I wonder sometimes when something begins to lose whatever made you love it in the first place. Sometimes it’s sudden, and there’s some event or story that happens that makes you take a step back and put whatever it was in a new light. Other times it’s subtle, and over time it happens piece by piece until one day you just realize that, no, I don’t think that I like what this is. Then perhaps it’s possible that everything was good and then you received more than you wanted. It was like a fantastic meal that you followed up with double fisted Irish Coffees, and now you’re desperately trying to figure out which end of you is the clear and present danger. Which, no matter how I try to frame it, is how I see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Even though it’s really a stage play the cover says that it’s Book 8 of the Potter series, and somehow it has everything somebody would want from a Potter book, but somehow does so without any of the magic. As it turns out, a reader can become bored with the magical world of Hogwarts. It happens on page 10.
This is the Takedown.
Before we start, I feel compelled to let you know that the plotting in this book is nonsense. I would rather vomit sriracha coated razor blades than relive it, but my editor is an asshole and this is the world that we live in. Anyway, the story for The Cursed Child starts at the last scene from The Deathly Hallows. It has old Harry Potter taking his wretchedly named kid Albus Severus to King’s Cross Station, and in the great tradition of British people, shipping him off to boarding school because he has more important things to do with his life. On the train he meets up with the also unfortunately named Scorpius Malfoy, and the 2 of them become quick friends. The story then plays out the next 3 years in a bewildering fast forward sequence that makes less sense than 33 seasons of Survivor. What we are left with after all of that is a sullen Albus and nothing plot relevant.
Eventually, something has to happen and the Ministry of Magic confiscates a fan-servicing and time-traveling artifact called a Time-Turner from a criminal. At around the same time Harry Potter thinks to himself, “Hey! You know what my cranky teenage son would love? My old musty baby blanket!” I assume he thinks this because Harry Potter is an idiot and wears glasses so people think he’s smart. It goes about as well as you would think, provided you think it went worse than the Mondale Campaign (Topical!). Along the way, a love potion/roofie gets spilled on the blanket. Now completely estranged, Albus goes back to school and learns about the Time-Turner and along with Scorpius, and the 2 of them decide to steal it so that they can go back in time and rescue Cedric Diggory: the Harry Potter equivalent of a girl in a refrigerator. They take their friend Delphi along with them to Minister Hermione Granger’s office and manage to score the Time-Turner with a 5 finger discount.
Anyway, the one they picked up is the shitty Kia of Time-Turners and only works for 5 minutes at a time. So they decide that if they can stop Cedric from winning the Triwizard Tournament, then he never touches the trophy, never gets teleported away and Voldemort never lights him up like Time’s Square on New Years Eve. It’s as complicated as it is dumb. So of course Albus and Scorpius travel back in time and prevent Cedric from completing one of the tasks. On their return they discover that through a long series of misadventures, Ron and Hermione don’t hook up like they did back in the home dimension. This means that the girl that Scorpius was crushing on straight got erased from existence.
Since that was by most estimations- bad, Scorpius, Delphi and Albus decide to try again and hop back into the past. This time they go back to the 2nd task of the Triwizard tournament, and cast a spell to make Cedric look like an idiot so he drops out. When they cue up the Huey Lewis and go back to the future, they discover that once again they have found a proverbial pooch, and screwed it. Turns out if you embarrass somebody bad enough they turn into a righteous dickhole, and this is what happened to poor Cedric. He grew up, remembering how he once got so embarrassed in front of the school he got a fear boner, joined the Death Eaters, and killed a bunch of people – as you do. So we get to see the darkest timeline, where Voldemort somehow wins the Rust Belt and everybody dies horribly.
Since this is a play, this is also where the intermission is. So here’s a few words from our sponsors:
Ever wish that you could go back in time? Nowhere in particular, but maybe just a few short days in the past where you could make a different choice? Could be anything. Could be nothing, but is probably one very specific thing. Well guess what – you can’t because Time-Turners aren’t real. Now your life is hell. Feel the ennui, feel the sadness, savor the hideous clench in your bowels. Enjoy the new Chipotle Carnitas Bowl today.
I just remembered why we stopped accepting sponsors. Anyway, because Albus and company are experts in this, they go back and undo a bunch of stuff to fix breaking the universe. When they come on back to the present they are finally found by the adults who have been looking for them this whole time; even though the past has been changed as frequently as Ramona Flowers‘ hair. But whatevs, the writers don’t care about this, so we’re not going to either. Scorpius says that he lost the Time-Turner, and Harry Potter chews his kid out for being the biggest time traveling idiot since Bill S Preston Esq. It turns out that a child named Scorpius Malfoy is untrustworthy, and he lied about losing the Time-Turner, so he and Albus go off to destroy it. As they are about to that do that, they get ambushed by Delphi, who in a total heel turn, reveals that she is Voldemort’s daughter.
I’d like to take a moment and point out this means that Voldemort made an “O” Face:
Anyway, let’s try to get back to the plot. With the Time-Turner in hand, Delphi takes Albus and Scorpius back in time to the finals of the Triwizard tournament. Then because she’s evil, she abandons them back in the the horrible days of 1994 and goes even further back in time. Since they don’t want to live in a world where stone washed jeans are fashionable, the 2 time displaced students figure out a way to send a message to the future. They use Harry’s ratty assed old baby blanket and write a message on it that will appear when a love potion gets spilled on it. So years later, Harry will discover the message and come get them from being trapped in the past.
In just a few short scenes, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Draco figure it out, and Draco reveals that he has a Time-Turner that works all the time. I like to think he goes back in time to place bets on soccer teams. So they rescue the stupid children from the nightmare hellscape of 1994, and go back in time to 1981 to stop Delphi. If you are lost at this point, I don’t blame you, but 1981 is where Harry Potter was almost killed by Voldemort, who was killed by his own spell. Look, just go with it for now. Since Delphi is Voldemort’s kid, she’s actually back in the past to stop Voldemort from even trying to waste the Potter kid and prevent Rold-Vold from being destroyed.
To stop her, Harry transforms into Voldemort and talks to Delphi long enough for her to fail at her task. She gets taken back to the present to get sent off to evil wizard jail or whatever. For his part, Harry and Albus realize that they can’t change the past and hang out long enough to see Harry’s parents get killed, which you just know is going to require serious therapy at some point. Then there’s a denouement where Scorpius asks out Rose (the girl they previously erased from existence) and gets shot down.
Hoo boy. Just do yourself a favor and have a look back up at all of the links that I have colored purple for you. Those links are to backstory from the last 7 Potter books to help you attempt to understand, in the broadest of terms, what the hells is going on. I included those links not (just) to simplify my life but because The Cursed Child doesn’t bother to do it. This is what we call, an issue. To a certain extent you could make the argument that as the 8th “book” of a series you should know all of this crap going in, but The Cursed Child is not just the 8th book, it’s really a stage play; and if there’s going to be plot relevant information it needs to be in the text.
I can feel the anger flow through you right now and all it does is make me stronger. As my expert witness, I have William Shakespeare and his historical plays. The plays of Richard II, Henry IV : Part 1 & 2, and Henry V, are collectively known at the Henriad by literary scholars and other cool cats who are great at parties. Those plays all tell a story that takes us from the overthrow of Richard the 2nd and the life and trials of the future King of England. As a whole, they’re great, although there is some confusion as to whether or not they were all written to be an ongoing Marvel style series.
The reason that I bring these up is because of how they are structured. As a whole they tell the thrilling, and occasionally tragic meta-narrative of England and the creation of a new King. Individually they tell delightfully self contained stories. You don’t need to have seen Richard II to enjoy and understand what’s going on in Henry V. If there are small connections you can make, they’re just there to give the audience a wink and a nudge in a fun 1600’s kind of way. There are even characters that continue across multiple stories like Falstaff, who is like the Coulson of the cycle.
Structurally though, since the plays do not require backstory to function it’s possible to jump into any of them and enjoy them. As soon as you start making the audience do their homework before showing up to the play, you’ve created a barrier to entry. For Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, that barrier is astoundingly high and covered in broken muggle glass. Now I know it’s likely that the play was written for fans (and which is why so much of it reads like 2nd class fan-fic), but they are by their nature a forgiving bunch and will devour any new Potter material as soon as it comes out (stay tuned for our Fantastic Beasts review – ed). But the plot of Cursed Child is not self contained, and that anybody coming in from the outside is boned as far as getting even the most basic of understanding.
It’s most damning deficiency is that the literal stakes of the story aren’t part of the story itself. There are 2 plot threads that run through The Cursed Child. The first one is that Albus and Harry Potter have a strained relationship because Harry is seen as some kind of hero. But we never see that relationship develop, and it’s given second class status to the other wild gyrations and death eating hip thrusts of an already over stuffed plot. Hell, even at the beginning we see years pass between the 2 of them and still have only the vague sense that Albus is a twat. The audience is never given the chance to really understand what’s going on, and so we don’t know what is at stake. The relationship all happened off stage and off page which means, like so many things that appear on the Takedown – that I find I don’t care.
Additionally, the other issue at stake is the continuity of the Potter series itself. Those stories and characters that fans took to heart is the exact thing that Albus and Scorpius are screwing up. If you are a fan, seeing that Ron and Hermione don’t get together in some broken time stream is going to be heartbreaking. Sure, why not? The same with Umbridge coming back, and Neville Longbottom getting killed instead of being awesome and strangely good looking. As a fan, these stakes mean something. If you’re not a fan these are just people that stand around and do things for reasons, so that fact that Albus and Scorpius screw up their lives doesn’t matter because we don’t know what those lives were even like. Which as a fan should infuriate people. You want to know what these adult relationships looks like? You want to know how Ron and Hermione get on? You want to more spend time with these people and catch up? Well too damn bad, The Cursed Child doesn’t care what you want. It has an insipid story that it wants to tell with stakes are never explained in a meaningful way.
Let’s look at another time travel example. Imagine for a moment that Back to the Future started in the 2nd act after Marty McFly has come back to 1955. He would meet his parents and Doc Brown and everything else. But since we never saw his own time, we don’t know actually what it is. Was it good? Was it bad? Was it full of fish people from the black lagoon ruling over earthlings as their benevolent if carnivorous overlords? No way of knowing, because 1985 was pretty fuckin’ weird. Coincidentally when Marty starts changing the past and effecting his present we wouldn’t know what that present is and are just left to be amused by the weird butterfly effect style outcomes and shiny lights.
Which really in a nutshell is the fatal flaw with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. If after 500 pages you can’t explain to people, that don’t already care, why they should be invested then all you’ve really done is preached to the choir and wasted 4 hours of my life.
And that, is the Takedown.
As always if you feel I’m way off base, stop building that heretic burning pyre for a few moments and let me know in the comments. Or, if you believe I stand on the side of the angels, then phalanx up the comments.
Until next time.