Kings and Vagabonds: In Defense and Celebration of Jean-Jacques Leroy
I hadn’t expected JJ to become my favorite character, at first. Settling in for an unusually early snowfall in mid-November, I went into his introductory episode with the amount of hype I’d come to anticipate since becoming a fan of Yuri on Ice: Kubo-sensei had tweeted positive things about him beforehand, particularly about his short program song; his character design was attractive; his official description established him as a viable contender. My first impression, scrabbled together from these few snippets, was of someone mature, suave, professional, maybe even a little intimidating. Oh, how wrong I was. And I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.
JJ was ridiculous, JJ was over-the-top, and JJ was, above all else in that first episode, entertaining. Ultimately, I was amused by his introduction, sending off a volley of blissful 3 am tweets before turning in for the night, content. I woke up to snow and everyone else’s laughter. My first forays into JJ fandom came with a healthy dose of irony: I liked him because I was entertained by him, but, don’t worry (I’d assure everyone), I was in on the joke. JJ fandom post-episode 8 was all in good fun. I wondered how “Partizan Hope” could possibly top “Theme of King JJ” for ridiculousness, meanwhile changing all of my alarms to blare “Theme of King JJ” when I awoke. I lovingly dubbed him Leroy Jenkins and prepared myself for comic relief.
I was wrong again. Episode 9 came and gave us a taste of what was motivating JJ. We’d seen love and its many forms emerge as one of the central themes of Yuri on Ice, and at first, JJ would seem to embody the notion of self-love. Initially, it appeared to border on arrogance, though it was tempered by his deep gratitude.
And in episode 9, we got our first hints that there was more to JJ than meets the eye. I think we all missed it, that we were distracted. He was banging out a flawless performance, and his inner monologue would seem to reflect not just confidence, but cockiness. The announcers sing his praises, list his accolades. A desire to beat Victor in competition swiftly turns into JJ speculating that Victor’s withdrawal from the competitive circuit was out of fear of losing to him. “That poor guy, Victor!” he scoffs. And then it cuts to this close-up.
It wasn’t an expression that matched his thoughts at all. He looks nervous, stressed. Did he really believe what he was telling himself? Was it arrogant boasting, or frantic reassurance?
Episode 10 did the collective fandom in by showing us that our first impressions of characters and situations might not have aligned with reality at all. Yuuri’s prior drunken antics snowballed into the current state of affairs, with we the audience learning that Yuuri was an utterly unreliable narrator. Victor’s motivations became clear in ways we couldn’t have predicted, and context even managed to cast Chris in a friendlier light. Yet, while the previous year’s Grand Prix Final was the catalyst for this year’s successes, in episode 10 we were also seeing the pieces being laid to catalyze someone else’s failure.
Episode 10 showed us that JJ, while possessed of a strong support network of those who love him, was lacking in support from his fellow skaters. We meet Isabella Yang, who is just… so great, she is just so, so great. Yet her introduction immediately shows her antagonizing Yurio with a pointed enough edge to indicate she’d done her research. The cutting comments all came from Isabella; I immediately figured JJ didn’t bristle at Yurio’s verbal abuse of his girlfriend because he knew she’d come looking for a fight and that she wasn’t in particular need or want of defending. Rather, it stood to reason that she was the one doing the protecting. Had JJ told Isabella that Yurio had been hostile to him in the past? Was she taking it upon herself to defend him, knowing he was the sort to laugh everything off, instead?
JJ was the first to deescalate the conflict, lightly suggesting Yurio calm down before inviting Otabek out to lunch. He accepted the declination gracefully, citing a passing familiarity with Otabek’s lone wolf tendencies. And then came another thing we may have missed on our first watching, distracted by (ultimately more important matters such as) missing nuts and engagement rings. When JJ and Isabella reappear, breaking up a tense moment at the dinner table with a bit of bravado and theatrics, Otabek was there with literally all of the other skaters. Otabek, who had declined JJ’s invitation, which JJ had likely chalked up to a preference for meals taken alone. JJ seemed unperturbed at this, though. He joined in on their joke, realizing too late that he was Excluded from being Allowed to do so. The brunt of the tension and awkwardness was transferred to him, and he was left alone, shouting that his engagement and goals were simply a joke in one last attempt at peacemaking.
And so, we are then shown the Jean-Jacques Leroy of episode 11. Someone who, in the eyes of the skating world, was mature, suave, professional, maybe even a little intimidating. A viable contender. Someone slated to take home the gold in an eventual grand-slam, the skater to watch out for, the man to beat. He’d taken Victor’s place. Yet we knew that Victor had friends and admirers. We’d seen Phichit watching videos of his routines. His relationship with Chris was well-established; his relationship with Yuuri, first as idol and then as lover, even more so. He was the living legend, the accepted leader; his competing seasons saw the other skaters in a race to place second rather than defeat him. But, how did the other skaters view JJ? Or, rather, how did JJ, himself perceive their attitude towards him?
As viewers, we had seen all of these characters independent of their interactions with JJ, and could thus objectively state that JJ’s impression of them was skewed. But how could he know that, when all he’d seen was ambivalence at best, rejection at worst, and when he knew that the path to the gold medal hinged not on anyone outperforming him — his technical score was simply too high to allow that — but on him crashing and burning?
How would JJ have fared if he’d had friends in the skating community? If they’d pulled up an extra two seats for Isabella and him? While friendship is not immunity from anxiety — Yuuri illustrates this quite clearly, and is even able to remark on their similarities while watching JJ succumb to the pressure — I imagine he would have felt at least the slightest bit less targeted had he known that his peers saw him as more than an obstacle.
But he was not unloved.
Though his self-love takes a hit, it is JJ’s gratitude that ultimately carries him safely through the gauntlet laid before him. His parents, his fiancée, the people of Canada. His parents, former ice dancers and Olympic champions at that, who agreed to be his coach when no one else could support his goals. His fiancée, strong and fierce as a lioness, who knew exactly how to show him love in his moment of weakness and vulnerability. His fans, who cheered for him even when he wasn’t perfect. His gratitude helped him rediscover his self-love, reaffirm his identity, and be true to himself — not as a replacement for Victor, not as simply the man to beat, but as a man with goals, with passion, who sought to challenge himself on his own terms. More so than any medal, that sense of conviction was the real victory for Jean-Jacques Leroy.
And I was even more assured in my conviction that JJ was my favorite character.
Jean-Jacques Leroy was passionate, enthusiastic, open and honest. Jean-Jacques Leroy was — yes — obnoxious, but ultimately harmless, the nervous kid who tries to use humor as their “in”, perhaps a kid too used to the company of his family and the safety net of an adoring fanbase who mistakenly assumes he is already understood and accepted by all he meets. It surprised me when the other skaters unanimously rejected him; and it surprised me even more when the fans, existing outside the framework of the story and with a more objective base from which to analyze character traits and motivations, largely rejected him as well.
I’ve been trying to figure out why this is. I’ve watched his episodes over countless times, and have found little evidence of actual antagonistic behavior, save the “ladies first” comment which was positively mild compared to, say, most of Yurio’s interactions with the rest of the cast. If anything, he’d been friendly and encouraging of the other skaters, with his good intentions possibly confounded by awkwardness. I couldn’t see where this “asshole” characterization bestowed upon him by the fandom was coming from, and I found it strange, if not downright hypocritical, that a fandom so ready to celebrate the respectful and accurate portrayal of Yuuri’s introverted anxiety was also so quick to dismiss or deny JJ’s anxiety, which presented extrovertedly. If anything, I was laughing to my friends about how JJ was a complete combo-breaker for me as far as favorite characters were concerned: I’ve gone for icy, ruthless villains since time immemorial.
Watching a show as it’s coming out it’s a much different experience than binge-watching. In the weeks between episodes, to keep ourselves engaged, we fall back on our own creations: art, fiction, fan theories. This is normally a great thing, homage and celebration and all that. It’s fun (if not a little nerve-wracking) to speculate and to see how accurate your predictions were. But I feel like, in this particular case, JJ was absolutely a victim of fan-created bias. In the space between episodes, an especially vocal opposition was allowed to fill the gaps, and even though his character was rounded out only three episodes after his introduction, that one month appears to have done enough damage. Even though the general opinion towards him did seem to soften after episode 11, a lot of it seemed to come more from a place of schadenfreude than genuine compassion. I’ve found that those who watched the series later, consuming the episodes in large chunks instead of weekly bites, seem to have an overall more positive/neutral opinion of JJ than the initial viewership.
It’s a shame to see a character you like become, of all things, a problematic fave, but I’m still hoping that after this first wave of opposition dies down, fans will see JJ for the silly, earnest, vulnerable and motivated character he was intended to be.
Thanks to @happy-riceball for urging me to write this, to @aquaticircus and @cicadaemon for listening and joining in on hours of headcanons and rants, to @traditionalthegrace for also encouraging me to put my imagination and adoration to good use, and a shout-out to @samansucks for giving me all her spare JJ’s from blind items.