What amazes me about Critical Role…the amazement I have yet to find anywhere else…is the choices made in real time in front of you, made without consultation or focus groups, and which choices frequently align with the most emotionally impactful way a scene could play out. I know, I know, this is what, in ideal situations, stories do for us. What live storytelling, which to a certain extent is what tabletop roleplaying is, does for us.
But the ideal and the reality so rarely conincide, and for a whole host of reasons that are tangential to my point. I have hesitated to write about the show — even when I knew it would be a blandly informative info byte, like the fact that the day after the first episode I watched I returned my cable box to my cable provider because I knew I didn’t need TV anymore, if I was now organizing my week around a livestream of a D&D campaign — because it seems, however incorrectly so, not my place. Like it would be rude, intrusive even. Because these people are more…real? I suppose it’s because we watch the team for so long, live (or at least filmed live), and that results in a level of candor, aural and visual, that one rarely receives, even from personalities one follows on social media. Maybe it’s that as I grow older and see the gap close between the person I wanted to be and the person I become, I’m ham-handedly protective of people who seem to be in that same boat with me. I see the chat fly by during streams and think “please no one read it, please don’t let it get anyone down.” It’s the internet and I assume there is nastiness and my fear is that, as it has for so many others, its fever pitch will become too shrill, and fame will become a spotlight to flee. “Please don’t go,” is my refrain, and I suppose I thought that I was helping, by not writing or talking about this group of people whom I very much wish remain doing this for as long as I can.
Hell, maybe it’s that I was accidentally punched in the nose by Darin De Paul and, as I laughingly texted my husband immediately afterward, I shall never wash my nose again.
But decisions that would, in other contexts, be filtered through layer after layer of PR, HR, focus groups, supervisors and supervisors of supervisors, and which likely would get called out and watered down as too mawkish, too sentimental, too this that or the other…they just fucking happen, here, and there is no veto, the emotional dial gets turned up to nine and no big executive (or internet mob-driven) hand is gonna turn it back down on you.
CRITICAL ROLE EPISODE 114 SPOILERS
When Vax unfurls his wings to embrace Keyleth, that is one of those moments. That’s what I was thinking about when I started this post. And also at the 5:03:10 mark, when he…uses a bonus action to look over his shoulder…and he describes what he sees. That’s where I diverge from everyone else I watch things with (barring my husband). That’s where, among peers, as I’m about to cry, someone will quip some inane piece of trivia or roll their eyes about “people pressing buttons” or give me some line about emotional manipulation. That, that level of emotion and my willful embrace of it, not to put too fine a point on it, is why making friends is hard. I want to feel things. And a lot of people my age are deciding they don’t.
So, okay, there’s that.
But in searching for those time stamps I stumbled onto image captures of a moment I missed. Not because I wasn’t watching but because I wasn’t seeing. I knit in front of Critical Role, and I was doing so last night. Not thoughtlessly — I remember where I knit things and what I was doing, and it brings me comfort later, to wrap myself in a shawl and think that when I put those stitches next to each other I was sitting next to someone who, for example, is now dead, and whom I loved. I did this deliberately, you understand — I thought, in the future, I could remember the warmth of these moments spent watching this show, while wrapped in the shawl against the cold.
But because I was knitting, I missed a moment that went mostly unnoticed by the microphones, and thus by me.
When Scanlan burns his ninth level spell to counterspell Vecna — the god-in-the-making, for those of you who don’t watch the show, who has killed multiple family members of the party, in pretty terrible ways — it is an instant and un-nullifyable success. But by choosing to go to that max level, he has lost his chance to use Wish at that tremendous level — and this is why he was hanging onto that spell slot. Because he hoped to use Wish to save Vax, who is doomed to die as soon as Vecna goes down. He died before, but his patron goddess granted him a reprieve, in order to rid the world of Vecna. After that, though, his eyes have to close for good.
And because I wasn’t watching the screen, I didn’t see this:
He just wanted to save his friend and now he can’t and he — he who is not typically, on the show at least, the one crying? — is crying and tries to hide it behind his hands, his giant mug, and…as someone who writes freely about tearing up but tries ferociously hard to avoid being caught doing it…for all the reasons mentioned above…I just. Oh god, oh god, oh god. I didn’t see that. There’s a whole whispered conversation you can read on their lips on-screen, the crux of which is:
“I was saving my wish for you.”
* * *
Neither my husband nor I have any friends who watch Critical Role. I got him into it after I read the Polygon article about the show — after I ditched our cable. But I knew he was loving the same things in it I did when he said, apropos of nothing whilst driving to the grocery store, that that kind of squad, having one, was just fucking awesome. He doesn’t know #squadgoals, but that’s exactly what he was talking about. And this is perhaps more moving, even, than the romantic plotlines doomed to crash to an end as a result of this loss. It’s the loss, too, of a friendship.
We’ve theorized on why we can’t get groups like this together. He points out his growing fatigue with the kneejerk, lambasting criticisms currently aflower amongst our generation. I point out my shitty track record at befriending women, leery as I always am of them intuiting that I am bi, lest they high-tail it as they have (three times) in the past. We both acknowledge that we, at least until recently, live in a part of the country where values tend to be a good deal more conservative than our own; and the degree to which your hearts then align, despite your best efforts, is affected.* And that neither of us grew up in cultures where carefree physical affection — hugs, head pats, etc. — was a thing. Mostly, we figure, we are too old. People’s emotional drawbridges are up by their thirties, and they’re not accepting new adventurers to the castles.
It may be something else too, though. We may just be too guarded in our affection. There are plenty of people I’d save a Wish for, but it’s easier for them not to know it. Like being seen crying, it can be — it IS — easier to be on someone’s side without them seeing. You can’t get kicked off the team if no one knows you’re there. In my old office I took the seat by the door, and the always-hot teakettle, in case we had an active shooter situation. My boss knew this but let me keep the seat. They were my people, yes, even the assholes. I almost tackled my boss to the ground once when both of us misinterpreted a nail gun as a firearm. Years ago, when our school district sent around pink slips like candy, I penned righteous letters of praise for all of my teachers and mailed them, unsigned, to the principal to try and protect them. Like with crying, it is easier to love people from a safe distance, unseen.
That is what we love most about Critical Role. That the affection isn’t hidden or wrapped up carefully in snark or sarcasm — both more acceptable trappings, today. It’s out there. It’s visible on people’s faces — it’s running down them. It’s like every bullshit JRPG holding up friendship as the ultimate goal of a story, come to life.
And, because it’s real, it’s not bullshit.
*Also, we may be bad at making this matter less.