(SPOILER ALERT: This is a full breakdown review for “Dark”)
What’s new, readers? Let’s get right into RWBY, the fantasy anime-style web series from Rooster Teeth Animation. The midseason hiatus concluded with Chapter 8 of Volume 8, “Dark,” being released on Rooster Teeth FIRST on February 6. Directed by Dustin Matthews and written by Miles Luna, it’s notable for being RWBY’s hundredth episode, making it the second animated Rooster Teeth show to ring the hundred-episode bell after Red vs. Blue. We open with a quick scene where Qrow Branwen, Robyn Hill, Arthur Watts, and Jacques Schnee are struggling to sleep in their prison cells. We hear a rumble before the wall blasts open, followed by Qrow transforming into a crow for no apparent reason. He hadn’t made use of that handy trick in so long that I forgot he could do it. The scene cuts off with rubble crashing on top of Robyn, because of course she has to get knocked out. Last time it was in a ship that got downed, and this time it’s the big house that gets blown up.
We segue to Schnee Manor, where Ruby Rose, Blake Belladonna, Weiss Schnee, and Whitley Schnee carry an unconscious and injured Penny Polendina into the same bedroom where the Schnee’s former butler Klein Sieben is treating an also-unconscious and -injured Nora Valkyrie. As Klein scans Penny with her scroll, he comments, “Even based on what you’ve told me, I hardly know what she is.” Oh, did you miss the memo, Klein? She’s a robot. He goes on to say, “Her basic anatomy seems similar enough. I can at least stitch up that wound.” Again, she’s a robot—more specifically, a robot who we saw get ripped apart in Volume 3 and whose mechanical body has some major differences from the human body. So I’m not quite sure how his background as a doctor would be useful for tending to her. It would make more sense if he had a background in engineering, mechanics, electronics, et cetera.
A power blackout sweeps in before May Marigold calls from the Mantle crater to warn the crew, “Just saw another bombing run light up the kingdom.” I’m assuming this means the military is dropping bombs on the Grimm. There’s a nice exchange where an anxious Ruby says, “It’s all just… too much. The Grimm, the crater, Nora, Penny… How do we fix all of it?” and Klein responds, “One step at a time, my dear. You can’t worry about fixing everything. Simply focus on what’s in front of you.” Considering the death cap garden that was 2020 and the feeling that we’re struggling to escape it a month and a half into 2021, those are some wise words for us to take to heart.
The gang is figuring out how to restart the power when an inebriated Willow shows up to reveal that they have a reserve generator on the grounds. Weiss points out that Schnee Dust Company executives are equipped with auxiliary power supplies for outages like this as one of their “company perks.” Yay for class privilege. This inspires Whitley to propose helping the refugees in the crater flee with the SDC’s abundance of cargo ships, which have been sitting around during James Ironwood’s Dust embargo, and the automated drones from Snowshoe Shipping, which can pilot the ships. He simply needs to boot them up through his dad’s computer. On the one hand, I appreciate Whitley’s increasingly helpful presence in spite of it feeling like an abrupt about-face for his character, but on the other hand, it makes Weiss, the former heiress to the SDC, look foolish for not pitching the plan first. This is what happens on a show that prefers its bloated supporting cast rather than its main characters making the smart decisions.
Ruby and Blake hurry to the edge of the property so they can switch on the generator. Ruby gets a tad antsy when it’s slow initially, and when Blake says that it will work, Ruby replies, “Nothing else has.” Blake assures her with this monologue: “I know you don’t always know what to do, but that’s never stopped you from doing something. I was like that as a girl, but time and a lot of other things took their toll on me. Then I wasn’t sure if that kind of girl could actually survive in the world, until I met you. It was a little strange at first because you were younger, but I’ve always looked up to you, Ruby. And I still do.” I have to say, this is a sweet interaction. It’s been forever since we’ve gotten any Ladybug action, and it makes me wish the show could devote more time to these sort of personal scenes between the core characters.
Almost as soon as the generator activates and power returns to the manor, we get an amazing horror-movie shot of the Hound’s form flickering into sight in the window right behind Ruby. As it attacks, Blake alerts Weiss over their comm line to the Grimm threat. Weiss, who’s at Jacques’ study with her brother, leaves him to keep gaining access to his father’s computer. “Can you handle this?” Weiss asks, to which Whitley retorts, “Assuming you can handle that,” and Weiss says as she rushes off to help her teammates, “We still need to work on your attitude”—a chuckleworthy moment that gives their sibling relationship an endearingly prickly element that’s welcome after the spite and antagonism that we’d always seen hanging between them.
On the edge of the estate, Ruby gets ready to use her silver eyes, and Blake tries to distract the Hound, but it slams Blake out of the way, snarls, “Take…the…girl,” and knocks Ruby out by pouncing on her. Blake manages to bind it to the ground with Gambol Shroud when it tries to fly off with Ruby, then Weiss runs onto the scene and calls Klein to tell him to keep everyone together. Willow gets agitated when she drops her glass of vodka, though, and she flees the bedroom. This is when Penny awakens as Watts’ virus attempts to take control of her, and she struggles to repel it with her Maiden powers, eyes flickering between green and red. Oh, and she gives Klein a shove, which, I must admit, amuses me.
Right as Weiss is preparing to wallop the Hound, a horde of Centinels besiege her and Blake. As the Hound is about to escape, though, it catches sight of the bright glow radiating from Penny inside the manor. Ruby, who came to a moment ago, realizes the Hound’s goal and tells her friends that it’s pursuing not her but Penny. Then the Hound drops her, knocking her out for the second time in one episode, and zips off to the manor. Blake, who has eliminated the Centinels, orders Weiss to help the others. But when Blake moves toward Ruby, a new Grimm called a Cenitaur burrows up from the ground. It doesn’t top the Hound for me in terms of creature design, but it’s still pretty damn memorable.
Next, we cut to the manor as Penny vacillates between herself and Watts’ virus. Then Nora takes her hand and promises, “No one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to do.” “But there is a part of me… It’s making me…” Penny chokes out. “It’s just a part of you. Don’t forget about the rest,” Nora urges, echoing Blake’s words from earlier in the volume. This calms down Penny for now and helps her retain a hold on her identity. I know this is supposed to signify the importance of Penny being her own person and having the right to exist as much as any organic entity, but Nora passing on Blake’s relationship advice to help Penny ward off the hacking efforts is ridiculous and tacky if you think about it. I don’t know, maybe this is meant to set up a future scene where Penny recalls Nora’s words while in the grips of Watts’ tech and, thanks to the power of friendship, reverts to her identity upon realizing that Ruby and the others are all a part of her.
Weiss contacts Klein again and tells him to stay quiet because the Hound is entering the manor, but he informs her that Whitley and Willow haven’t come back yet. Meanwhile, Willow ends up shattering the vodka bottle, as if that’s exactly the over-the-top gesture that people do in real life when they give up alcohol. Then she uses her Scroll to check the cameras she planted all over the place and keep tabs on the Hound as it tracks Penny’s scent. The show’s ham-handed depiction of her alcoholism has been getting on my nerves, but I’m glad to see her finally step up to the plate this way. When Weiss heads into the manor, Willow tips her off just as the Hound ambushes from above. But it interrupts itself almost instantly and dodges her move, then races down a hallway on the second floor. Weiss tells her mom to continue watching the Hound, and Willow says that it’s “acting strangely,” even though it’s acting pretty much like a dog as it creeps through the manor and sniffs at Penny’s green juice. Once it draws close to Jacques’ study, where Whitley is currently located, Willow calls him to give a heads-up, and he huddles behind the desk right as the Hound opens the door and pokes in its maw in a Velociraptor-like manner.
The rest of this scene plays out as a lovely ode to Jurassic Park, though in this case, the Hound growls, “I know… you’re here.” God, imagine if the raptors were able to talk while rummaging the kitchen for Lex and Tim. Whitley’s cover is blown when the computer speaks up, and the Hound is just inches away from him when Willow traps it with a Boarbatusk she summoned. I love seeing her get a hero moment, especially since this is the first time we’ve ever seen her summon on the show. Whitley starts running, but then backtracks to type in the authorization that activates the cargo ships and drones—a clever moment showing he won’t abandon the plan just to save his own neck. The Hound tears after them, but Weiss saves the day by creating a wall of ice to impede it (the Hound eventually cracking open a hole and poking through its head strikes me as a nod to The Shining). “I didn’t forget you,” she tells them, as if implying the mistreatment she had to endure from her family before they cut her off and handed the SDC inheritance over to Whitley. Now, I can’t say whether the show wanted to deliberately convey this, but it really does come off like it’s praising Weiss for standing by her family, and then covertly wagging a finger at May for leaving her own family when they didn’t accept her as their daughter. It’s made more obvious by the fact that Weiss was also the one who asked May if she had family in Atlas. I guess the message is to stick by your family, no matter how much they’ve abused you…?
We transition back outside to Blake’s battle with the acid-spitting, clawed, fleshy Cenitaur. It feels like the writers are speaking directly to the audience when she remarks how the Grimm get more disgusting. Then she calls out to Ruby for help: “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I need you, Ruby. We all need you. Please, get up.” No surprise—as the Cenitaur seizes her in its claws, it’s slashed from behind thanks to a reawakened Ruby, who says, “I could hear you.” It’s kind of cheesy, but I like it nonetheless. It’s not implausible for Ruby to have heard her, since there have been stories about people in real life who could hear everything that happened around them while out cold.
Then a scream explodes from the manor—from Penny, who is succumbing to her red-eyed self again. She gives off full-on Terminator vibes as she shoves Klein for a second time, marches out of the room, and proceeds past Whitley and Willow in the foyer. When Whitley asks what she’s doing, she drones, “I must open the Vault, and then self-terminate.” The Hound breaks her off, however, and when she resists, the Hound grows a third arm and thrashes her around à la the Hulk and Loki. As Ruby and her friends turn up, the Hound holds up Penny and threatens to cut her throat. However, Ruby cries, “That’s enough!” and flashes her silver eyes to propel the Grimm out the window behind it, leaving an unconscious Penny tumbling down the stairway. Like in most cases for this show, I have to construct the logic and assume that Ruby is only able to wield her silver eyes this quickly in dire times, such as when she witnessed Cinder killing Pyrrha or when she had to protect her friends from the Apathy; it’s more difficult for her to use the power if nobody is facing any critical threats at the moment and she isn’t under pressure. That’s what I’m choosing to go with, though I wish the show was better at setting up an internal logic and then consistently following it so the audience wouldn’t be left scratching their heads and puzzling out the rules half the time.
As it turns out, the silver eyes don’t work on the Hound. It climbs through the window, revealing its head is gone and the mutilated face of a silver-eyed Faunus is sticking out of the neck (boy, can’t the Faunus ever catch a break?). As it lurches down the stairs and regrows its beast head, it repeats with growing ferocity, “Take… the… girl!” Ruby, Blake, and Weiss are seemingly too dumbfounded to do anything but lug Penny away from it, even though at least one of them should be able to snap out of it and clobber the abomination. Jaune, Yang, and Ren had virtually the same reaction when they let it kidnap Oscar. Maybe it just has the ability to paralyze its foes with fright? If so, it doesn’t work on Willow and Whitley, who are able to crush it with a huge suit of armor just as it finishes regenerating and is about to leap at Penny. Weiss asks, “What was that?” and Ruby answers, “That was… a person.” Yeah, no shit. I don’t need an awkward line of dialogue to tell me that. But I do like the ominous touch of the Faunus’s skeleton remaining when the Hound’s body dissolves to the accompanying tune of a choir.
The final scene takes place at the prison—we never see Qrow, Jacques, or Robyn after the chapter’s opening, so I’m wondering if they were able to escape or if they’re still buried under the wreckage—where Cinder Fall, who blew it up in the first place, hauls Watts out of the debris. “You know, this may be the first time I’ve ever been happy to see you,” she says. He starts, “Cinder, what are you—” She cuts off, “It’s my turn to ask for something.” Three Atlesian soldiers try to stop her with a missile launcher (whatever happened to some simple blasters?), but she soars past them and takes off into the night.
Overall, “Dark” has a great deal going for it, being an episode that proves the show can execute some of its best work when it leans into horror. The contained plotting maintains a brisk pace and a palpably disquieting atmosphere, the cinematography boasts some gorgeous shots that include the one I included above of the Hound flying in front of the broken moon with Ruby in its grasp, Willow and Whitley are able to take action, and the plot holes don’t cause me to heave as many sighs of exasperation as they usually do. The side quest that “Dark” goes on is certainly more engaging than the episodes where Ruby and company grouse about how desperately they want to rescue everybody and defeat Salem, but then proceed to dawdle or make illogical decisions.
That being said, I do need to point out the fact that Watts was hacking into Penny in order to force her to steal the Relic from the Vault before killing herself—an aim that Salem is aware of and yet obstructed by dispatching the Hound to abduct Penny. On top of that, she already sent Cinder to break Watts out of prison so he can lead them to Penny. I’m not against a villain carrying out a complex scheme that involves multiple ways to accomplish one goal so that the chances of success are increased, but the shaky logic of the writing shows through when those machinations become convoluted to the point of interfering with each other.
Another thing: Watts writing a self-termination code into his virus provides further proof that Ironwood was an absolute blockhead to entrust him with recovering Penny. Realistically, I don’t believe General Tinman would have been stupid enough to let a hacker who serves Salem anywhere near Penny’s tech. But hey, this is what I’ve come to expect from a show whose plots are driven by a steady supply of brain-breakingly idiotic character choices.
Ruby’s mother, Summer Rose, being the Hound was an extremely popular fan theory. I wasn’t completely onboard for it, but I would have welcomed it if it came true. It’s a common trope in science-fiction and fantasy to mutate people into frightening creatures, and it’s something I can enjoy as long as it’s effectively delivered. I think that’s what the show does here, opening up the possibility that Salem might be using more silver-eyed people as Grimm hosts, especially if they’re immune to the silver blasts. Maria Calavera could have fallen to the same fate if the crocodile Faunus Tock had brought her to Salem. The show really does have a flair for body horror, so I hope it brings on more creatures that are just as ghastly as the Hound. I also believe this lends more credence to the Grimm-Summer theory.
The Schnees have tons of work to do if they want to come together and genuinely heal their relationships, but it’s nonetheless gratifying to see them begin their recovery. This may be the best episode thus far in regard to how it tonally captures the perfect blend of snark and affection in the interactions shared between the three Schnees. It frames them as a family that feels much more loving and in sync than when the toxic icicle that is Jacques kept the household under his thumb. Seeing Weiss’s relatives come through the way they did—Whitley utilizing his craftiness for good as he mobilizes the ships and the drones, and Willow abstaining from drinking as she keeps the Hound under surveillance and then summons a Boarbatusk to save her son—compels me to be increasingly invested in their character arcs. I think I’d be fully satisfied if the show can have them own up to the roles they played in perpetuating the dysfunctional Schnee household when Jacques was around. Hopefully, elder sister Winter will be able to join in by the end of the volume so they can all be, well, not necessarily one big happy family, but at least start paving the way towards such a point.
I’ll be back when Chapter 9, “Witch,” goes on public release on February 20. All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 79/100