The Blackwell Franchise: Joey Uses Rosangela (4000 words)
Disclaimer: before you start reading this essay, I'd like to say that I love the Blackwell franchise and that my appreciation of it is (mostly) independant from the interpretation that follows. I loved Joey's character, I loved Rosa. I loved the sensitivity of the stories, the motivations of the characters and their depth. This reading came to me after I finished the five games and it's only the result of my appreciation of them. So, I'm not developping this idea as if it proved something like "If I'm right, the games are great but if I'm wrong, then they aren't that great." The franchise is great and deep and complex and that's why we can reflect upon it and try to find meaning to it.
When I finished The Blackwell Franchise about two months ago, I was so flabbergasted by the ending that I couldn’t take it seriously. Not only is it dark, but it actually doesn’t make a lot of sense at the moment you see it. By that I mean that from the beginning of Legacy we have been brought to wonder whether Rosa was going to manage to avoid suffering the same fate as Patricia and Lauren Blackwell and not only does she eventually fail even more remarkably* but Joey is suddenly brought back to life for no reason whatsoever. And you expect Rosa to reappear as a ghost, but she doesn’t.
*from a certain point of view.
Several things made me become extremely suspicious; the first one was that Joey has no reason to come back to life from a narrative point of view. If we were all surprised by this conclusion it’s because the ghost never complains about being dead. In Deception, he expresses the idea that maybe it wasn’t worth it to die in order to save Danny Marconi. But he never talks about how great it was to be alive. No regrets, no now unfulfillable desires, no memories of how steaks, Brussels sprouts or beer were tasty, no nostalgic remark about making love, no salacious pun about how he would make love to Rosa if he had a body, nothing. (Actually, there's one joke about the fact that Rosangela can only touch Joey's tie at the very beginning of the whole story).
Because Joey’s desire to come back to life is never voiced the final twist feels slightly hollow and a bit unemotional… that which is surprising from a Blackwell game: in the same episode, four secondary characters get their souls torn and it leaves the player shocked because he had developed some empathy for them, but the main ghost of the franchise comes back to life and it feels uncalled for and strangely bland. I doubt any player actually cheered or even rejoiced to see Joey get this second chance. If the logical end had been this, elements would have been developed for us to feel sad when it’s time for Joey to be saved and others would have been developed to make us feel happy when suddenly Rosa finds a way to bring him back to life. But there’s nothing. Joey’s resurrection comes up as a complete and anti-climactic surprise: because for god’s sake he comes back to life at the second Rosa dies (and this, we’ve feared since the beginning), she gives him her life. Just read these words you actually do not need more than them: Joey comes back to life the second Rosa dies. On a metaphorical level that kind of co-incidence (often) means: “she dies because of him.” Otherwise, she would have been alive for thirty seconds more, enough time for Joey to kiss her for example. She dies off-screen while Joey's resurrection is happening in front of our eyes.
Joey is obviously pretty convincing as a friend from start to finish. That's why I'm saying his goal is unconscious. He cannot be a simple manipulator, he has a split personality. He is convinced that he loves Rosa and at the same time, he behaves like a monster towards her and sacrifices her to his goal.
The second thing that made me feel very suspicious was the fact that every single ghost of the planet manages to enter the vortex, but not Joey. Why ? Just because he can’t. This is intolerably suspicious. Not only can’t he be saved, but we don’t even see him try to go into the white light. He talks about it once or twice in the whole franchise but we never actually witness him getting rejected by the light.
Rosa: “What about you ? Can you go through that hole and move on ?”
Joey: “I wish darling, but I can’t. I’ve tried before, but it just spits me back out. I’m stuck here whether I like it or not.”
At some point he even dares utter a “Believe me I tried” when he is just in front of the light and it wouldn’t cost him much to show, to prove that he cannot enter it.
If Rosa saved ALL the ghosts, it means that she most probably also saved all the spirit guides. There’s only Joey left. One possibility would be that she unconsciously didn’t want to save him, that she prevented him from entering the vortex. But it just plain doesn’t work. Getting rid of Joey was certainly the thing that Rosa wanted the most.
“I’m sorry, Joey. I thought you’d be gone. I really hoped you would be gone. I didn’t want you to see this.”
Then, there’s this very awkward line at the end: “Is that what I’m supposed to get from all this ? That life is worth living ? I guess I’ve gotta get out there and find out for myself.” This reflection is absurd. It is just as weird as if Rosa had survived and concluded: “I guess the lesson I have to get from all this is that I shouldn’t be too prone to judge people.” It’s just a common place that comes out of nowhere and means little in the context. Did Joey ever said that life wasn't worth living ? Did he sacrifice himself for Danny Marconi because life wasn't worth living ? Did he thank Rosa for saving his life because life isn't worth living ? Lauren at the end of the game seems to believe that nothings matters, ok. But appart from this character who's been through a lot of horrible things, I don't see which one could problematize the worthiness of existence and ask for a conclusion that says "life is worth living."
So why did that make me suspicious? It made me suspicious because Joey has nothing to say about Rosa. He is disposing of her ashes and has zero word for her, he is only talking about himself. He starts with “I don’t see ‘em anymore” and rambles about how he doesn’t see or hear ghosts anymore, and you’ve got the feeling that he’s going to say that he is looking for Rosa, that he misses her but NO, he is simply saying that he is normal. Wahou ! Good for you pal ! Do you realise that you’re scattering the ashes of a girl who had no life because of you ? Plus, when was it talked about that Joey enjoyed seeing ghosts… or the contrary ? This ending would make more sense if he were Rosa, “I don’t hear ‘em anymore, I am normal.” This makes sense if Rosa says it, not Joey. Joey was one of them, he had been through the process of dying, there was nothing surprising or abnormal in the fact that he could converse with other ghosts or see them.
And finally, the last thing that made me suspicious was the simple fact that at the beginning of Legacy, Joey is introduced as a curse. Patricia and Lauren Blackwell mysteriously became crazy and you’re not told why exactly. You learn that Lauren shouted “Joey” while she was in delirium. Jack heard his mother shout “Joey” too. Then you have the headaches, the idea that it runs in the family etc… there is a little built up leading to Joey’s appearance in Rosa’s life. He is introduced as the curse, the danger, the problem and you are supposed to be suspicious about him. Because two Blackwells already died, we are spontaneously brought to believe that Rosa’s fate will be special (true), that she’ll be the one to put an end to the curse (true) and that therefore she makes the right choices (false), or at least better choices than her aunt or grand-ma (false).
So even though we are never given any proper reason to trust Joey, and he never becomes something positive in Rosa’s life, we put our trust in the fact that she is the main character and most probably the Blackwell woman who will solve everything. The thing is, I liked Lauren more than Rosa and I kept in mind the fact that I had at no point seen any proof that Joey was a positive character (no matter how much intelligence, sensitivity and humour he might display). So when at the end Rosa suffers the exact fate that was announced from the start and Joey walks away promising her that her death will not be an obstacle to his appreciation of life -in other words “I don’t care you died”- I felt there was something truly iffy about the whole story.
The idea that I’m going to develop throughout this analysis is thus that Joey is the villain of the story in that at the end he’s obtained exactly what he was looking for from the start and has sacrificed or hurt a few people along the way. Joey refuses to die and does everything in his power to avoid going into the light.
Being the villain doesn’t mean that he is aware of his goal and in fact he is not. There is much room left for the unconscious in the Blackwell franchise. The ghosts that we come across are not aware of their deaths because there is a very specific thing that they wish they could have done before dying and they constantly suppress many hints at their state. Joey is a “meta” ghost in that he is not trying to remain unaware of his death, he is suppressing the fact that he didn’t want to die… that which brings us straight back to his conclusion: “But I get it now. I LIKE being alive. Is that so wrong ? (Who said it was wrong !?! Very suspicious guilt-ridden question here) Is that what I’m supposed to get from all this ? That life is worth living ? I guess I’ve gotta get out there and find out for myself. Goodbye Rosa Blackwell. I don’t know how long I’ve got, but I know I’ll see you again. Someday. But until then… I’ll try to make this count.”
The weird final monologue actually works perfectly with a character who wasn’t aware of how much he loved being alive… that which brings me back to my theory: Joey does everything he can to come back to life but he suppresses it into his subconscious. He thus feels attached to Rosa and believes that he is on her side and is honest with her etc… when actually he only is as long as she doesn’t become an obstacle to his real goal: resurrection.
Joey could become aware of his goal if he was confronted to something that was worth sacrificing his life. Let's say that for a random reason if he went into the white light instead of Kendra she would come back to life and he thought the little girl was worth sacrificing himself. In this case, he would suddenly realise that he actually can enter the white light, or he would just "give it a try." But as long as his priority remains "coming back to life" then the goal remains unconscious and Joey thinks he is a nice guy (and he is to a certain extent) who does what he is supposed to do.
“I’m sorry sweetheart. Not even the power of the universe inside your head can help me move on.” => simply because he is not trying to use this power, he is not trying to move on. Also, take note of the dubious formulation.
Stories that tackle supernatural stuff like ghosts, the afterlife and life energies ask for a certain level of suspension of disbelief by definition. However, they still need to keep a certain level of coherence so as not to lose their audience’s interest. From the start, I felt that the concept of the spirit guide and the medium was flawed. Madeline actually voices my grievance with her own words at the end of the game:
“Since humanity crawled out of the ocean, they began to deny death. Denied it so much that the post of Bestower was created. In all that time, humanity has learned NOTHING. Helping their pathetic souls all this time has achieved NOTHING. […] I am finished with being at the whims of an unknowable universe. I am taking my fate into my own hands !”
How could the universe create a post ? Dying is a natural process of life, you don’t create a job to help in the matter. And if you want to write a story with characters that can, you create immortal ones like Grim Reapers, Gods or Gobelins. Characters that embody life phenomenon have to be as “timeless” as life. Moreover, the personality of these characters should be one-dimensional and goal oriented, not human like (Even Madeline eventually cracks). Of course, if the Blackwell franchise had followed that approach the games would be dull. I’m absolutely not saying that they should have done that, I am saying that the savings could very well not be what we think they are if a human being is involved.
The logic of the supernatural in the Blackwell universe revolves around three main ideas (I think, there obviously could be more):
1-Human beings create energy, positive or negative, just by being alive.
2-All human beings are linked through this energy.
3-There is a (somewhat lose) energetic balance between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
If reluctant ghosts were a problem, a “natural” vortex similar to the one that appears in Epiphany would form, just like a whirlwind or lightning, and it would swallow a few of them until the energetic balance between the two worlds was restored. Everything would be solved automatically through a natural phenomenon.
We have to consider the idea that the spirit guides and the mediums in the game aren’t doing anything truly useful or worse… are doing something harmful.
Ghosts remain in the world of the living for a reason. There is something that they cannot let go of their lives and which they need to “resolve.” Once the problem is solved, the ghosts spontaneously reach their own personal mind doors to the white light (the light that we are supposed to see when we die). That’s not what happens with Joey and Rosa, our heroes do not help ghosts reach closure. They force them to become aware of their deceased state through rationality as opposed to creating an adequate environment in which the ghosts don’t need to suppress the knowledge of their own death anymore. Then they force them into Rosa’s head (and she hurts herself each time in the process) to make them go through the white light. It’s not what should happen.
Of course, if Joey and Rosa do what they do, it is because they’re in a case of force majeure. Except that they’re not.
If you take a close look at all the beautiful and sad ghost stories that we come across in the franchise you’ll notice that most of them asked for a different resolution.
One good example of that is Frank Lyons’ saving in Convergence. Many ghosts in the franchise can interact with the world of the living through a specific ability. Monique heard Frank’s voice in the park where he died. She isn’t a medium. They had something going on but never acknowledged it (Monique inherits a cat from Frank = her libido was his. She still jogs in the park where he died every morning and hasn’t had his apartment emptied yet). If Frank’s special ability is to be heard by Monique whenever he recites his lines it’s because he wants her to come and talk to him. He wants to end his life on this note: finishing the movie with Monique. And actually, the player is made to believe that Frank only wants to finish the movie because he is such a perfectionnist, but once it's done, the man realises that it wasn't enough, that it wasn't what he needed to move on. Reciting the lines in the park would have worked if Monique hadn’t known about the existence of Rosa. But she does and Rosa comes instead of her, clumsily answers Frank, even throws an awkward fit and then brings him to the light, depriving him of the specific farewell he wanted to give life (and Monique).
Another good example is the one of Kendra, the little girl. Kendra’s special ability allows her to play the piano (although she is dead). She's learnt the theme of a video game that she likes and wants her dad to hear it. The obvious "happy" ending is Emil going to his ex-wife’s house and hearing the music, allowing his little girl to play the melody for him. Instead of this Joey and Rosa take an unforgivable risk by bringing the girl to the dad’s apartment: if Kendra realises that she is dead (she notices that it’s snowing but she doesn’t feel cold and that she doesn’t make any step in the snow whereas Rosa does) she is in danger of suffering the same horrible fate as George Ostin, Lia Pierro and all the ghosts who end up having their souls torn. Joey and Rosa only needed to bring the dad back to the house and Kendra would have moved on without their help. Instead they made her walk to her dad's apartment, her last vision is the one of the poor man sleeping (Metaphorically dead or even literally).
The ghosts’ special abilities suggest what needs to happen for them to be able to naturally move on, sadly Joey and Rosa never take these elements into account. They just unsubtly force the ghosts into oblivion.
One of the things that would have supported this argument but isn't in the games, is a story where the ghost moves on on its own. For example, if Rosa simply failed to bring Frank Lyons to awareness but Monique went one last time to the park and actually made Frank move on… or if Emil unexpectedly visited Lia's house (while the player is there) that which allowed Kendra to play her music and die peacefully.
The problem is that if this happened it would alter the story drastically because Rosa would realize that what she and Joey do is either wrong or useless, and she wouldn’t want to do it anymore… or she would want to truly help the ghosts reach their goal and move on to the next world satisfied. (We’ll see why this is problematic)
At the end of Deception she states that the business of saving ghosts should be fulfilling to a certain extent, it should feel good, but doesn’t at all. She just feels empty. If truly she was helping the ghosts reach a proper closure, she wouldn’t feel that way. She would still live a lonely and frustrating existence, but she wouldn't feel empty after having saved a ghost.
If Joey and Rosa’s actions are harmful, they still must have a reason to happen on a narrative level. Someone must have an interest in all this otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to simply tell such a strange story.
The person who profits from these aggressions is, of course, Joey.
Let’s take a look at the phenomenon of dying in the game, from the point of view of life energy.
If someone dies and is fine with it, the person will simply move on to the next world. Like Claude the artist who is killed by The Countess but whose ghost is never to be seen (Or Emil). It's a neutral phenomenon from the point of view of energy.
However, if a person feels that they have one more thing to do before they can let go they will remain in the world of the living under the shape of a ghost. The energy that is used to make them remain arises from their rejection of death because of a final desire for something. It’s not a general or ideological rejection of death, it’s just a desire to procrastinate it a little bit until something is resolved.
So, truly, what makes them resist death is a respect and an appreciation of existence; a true disinterested love of life. Disinterested because they are not affected anymore by what happens in the world of the living. They have no reason to care except ideological disembodied ones. If Frank Lyons wanted to tell Monique “I loved you Monique” before leaving, it’s not for his own sake, it’s for hers. It’s because he believes that life is worth living, and he wants her to have an agreeable one. If he thought life was meaningless, he wouldn’t care about bringing anyone joy, five seconds before vanishing.
And so, ghosts represent, most of the time, positive energy. When Joey and Rosa force these ghosts into the light without “solving” their stories, the positive energy is left unused and Joey can have it.
However when Joey meets Benjiro Hatori the “vampire”, the latter explains him how he used to steal positive energy from people in order to remain alive: “I enabled them to achieve their heart’s hidden desire to create a SURPLUS of positive energy. And I… skimmed off the top.” By forcing awareness upon ghosts instead of trying to truly help them, Joey deprived himself of a lot more positive energy than he ever managed to gather.
Funnily/conveniently enough he meets Benjiro Hatori at the end of the franchise, after he and Rosa have saved their last ghost. We never see them save another ghost, if we did, I'd bet Joey would suddenly suggest a new approach: "Hey, Rosa, maybe we should be a bit more tactful and try to give the ghosts what they want."
While Rosa tries as hard as she can to escape this life, Joey puts all his efforts into preventing anything from changing. His goal is to gather enough positive energy so as to be able to use it to resurrect. I’m not saying that he knows that he can do so from the start, not at all. It’s more like he develops an addiction to positive energy because it spontaneously gives him what he truly, deeply craves for and is never capable of facing the reality behind this addiction: he cannot accept his death because he never realised that he loved being alive when he still was.
Unbound shows us examples of ghosts who shouldn’t get what they want: Isaac Brown and Mavis Wilcox. Their last desire is not life-affirming but on the contrary it represents a last harm done to someone.
Mavis Wilcox is a woman who made her kid feel guilty for wanting to live his own life. She never moved from her apartment as a mean to tell him: ”See what you done to your mother ?” She moved for nobody. She was given a fortune to move out, but remained in that stupid apartment.
It's strange that Sam Durkin should be the cop who will end up befriending Rosangela. Is it simply because of this phone call ? And John Durkin announces the death of Jack and Mary to Lauren.
However, Joey only needs to emotionally blackmail Mavis for five seconds while pretending that he is her son, and she exits the place. She gives her son the responsibility of making her happy. She makes him feel that if he is not there for her, she won’t have any desire to be. It’s a non-consummated incestuous relationship and she shouldn’t have been saved before she realised that she was a morbid mother.
Isaac Wilcox is in love with his sister and prevents her from entering a romantic relationship with Cecil Sharpe. By forcing her to play with him at the end of each concert, he reminds her of how much he needs her. Sarah ends up losing her voice. It’s a psychosomatic answer to his abuse, but through this she also loses her will to live and dies. Isaac Brown stole her life from his sister. His ghostly sax playing on the promenade is sick. We spontaneously believe that what he is waiting for is for his sister to come and play with him one last time because he can’t face the fact that she’s dead. But deep inside he knows that she won’t come, and that if someone plays with him it’ll be Cecil. Suppressing something into your subconscious doesn't mean that you don't behave according to it. Isaac suppresses the fact that his sister died, but he wouldn't wait for her to come and play with him.
He is waiting for the man that his sister loved to come and help him pretend that she isn’t dead. Isaac’s last wish is to have the man he’s deprived of the woman he loved help him suppress the fact that he is responsible for her death. This is sick and he only deserves to be left alone until he finally faces the truth.
Both these ghosts should be left alone and Joey and Lauren’s intervention allows them to get away with their "crimes." They leave the world of the living thinking “it’s fine.” This will even have tragic consequences upon the life of Ken Sharpe, Cecil’s son, and Tiffany Walters, in Deception.
Ghosts can remain on earth for wrong reasons and develop abilities according to negative goals. Isaac is able to play the saxophone and be heard. However, if these negative ghosts are satisfied, they will move on too. They are not rejecting death, they are procrastinating it until they are ready, just like any other ghost.
What happens when a ghost doesn’t procrastinate death but actually completely rejects it ? What is its ability if its subconscious desire is not to die ? (The desire that makes the ghosts remain on earth is often unconscious it seems).
What happens, I suppose, is that its reluctance creates a “vortex displacement.” The ghost expulses his “white light”, his link to the infinite, as far as he can from its mind and it ends up in another person’s, the mind of a person who does not reject death as much as the ghost does (I suppose).
It’s important to remember that Rosa becomes a medium ONLY when Lauren dies. She never had any propensity to spot ghosts before. So, she becomes a medium only when Joey is passed on to her. If Joey is the reason why she becomes a medium, then she isn’t one. The Blackwell family doesn't have a gift that the women genetically pass on, otherwise they would see ghosts before Joey's arrival in their life.
Rosangela is a living organism that gets infested by a parasite. How do you call this ? A host. Oh ! Surprise ! That’s how Madeline refers to Jocelyn and Joey to Rosa.
Joey spiritually cracked Rosa’s head open and that’s the only reason why she now can see and hear ghosts. She is a victim or a prey, not a partner with special powers.
The white light in her head is Joey’s. The natural purpose of the spirit guide/medium relationship is for the reluctant ghost to enter the medium’s mind and accept its fate through the influence of a person who doesn’t reject death. Once it’s done, the medium is cured and can go on with his/her life. That’s all ! Rosa’s head remains cracked because it’s never Joey that goes through the white light. That's also why the first time Rosa manages not to fall is when she sends Joey in the doorway to the infinite. (Deception)
(Nightmarish edit: and the final vortex is caused by Joey's energy surplus. Not only can he go through it, but he is the sole one who needs to go through it to have it disappear.).
But as Joey quickly realises that sending ghosts produces positive energy he just drags Lauren and Rosa in his madness. The goal becomes gathering enough positive energy to be able to resurrect.