Kamala goes to Karachi! …but as much as I hate to say this, I kind of wish she’d stayed in New Jersey.
Even though Kamala and her mother fly halfway across the world to Pakistan in this episode, not a lot happens: She tours Karachi with her cousins. She finds the secret enemies of Clan Destine, the Red Daggers, and gets sort-of adopted by them. They tell her more about Najma and her crew, whose goal is apparently to break down the veil between their universe and the human one, and take over. Kamala’s Nani tells her that it doesn’t matter if she’s a jinn, because the bangle saved her life back in 1947. (What?) And Kamala, after a frantic chase through the bazaar, confronts Najma and is transported (back in time?) to the train we’ve been circling around since Episode 2.
That quick recap is because I found this episode actively upsetting, so I’m going to use most of this space digging into why.
The writing as a whole really dropped in quality in this episode, and I think that has a lot do with how completely they’ve now left the canon behind (yes, sorry, I used the c-word). So much of what makes the original run of the comic special is G. Willow Wilson’s writing. True, she isn’t Pakistani American, but she knows that New York area Muslim community, and has a way of writing her characters that maintains nuance, humor and authenticity while still feeling like a comic book. Here we just have forced quips that almost never land and cringy, unnatural dialogue that feels so out of touch with how real people talk it feels a bit embarrassing. Props to the legend Samina Ahmed for making her dialogue work with the sheer gravity of her talent, but the rest of this cast is not up to that task.
And the thing is, that would be fine if this was just the teen superhero coming-of-age comedy I dreaded when I first saw the trailer—I wouldn’t be thrilled with that angle, because I think it loses a lot of what makes Ms. Marvel unique from other teen heroes, but it’s an adaptation that works. That was the tone, and the lane, they seemed to mostly be choosing in the first few episodes, and it would have made the series one of Marvel’s more decent TV offerings.
Instead, they’ve taken a wound that cuts my people so deeply, that has sundered us in so many ways, that we can barely bring ourselves to talk about it, and used it to further the plot of a teen superhero comedy. I just…cannot express how exploitative and insensitive this feels.
I expressed my reservations about the introduction of the subject of Partition in my recap of Episode 2, when it was first clumsily introduced at the dinner table by Yusuf. In this episode, we get casual, flippant references to Partition in nearly every conversation; pretty much all Kamala talks to her Nani about is Partition, and although the tone of the conversation is much more serious, it is still bafflingly handled. No one talks about Partition this lightly, and this constantly! Not in the diaspora, but certainly not in Pakistan. It’s something that people avoid talking about. My own grandparents said nothing about it to their own children and grandchildren for over fifty years. My Nana’s (maternal grandfather) family lost everything in 1947. Escaping their burning village only a few miles from the newly created border to Pakistan, he, his parents and nine siblings spent three indescribably wretched months in a refugee camp before they were able to leave for the new home they’d been promised. They walked between the train tracks and a dark forest, escorted by Indian police who would take girls into the trees at night to rape them. My great-grandmother hid her daughters in crates on the wagon, and either her husband or sons would always be guarding them.
I heard my Nana talk about this for the first time a few years ago, and only with the understanding that it would be recorded for a study, and that I would eventually write a book. He was shaken for days in a way that hurt to witness—he is the toughest of men, and I’ve never seen him so much as bend or flinch in any situation. It costs him to talk about what he saw and experienced. Yet here we have talk of colonialism and Partition come up in casual conversation by Kamala’s Pakistani cousins, with bouncy music scoring the scene, before they casually abandon her in a market where she will obviously get scammed within 5 minutes (or worse). This is so unlike any experience I have ever had visiting my own extended family in Pakistan. A wealthy family like this (and they are clearly upper class—Nani’s house is a mansion, and they socialize at what looks like the Karachi Gymkhana, the oldest and most exclusive country club in the city) would never let a young family member from abroad roam around without at least a driver and family supervision.
This is among so many small details in this show that feel off—and that have been slowly increasing my frustration with a show I genuinely adored at first. On its own, each one is a minor quibble, easily overlooked in a genuinely well-made, cohesive show. But they’re starting to pile up. I’m just going to make a list, because that’s easier:
Why are there so many Indian actors in this? Other people wouldn’t know or care, but the team making this is full of South Asians who know that not only is there a subtle difference in accent between people who have grown up in Pakistan versus India, there is a legitimately painful history here that always makes these kind of oversights feel bad—but especially so if you cast a role from the less dominant group with an actor from the more dominant group. Yes, there are a ton of similarities among South Asian cultures, and it can be a beautiful experience to celebrate those, but how could the showrunners not realize that it would be wrong to cast Indians (who unless I’m mistaken both come from Hindu families) as Kamala’s parents? Especially at a time when India is basically on a genocide watch by international human rights groups because of the ruling party’s violent anti-Muslim policies? It’s exacerbated by interviews like this one—I appreciate the sentiment about increasing Muslim representation, and I don’t blame the actors for taking these jobs, but are the non-Muslim actors playing her parents really the right ones to ask this question? (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.)
Why, when you are literally in the neighborhood of one of the most celebrated TV drama industries in the world, would you make the unforced error of casting so many Indian actors, if not to capitalize on the dominance and popularity of Bollywood? At least Farhan Akhtar is Muslim, but I can name five Pakistani actors off the top of my head who would have done a better job as Waleed.
And speaking of which, the inscription Waleed points out on the bangle, “What you seek is seeking you”? Only the most cliched Rumi quote that I’ve ever seen referenced by crunchy hipster yoga types and brown dudes trying to get you to swipe right.
Why cast LA boy Artemis Knight to play a Pakistani vigilante, and good GOD what is that horrific accent he’s doing?
My mom and sister and I were watching with closed captions, and they repeatedly mislabeled Pakistani characters as [speaking Hindi].
Why cheapen the Islamic concept of Noor, which is literally God’s light, by sourcing Kamala’s possibly jinn-y powers from it?
Why mislabel the Clan Destine, who are deeply Orientalist in their Marvel origin, as jinn and then casually wave that aside as a misunderstanding?
As my sister pointed out, that chase felt like any other Hollywood action sequence that takes the hero though a marketplace in Asia or the Middle East purely for aesthetics. It feels uncomfortably self-Orientalizing. And I can’t gleefully enjoy the destruction of these fictional vendors’ livelihoods when I know exactly how poor they are in real life—and so, I assume, do the show’s creators.
Again, all of these might seem like minor details, not worth remarking—but their combined weight is all the more infuriating because the creators are constantly, publicly beating the drum of accurate representation.
And all that is really small aloo compared to my main issue: the way the show’s creators turn the deeply painful iconography of our history into fodder for Disney/Marvel’s corporate entertainment machine, without taking the necessary care to honor it. To honor our grandparents, who will have carried this trauma for 75 years this August. The image of the train comes up again and again in Kamala’s visions, and she ultimately ends up at the station before that last train leaves in 1947—we’ll find out how next week. These trains, if you aren’t familiar with this history, became known as Ghost Trains, because so many of the train cars going in either direction were found to be full of blood and bodies upon arrival, murdered as they tried to leave.
Getting on the train was no guarantee of safety or survival. Hundreds of thousands of women disappeared forever; many others returned to their families, survivors of rape, and were turned away. My great-grandmother set up a shelter for some of these women in Lahore in the years following 1947. Those who left their hometowns were promised property of equal value in their new country, but most of that land was gobbled up by unscrupulous opportunists in the transition, while honest people waited for their due and never received it.
These are some of the details that have come out piecemeal over the years from my own family—I know there are countless more stories from what historians regard as the greatest mass migration of all time. It doesn’t seem like they even consulted with a historian on this, because if Nani came over on the train, why is Kamala’s family from Karachi? No one came to Karachi on the train during Partition—it’s a port city, they came by boat! The trains came to Lahore. (Where it would also have been far more interesting to film. I may be biased, but the history, architecture and fashion of Lahore speak for themselves.) And no one thought to correct this?
Did the showrunners have good intentions? I don’t doubt it. And I can’t blame anyone for failing to realize the full extent of their dreams for a creative project—I know there are realities to the production process that foreclose a lot of choices, especially inside the DIsney/Marvel machine. That this show exists at all is a miracle, and there is a lot to love about it. But they bit off way more than they could chew. The changes to Kamala’s backstory clearly come from a place of wanting to honor her heritage, but instead it’s become an albatross weighing down a show that should have been a fun, moving coming of age story about an American Muslim girl trying to balance her new powers, her Pakistani culture, and the violence of the US state. (Because let’s be real, no American Muslim ever comes of age without dealing with the violence of the US state.) And it did start out that way! This complex, multi-generational narrative of trauma, loss and survival is too much to stuff into that pre-established mold. My family and I are currently also watching Pachinko, which pulls that off perfectly—but this is not that show, and the tone of Ms. Marvel can’t sustain itself under that weight.
When Kamala tells her Nani she isn’t sure if she’s found what she’s looking for, Nani responds that she hasn’t figured life out yet either—and that Pakistanis don’t know who they are anymore after Partition, because of some arbitrary borders drawn by the English. Excuse me? Out of all the things we lost, our identities weren’t among them. If anything, Partition has hardened our identities in a potentially problematic way, just as borders always do—but Nani’s speech is pushing this weirdly nationalistic conception of identity that seems to imply the opposite, and only reinforce the nationalistic propaganda that is already causing so many problems in this region.
We don’t need borders—or nations—to tell us who we are. But the show doesn’t seem to know that, since the entire purpose of this visit, after all, seems to be her assembling her superhero suit, bit by bit, as though her identity is a suit to be worn and an aesthetic to be appropriated for her own gain. Which is certainly not the Ms. Marvel I know and love.
All images courtesy of Disney.