TW: Discussions of suicide and suicidal ideation. For those seeking help, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is (800) 273-8255. There is also a chat option.
If you haven’t heard of or seen Centaurworld, it’s no surprise. It’s one of the million shows produced by Netflix, and seems to have been a victim of the rapid-pace release of their endless content. By the time it had any potential to gain a large following, it was buried by the million other Netflix movies and shows that have come out since.
Perhaps because of its cutesy title and colorful setting, most viewers have assumed Centaurworld is an inoffensive, unchallenging show to put on in the background so your kids can leave you alone while you work from home. And I’m sure that for many, that’s what the show serves as; but I’m sad that more people haven’t been able to give the series their full attention, because it’s genuinely one of the best pieces of media I’ve consumed in 2021.
The traditionally animated series stars a talking warhorse named Horse (Kimiko Glenn), who gets separated from her rider—named Rider (Jessie Mueller), of course—and finds herself in a colorful paradise in which all creatures are half-animal and half-human, hence the title Centaurworld. The show thrives in the whiplash between its dark, at times disturbing themes and its childish, friendly atmosphere, which allows it to go back and forth between the two extreme tones for both comedic and chilling effect. It also utilizes Broadway-style music with real Broadway actors who take the show to a whole new level. I never thought I would be crying or getting goosebumps over a show in which a half-giraffe has farts voiced by Tony Hale that give him encouragement, but I absolutely did and I have no regrets.
I could write an essay on each individual episode, but I want to highlight the most shocking, profound moment I experienced in the show. In Episode 8, “Ride the Whaletaur Shaman!” Horse seeks out the final shaman (Rosalie Craig) in order to retrieve her last MacGuffin, only to be eaten by the half-whale in a misunderstanding, Jonah-style.
However, as is the case for most of the storylines in Centaurworld, there are a lot of metaphors at play. Some are more clear-cut, such as Horse’s changing features—including a joking tail voiced by Paul F. Tompkins—being a metaphor for puberty. But the Whaletaur is more abstract.
When I first watched through the series with my partner, I uncomfortably commented, “Are they talking about… suicide?” and she immediately confirmed that she was thinking the same thing. I don’t know what the creators intended and frankly I don’t want to know, because I think it can be more interesting to walk away with my own interpretations rather than a prescribed one. But if not suicide, the Whaletaur could represent escapism in general, and if not through death, then through withdrawal, drugs, or even perhaps institutions. For a TV-Y7 show, that’s huge.
The closest the show comes to spelling this out is in the song “Welcome to the Bay,” where the Whaletaur promises to “consume all of your pain,” and that she’s here to “absorb your grief and numb it all away.”
As this is a Broadway-inspired series, Horse of course responds with a song of her own, reprising “Who is She,” which at first was a comically empowering song but now takes on an entirely new context of defeat and hopelessness. In one of the series’ most astonishing moments, Horse screams that “It takes a little boldness,” and that she should “go into the unknown,” before jumping off the cliff and being consumed by the Whaletaur.
To defuse the moment, the show claims that Horse was actually just trying to get the last MacGuffin and that it was all one big misunderstanding, but it’s left intentionally unresolved. The maternal character Wammawink (Megan Hilty) goes down the Whaletaur’s blowhole to retrieve Horse, but finds a faded, unconcerned Horse in a conga line with all the other souls, repeating along with everyone else about going to a shuffleboard tournament. Wammawink urges Horse and the other souls to keep going, that they’re not alone, that “all the broken can find hope in the most unexpected places.” I don’t want to give a play-by-play of every moment, but like, holy shit, it’s all so good. So good that it opens the Whaletaur’s eyes to the fact that keeping everyone in her is depriving them of the joy of life, so she catapults them all out and all is well.
I still think suicide is probably the metaphor the creators were going for, but certain lines about the Whaletaur saying that she thought this was the best option for them make me wonder if there are comparisons to be drawn between these themes and escapism through drugs, or keeping people in psychiatric hospitals who don’t want or need to be there. It’s certainly true that there are more ways to give up on life than dying, and I think that simply saying the message and metaphor can only be about intentional suicide simplifies the issue.
The messaging of Centaurworld could have thrown in some more nuance to address the fact that there are times when drugs (ideally prescribed, but hey, I don’t judge), withdrawal, and being in a psychiatric setting aren’t only appropriate but necessary, and there are the faintest hints of ableism in a message that doesn’t make that distinction. If one or two of the centaurs thrown out of the blowhole said something along the lines of, “I need to go back, for now,” it would have gone a long way in not making a seemingly sweeping statement that everybody, regardless of their abilities and circumstances, needs to suffer through every moment of life without respite.
But for a kids’ show, I’m just astounded and blown away that anyone would even attempt to have that conversation. I don’t know if an eight-year-old watching the show would necessarily pick up on that messaging. But if they’re suffering trauma or know someone who did die by suicide or struggled with those thoughts and behaviors, this could be a fantastic starting point to having a conversation about a difficult, scary topic like this. It might even plant the seeds to recognize and address suicidal thoughts within themselves as they grow older. “Do you remember that episode from Centaurworld with the crying whale? Well, your mom struggled with a lot of similar feelings.”
As someone who’s had too many peers die to suicide, and who’s struggled with suicidal ideation from a young age, any time any medium not strictly intended for adults attempts to address the issue earns at least a few points in my book. And it’s certainly worth sifting through the streaming noise to find.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications s
uch as Game Informer, Twinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.
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