“What is it that makes someone insane – that makes them deranged, irrational, crazy?” asks Mr. Wren, the deep-voiced narrator expertly acted by the ever-intense and wonderful Darin De Paul.
This is the second season of the show where master storyteller Ivan Van Norman leads a talented cast through a game of Dread, the Impossible Dream’s 2005 roleplaying game. In it, the cast undergo a dramatic story whilst trying – in even more dramatic fashion – not to knock over their giant Jenga tower.
I know. It sounds weird. But trust me: you have not truly felt anticipation until you have watched a Jenga tower bend at such an angle that you are convinced it will fall…only for it to hold on by a thread.
[From this point on, there may be spoilers.]
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t like the horror genre. I jump at things exceptionally easily and, combined with my anxiety disorder, this makes me not a great fan of jump scares or the things usually found in horror. But I love deep, dark psychological stories.
So when the first Sagas of Sundry series, Dread, was announced – I didn’t intend to watch it. And then I realised that it had Matthew Mercer and Taliesin Jaffe in it, and being the obsessed Critter that I am, I decided to give it a go. Unsurprisingly, I was not disappointed.
Dread was gripping, and tense, and emotional, and wonderful. I loved it, cried at it, jumped out of my seat with delight when people made successful pulls. Then, some time later, the second series was announced: Madness.
I entered with slightly more trepidation, even though this series had Liam O’Brien and Marisha Ray in. Because, as much as I have come to love the Lovecraftian genre – having spent a lot of time playing the Eldritch Horror boardgame and the Arkham Horror LCG – where there is madness and insanity, there is the risk of terrible depictions of mental illness.
No, the sort of insanity characterised by Lovecraft’s works is not mental illness as it is in the real world – but they do, inevitably, cross over. It is very common to see characters in this genre with some form of mental illness, and Sagas of Sundry is no exception.
Selina Tsukiyama, the hacker portrayed by Erika Ishii, experiences vivid auditory hallucinations and was institutionalised prior to the story’s beginning. Emmett Markham, Liam O’Brien’s character, is shown having visual hallucinations of the dead woman that he loved. But they are not alone in experiencing mental distress: every single one of the characters has some form of trauma in their past.
This is a setup that could easily go very wrong – but it doesn’t.
So often in media portrayals of mental illness, we see the painful trope that is “mental illness as a source of superpowers”. Consider the concept of the genius investigator who has some form of social or personality disorder which (and I say this with the greatest sarcasm) ‘enables them to focus more clearly on their work’. The depressed artist who produces masterworks because they are ‘so sad’. The OCD assistant who is incredibly good at their job because they are ‘obsessed with putting things in the right place’.
Even as a fan, I went into Sagas of Sundry: Madness fearing that this trope, which is grounded in a misrepresentation of mental illness, was going to rear its ugly head again – and I was going to be left feeling disappointed.
Instead, something else happened. In episode 3, the characters discover notes written about them by their mysterious landlord. They contain secrets that no one else should know, which shakes them deeply.
Selina initially tries to hide hers, but gives it up when threatened by Abigail, who believes her to be in league with the landlord. The note is passed around the room, and Selina stammers to explain a single word written on it: institutionalised.
“I don’t remember it,” she says, as Van Norman acts the voices she can hear, urging her to stop what is happening, to stop them from finding out. This is something he does painfully throughout the series – articulating not only the urges, but the vicious loathing, the relentless hatred to which she is subjected.
“You don’t have to tell us,” protests Fenly (Xander Jeanneret) as Selina makes her pull from the tower. “It’s okay.”
And as she succeeds in the pull, Van Norman echoes that mantra. He talks through her journey from stuck in that painful loop of thoughts and voices to being settled – calm – at peace. Because now they know, and she does not have to hide it, and she does not have to bear it alone.
Then Abigail puts hers down on the ground. “Here,” she says, giving up the truths on her own slip as a peace offering. The others all lay their own down, and determined to find out the truth, they move on to the landlord’s room.
From that moment on, no one challenges Selina for her past. None of them challenge any of the others. They accept, and listen, and support.
So how is this different? It’s different because yes, there is a link between the supernatural insanity of the forces around them and the mundane mental illness that Selina suffers. Her slip itself reads: “mental instability could lead to influence”. Through the series you see other people hearing voices, having visions, all as a result of the supernatural power present.
But in that moment, you see something: a clear distinction between the madness of the infinite expanse and the horrors of their own minds. Selina doesn’t transform by the revelation of her past. She doesn’t overcome her illness by being exposed to a supernatural form of insanity. She just reveals what she has been the whole way through: strong, and brave, and enduring.
It is that endurance, gained through years of pain and trauma, that sees her become one of the lynchpins of the group. Ishii’s acting does this great justice. You see, suddenly, that Selina has always been more than her diagnosis. That she is a deeply sensitive, emotional woman who loves fully and completely. (I recommend going back and rewatching the Prologue to truly appreciate this).
The other characters embrace her and she, in turn, holds them up. As the episodes continue, this happens too for the others. In the landlord’s room they explain more of their histories, of what happened to them – it becomes, even amidst the terror and horror, a room of catharsis.
These were the parts that had me sobbing more than any other, because this is the entire reason that I have always loved psychological stories. Stories that have the capacity to explore and show the depth of human experience, especially when it comes to mental illness and trauma. To give us a safe place to consider those things and to help us endure.
To show us that we are stronger than we believe. That we are far more, far far more, than just what is written on a slip of paper.
Just like Selina.