From the earliest moments of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal, we are made to understand that these events play out in a savage, inhospitable world in which we can never truly ascribe conventional morality. The caveman known as Spear and the dinosaur known as Fang are our default protagonists—and yes, at times they do conform at least loosely to the mold of “heroes.” Their presence has a net positive effect on a few communities, such as the timid ape men terrorized by giant bats in “Terror Under the Blood Moon,” and they slay various bloodthirsty, sinister creatures, theoretically making their corner of the prehistoric world a bit more safe for other vulnerable proto-humans. It’s only natural that the audience attach our empathy and pathos to the pair and their bond, given that it was forged via the loss and grief of having their families snatched away through horrific violence.
But how must the audience’s perspective toward Spear and Fang evolve, when we watch the pair take on an almost identical, horrifying visage, clearly inspired by the very events that set them on this path? Pushed to the brink and beyond, what amount of wholesale slaughter can the viewer condone without beginning to judge? Can we really rationalize the likes of Spear and Fang destroying a family unit, exactly as they had done to them, by simply repeating that our “heroes” possessed good intentions? At what point do protagonists irrevocably lose their status and become villains?
These are the difficult questions we are left to ponder in the gore-slicked wake of “The Red Mist,” the recently aired fourth episode of Primal’s second season on Adult Swim, which can also be viewed on HBO Max. After 13 episodes in which it is relatively easy to compartmentalize the brutality of our protagonists’ actions, “The Red Mist” is a turning point. It’s the first time in Primal where it feels as if we’re really meant to be repulsed by Spear and Fang’s actions, to think “wasn’t there some other way?” At the same time, the episode also establishes new nemeses for the pair, another duo of (relatively) sympathetic adversaries whose drive for vengeance has been forged from the very same loss that empowers Spear and Fang. This one episode aims to both reshape the viewer’s relationship with the characters we’ve been following from the beginning, and establish new quasi-protagonists hellbent on hunting our original characters down. It’s a complex trick to pull off in 23 minutes, but that’s the gift of Genndy Tartakovsky.
“The Red Mist” picks up directly where previous episode “Dawn of Man” left off, with Spear sneaking into a village of dangerous, Viking-looking warriors in order to free the female slave known as Mira, who he and Fang bonded with at the close of the show’s first season. After traveling across the sea in search of this woman, dinosaur companion by his side, Spear isn’t about to turn back now. After freeing the slaves, however (Spear has to be talked into freeing them all by Mira, showing his universal humanism is still not something we can take for granted), the group is confronted by large warband of returning, bear-riding Viking warriors, and forced to do battle. This is where “The Red Mist” drops us directly into the action, in what is one of Primal’s bloodiest episodes from start to finish.
At first, though, the battle is fairly conventional, with the type of frenetic, gory action we’ve grown accustomed to in this series. Spear and Fang valiantly defy the odds, relying on their natural gifts, ferocity and familial bond to overcome waves of dangerous warriors. They suffer wounds, and as always, we fear for their lives … even though we inherently know that the protagonists of a tale are extremely unlikely to be killed off in the middle of it.
Slowly and almost imperceptibly, though, the tenor of the battle begins to change. The ranks of the warriors are thinned out, and alarm bells begin to ring in the village, alerting men, women, children and elders who were asleep. People who are pretty clearly not warriors by nature bolt from their thatched dwellings, only to be confronted with a horrific scene—their warriors slain, and a crazed madman and giant reptilian monster running amok in their home. They don’t know anything about a slave rescue mission. They know only that these savage beasts are razing the town to the ground, and their choice is likely to fight or die. They choose to fight.
From this point on, the conflict takes on tragic overtones, with Spear and Fang forced to continue the battle against ill-equipped villagers hemming them in with spears, swords and bows. The early season promotional imagery of both our protagonists stuck through with arrows, bleeding like fleshy pin cushions, is realized here, as the titular red mist rolls into town bearing ominous supernatural portent. Only this time, it’s not Spear and Fang hunting some kind of slavering beast hiding in the mist—it’s our protagonists being depicted as blood-eyed shadows, stalking and eliminating every target in sight. Faced with death, our duo gives in entirely to bestial rage, killing every last person in sight, seemingly whether it was “necessary” or not. In this moment, they are undeniably monsters, and even the gaze of creator Tartakovsky seems to quail at the monsters he’s created. Primal is a show that often depicts scenes of terror, but this is perhaps the first time that it’s our protagonists who are terrorizing a community whose mindset we are capable of understanding. This is an important distinction—it’s not a clan of feral ape men being butchered, but a village of modern humans … including children swinging swords, and shield-bearing women with babies strapped to their chests.
Nor is that distinction lost on Spear, at least before he fully gives in to bloodlust. Quick reaction shots of his expression make it clear to the audience that he’s taken briefly aback by seeing armed children standing alongside their parents, and he initially goes out of his way to avoid harming one. But after accidentally killing one particularly brave boy in the heat of combat, and looking both shocked and ashamed of his actions, Spear seems to harden his heart. Yes, he did what he had to do to survive, but the relationship between the audience and the protagonist has been forever altered. Having crossed a red line, will Spear now be more willing to engage in such butchery in the future? Or will he pull back from the brink?
Even Mira, the slave being rescued by Spear and Fang, seems taken aback in the brief moments we can see her processing what is happening. She also takes her first life in combat during the escape, but does she draw a line in her heart between the necessity of killing a Viking warrior to escape, and Spear hacking his way through a village full of semi-helpless residents? You could hardly blame her for reconsidering whether she really wants to be traveling with friends like this caveman and his dinosaur, after what she witnesses here.
There are of course caveats to making any kind of moral judgement of the slaughter. We know that the Vikings are slavers, for one—they captured Mira, and are holding her and her people in a makeshift prison barn, bound in wooden braces. And yet, we don’t really see the Viking villagers benefitting from those slaves, working them in the fields or abusing them outright. Perhaps they’ve been made to serve a more dangerous power, compelled into service of the giant, horned, warlord-like figure Mira alluded to in first explaining her story to Spear? If the Vikings are forced to collect slaves, under pain of death, then do their transgressions warrant a death sentence? What about the women and children? In a prehistoric world of swords and sorcery, can one even cite such modern concepts of morality, or is that hopelessly naïve?
One thing is for certain: The arrival of Viking chieftan Eldar and his son in the final third of the episode is undoubtedly crafted to highlight the human carnage that Spear and Fang have left behind, and how it might be interpreted by those who have been victimized. We as an audience can’t discount the loss felt by Eldar when finding his wife and son slaughtered as somehow less pure than the grief and loss experienced by Spear and Fang—it was exactly this sort of motivator that first set the duo onto this path in Primal’s first season. Eldar’s loss is just as valid, slaver though he may be. Nor does he react with pure, blind rage—rather, he and his son bury and inter all the villagers’ bodies with honor before freeing their remaining slaves. This is another potentially momentous writing decision, as it illustrates Eldar’s people don’t seem to be willingly misanthropic or cruel for no reason. They’re all just doing what they believe they need to do to survive—a classic expression of “everyone is the hero of their own story.”
It’s difficult to say where exactly Spear and Fang will go from here, as the heavily wounded pair sail off into the unknown with Mira in tow. But it is safe to say they’ll be pursued by Eldar and his son, targets of a blood feud in which they’d never be able to deny their guilt. The morality of Primal is clearly evolving, with broad action clichés increasingly insufficient among the brooding shades of gray. Tartakovsky’s show has again demonstrated its mastery of complex, emotional storytelling without need for dialog or traditional exposition, relying entirely on the most elemental units of narrative to do all its heavy lifting. It remains one of the most fittingly named series on TV today, and frequently one of the most moving.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.
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