivists because, yeah, that's accurate both historically and currently. I've touched on the same themes present in other media like The Magnus Archives where binaries and categorization are tools used to enforce control that are ultimately exposed for the evil they wield. In The Owl House we have two instances of the same evil brought down on the Demon Realm with the Collector stuck in the middle.
But since the Collector is still ostensibly a child his perception of realty and their place in it is fragile, easily manipulated and twisted. It's why their version of cataloging and collecting manifests in the form of a child's playroom with the archives as a giant storage unit for the Collector's toys - residents of the Demon Realm transformed into puppets. Never let it be said that The Owl House's metaphor and allegorical game wasn't strong. I mean, it's no coincidence that Emperor Belos is a white man who took power over a racially diverse, queer-positive community and spent the rest of his life trying to destroy it because he couldn't do magic.
Belos, aka Philip Wittebane, remains closely tied to other archival themes in The Owl House beyond his relationship with the Collector. His diary, which Luz obtains from the Forbidden Stacks of the Bonesborough Library, is a lesson in how historical documents can be misleading without context and how easily one can be manipulated by an unreliable narrator. To be fair, Luz is operating at a disadvantage for most of the story, which is entirely by design within the narrative because of timey-wimey shenanigans. Luz and Belos are intrinsically linked because of the diary and what it doesn't say as well as the limitations of the historical record in the Demon Realm. It also doesn't help that an echo mouse ate the pages of the diary and then "regurgitated" them, via projection magic, at its own convenience. At every turning point in her search to get home, Luz lacks vital pieces of information despite the clues and exposition she's received since arriving at the Boiling Isles.
Diaries, as a medium, are historical records archivists and historians are very familiar with when it comes to research and constructing archival collections. Diaries, journals, and personal correspondence are often the only means of understanding a historical figure's thoughts or gaining insight into the daily lives of groups often left out of the historical record: people of color, women, LGBTQIA+, to name a few. That doesn't mean that the writings are entirely accurate. People write based on how they've experienced something and their feelings surrounding that experience. It can still be a true account, but one has to factor in the personal bias of the writer. And then there are those who specifically write for posterity and an understanding that their words will be perceived and interpreted long after they're gone. The American Founding Fathers are a primary example of men who expertly crafted their correspondence with an eye towards history.
In a far more fictionalized and nefarious way, Belos wields his diary with the care and precision of an expert swordsman. He sets the trap and baits it with everything Luz needs to hear, luring her to where he needs her in order to set himself up for power and revenge. The devastation he brings to Luz's psyche and self-worth due to her unwitting help in his master plan feeds right back into his previous manipulative practices against the Demon Realm. The diary is a literal extension of his uncompromising malice regardless of the supposedly innocent words written.
Before I wrap this up because I've been going for a while, let's talk about the Bonesborough Library, shall we? The Collector's archives notwithstanding, the library is essentially the Boiling Isles' one-stop shop for all things GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums). Not only is it a public library, it also features the Forbidden Stacks (basically a special collections/archives), and, after the brief time skip during the finale, a museum wing with a research center and exhibit spaces. Is there anything the Bonesborough Library can't do? Ya know, other than severely limit access to what might be significant historical documents that might've shed light on the fact that Emperor Belos was bona fide evil?
I'm kidding. Sorta. But good luck to the poor witch responsible for overseeing the entirety of the fully realized library/archives/museum. You've got your work cut our for you, Lilith!
And R.I.P. Flapjack, you were the best of palismans.