Gargoyles was a dark kids’ show. Dark in both its characters (the good guys were mistaken for demons frequently) and its themes. The Gargoyles were a set of monstrous beings that slept as statues during the day, and fought crime at night. They had previously been frozen by magic for a millennium, waking up in 1990s New York, and regularly interacted with gods, super-scientists, crazed hunters, and various immortals, many of whom were fantastic characters, both literally and figuratively. However, the show often used these creations as parts of a deeper metaphor. For example, two characters are each immortal unless one kills the other, at which time they both will die. They represent the unending cycle of vengeance: You cannot take it without forfeiting yourself. Oh, and one of them is Macbeth. Yes, the one from Shakespeare. Also history, kinda.
One reason the show was so good was that it never tried to simplify any of these issues to just one episode in order to reset the status quo. Perhaps the best example: In one episode, the primary ally of the Gargoyles, Detective Elisa Maza (Salli Richardson), leaves her gun out, loaded, and with the safety off. Re-enacting a Western movie on tv, one of the Gargoyles who doesn’t fully comprehend guns, Broadway (Bill Fagerbakke), accidentally shoots her. That isn’t resolved in one episode. A full season later, Broadway is still afraid of guns and of hurting people through negligence, and Elisa is actively shown taking more steps to secure her gun when not using it. It wasn’t “a very special episode saying guns are bad;” it was “don’t play with guns because everything could be fine, but if it isn’t, it will stay with you.” That kind of dedication really helped the show.
But, even with the complex characters, the strong metaphors, the extended lessons, and the amazing art style and voice-acting, the real strength of the show was the anti-villain: David Xanatos.
Xanatos (Jonathan Frakes) was the ultimate businessman. Not just in that he was ruthless, but in that he was capable of treating everything as monetary losses and gains, so he considered any emotional damage or revenge to be “a sucker’s game.” His most dangerous trait, however, was his ability to always consider that his schemes could fail due to oversights, which allowed him to plan contingencies for when they did. This ranged from planning escape routes to flat-out investing in stocks that would rise from his failings in order to turn a loss into a gain. To this day, the TV Trope term for when a plan is so perfectly crafted that it cannot completely fail is a “Xanatos gambit.”
Among his lesser accomplishments were enslaving the fey Puck as his personal assistant, marrying his supermodel super-genius martial-artist wife, and being the richest man on Earth after figuring out how time-travel worked in order to give himself seed money for his own genetics company in his youth. His biggest weakness is that he actually loves his wife and, later, his son. Messing with them will result in him erasing your bloodline from history. With anything else, however, he will accept a loss without a grudge, allowing him to be an ally as often as an enemy. Whatever stands to gain him the most.
The episode “The Edge” shows what happens when a man who, not despite not yet being forty years old and being one of the most powerful men in history, worries that he’s losing his ability to keep up. In order to test if he’s still the man he wants to be, he decides to intentionally provoke the Gargoyles into a full confrontation, both mental and physical. It’s at this juncture that I should point out that Goliath (Keith “My voice is almost as bad-ass as me” David), the leader of the Gargoyles, is a large, winged, demonic humanoid with the strength of more than a dozen men (his punches are measured in Tons of force) who is smart enough to read Dostoyevsky less than a month after learning how to read modern English (from Old English). His claws can cut through stone without any effort and, when angered, he can rip security doors off their hinges.
Throughout the episode, Xanatos secretly tests himself against Goliath and the other Gargoyles, while making them think they’re seriously thwarting him. It’s like playing a championship game against LeBron just to make sure you can still shoot from the outside.
In the end, Xanatos reaffirms his identity and his faith in himself, but the point is that the show demonstrates that every person will, at some point or another, question whether or not they have lost the drive and willpower which made them what they are. It doesn’t matter how powerful or impressive they may seem. And, in the end, you only can be on top if you can maintain your edge.
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I can’t find a clip from the episode, so, instead, here’s the awesome intro to the series: