I’m in a very “late-’90s nostalgia” place right now, so let me pick up where I left off last night and ramble on about why Animorphs was so fucking great.
So, in the beginning, the series had very distinct good guys and bad guys.
Now, what made them good guys and bad guys?
Well, their goals made them good guys and bad guys.
One side was fighting to enslave humanity and destroy the Earth. The other side was fighting to keep that from happening.
And, in the beginning, that was enough.
But it’s a sixty-book series, and a little ways in, by about book sixteen, the kids are starting to ask themselves (and each other), “Hey. Wait. No. Can we honestly pretend the ends justify the means?”
“Can we honestly tell ourselves that, because we’re defending our planet, literally anything we do is automatically justified?”
“Is it not possible for us to go too far?”
“Are there moves that it’s fundamentally morally indefensible to make?”
And from that point onward, it’s not just about goals. Now it’s also about tactics. They’re the good guys because they have Limits, because they have Rules.
They say, “No, we’re not going to pretend the ends justify the means.”
“We’re not going to sink to the level of our enemies.”
“We’re not going to be cruel. We’re not going to be cutthroat. We’re not going to be inhumane or controlling. We’re gonna be clean. We’re gonna be good. We’re gonna be ethical and compassionate.”
“There’s no point fighting our enemies if we just become them in the process. We have to be the bigger people.”
And, again, for a while, that’s enough.
But if the series is about anything, it’s about how war breaks down everything you think you know about yourself. By the end of the series, all six main characters have committed atrocities on a massive scale.
There’s one book late in the series where they literally threaten to nuke their own hometown, and all the innocent people in it, because it becomes strategically advantageous.
Now, they end up not having to because the enemy folds, but the fact that they almost did it, the fact that they would have done it if they’d been pushed just a little bit farther, fucking haunts them.
But at least they didn’t, right? Like, if nothing else, at least they have the small, quiet comfort of knowing it ultimately didn’t come to that.
Oh, except, four books later, they end up nuking it, anyway.
It’s that kind of series. You’re never out of the woods.
In the beginning, the good guys’ leader, Jake, is specifically a reluctant leader. He didn’t want the job. He didn’t ask for it. If he could, he’d happily give it to someone else. He becomes the leader because he’s the one every other member of the group instinctively turns to when times are tough.
He becomes the leader because they need him to be the leader.
Not because he wants power, not because he likes it, not because he thinks he’s the best guy for the job. But solely because, when the chips are down, he’s the one they turn to. Every time.
They elect him, despite his own protests.
He is humble, and he is brave, and he’s this very idealized archetype.
He’s very much cast in the mold of, like, Pop Culture George Washington, the venerated veteran who naturally, effortlessly just exudes strength and power and wisdom and confidence and charisma but honestly really just wants a moment alone in the shade.
That changes by the end of the series.
By the end of the series, he is just a straight-up dictator. He has seventeen thousand defenseless prisoners executed just because he can.
Just because he wants to watch them die.
It’s actually pointed out in the last book, in canon, that he is, by all rights, a war criminal several times over – and that the only reason he’s not being prosecuted is because he was on the winning side.
A lot of fucked-up shit happens in the last five or ten books. Probably the most downright sickening thing is when the good guys recruit a small army of physically disabled kids, then basically throw them at the enemy as a momentary distraction. And they’re slaughtered. All of them.
But what makes the series memorable isn’t just that a lot of really dark and shocking stuff ends up happening. That’s not special by itself.
It’s that the characters spend so much time talking about it.
You know, it’s a kids’ series – these are, like, fourth-grade reading level – that isn’t remotely afraid to have hard conversations about how there’s no such thing as a good war, how even good people can be swayed to do terrible things, and how no one is ever above reproach.
I’m not going to say it’s necessarily perfect, sensitivity-wise, but it’s kind of amazing how much it doesn’t take for granted.
It’s very willing to have the debate (whatever debate happens to be at hand), show all sides, and let that play out to its natural endpoint.
And all this exists in a series that also has plots like, “I turned into a starfish, and a random little kid chopped me in half (because kids are jerks), and then both halves regenerated into a separate me, except one is good and one is evil, weirdly, for some reason, and we need to recombine ourselves by electrocuting each other.”
- Mod A.