Last week’s NCIS: Los Angeles episode, “Mother,” written by Eric Christian Olsen and Babar Peerzada and directed by Dennis Smith, has been universally acclaimed by fans thanks to its suspense, romance, and character-driven drama. One aspect that may have been overshadowed by all that fabulousness was the writers’ use of a variety of literary and cinematic references, which can add even more depth to your next rewatch.
A Life of Violence
Before we get into the literature review, let’s talk about one of the writers’ literal references. In interviews before “Mother” aired, ECO described one of the inspirations for the story as coming from On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Dan Grossman. This non-fiction work looked at how the military trains its soldiers to be able to pull the trigger and kill another human being. He explained, saying, “So much of it wasn’t about the individual. It was never about one’s own desires. The only way to get that success rate – and I say success rate understanding the irony – the way to get these people to fire the gun, the weapon, was making it about something larger, and so it was about family. It was about protecting democracy.”
The book explores not just how the military achieved this goal, but the repercussions for those soldiers and law enforcement officers, including the psychological costs for anyone who wasn’t mentally prepared or able to justify their actions. That’s part of what ECO and Peerzada set out to show in “Mother.” They approached it by taking the extreme situation where, described ECO, “this life of violence and all of those things that give it justification and rationalization, which are democracy and family love, when those things are stripped away and we’re left with just the violence.”
Ahkos, the “soldier” in question, describes his actions, as well as those of Fimmel and Hetty, as a betrayal of humanity, creating “a debt that can only be paid with our blood.” We’ve seen all these characters use violence to stop violence, but Ahkos decides to turn his skills and inclinations (his “black heart”) against those very people who trained him. He tells Hetty, “I’ve saved humanity from [Fimmel’s] transgressions.”
There’s a ton to unpack with this theme, and I’m not going to attempt it here. Instead, I invite you to come back in January for a special feature on this very topic from the dynamic duo of Brenda and Jericho.
In his promotional interviews, ECO also mentioned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an inspiration, and it’s easy to see Hetty and Ahkos as Frankenstein and her monster.
For those of you, like myself, who’ve never actually read the book, here’s a quick recap. Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, as it’s actually titled, is a horror story of an ambitious science student named Victor Frankenstein, who creates a new being by stitching together decaying body parts from different people (sound familiar to any Frank Military fans?) and using chemistry, alchemy, and electricity to bring it to life. Only rather than care for his creation, he abandons it in fear and disgust. The creature lives a lonely existence and is treated cruelly by others. Rather than take out his anger and anguish on the world, he vows revenge on his creator by taking the lives of those he loves, and in fact kills Frankenstein’s new bride.
ECO and Peerzada tell us that Ahkos would seem to have been doomed from the start, with a name meaning “the grief of the people” and countrymen thinking he was “devil born.” The horrific way he murders Fimmel shows us that he’s turned into a monster. One of the tragic things about his story is that Ahkos himself realizes what he’s become, and, as ECO notes, “he’s horrified.”
Ahkos: Why’d you do it? Why’d you enslave me in this life? Huh?
Hetty: Because this life gives us purpose, and ideals to live by, and in return, that’s what we give the world.
Ahkos: Let others sleep peacefully in their beds at night because creatures such as you and I stand ready to commit violence on their behalf. Those are just lies you tell to pacify the demons you’ve created.
Similarly, the monster tells Frankenstein:
Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.
Early in the episode, Ahkos tells Callen, “I am you when the days drop. Once the favorite son, now a fallen angel.” This understanding of what he’s become matches closely with Frankenstein’s monster, who tells his creator, “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”
In both stories, the monster seeks vengeance on the creator who abandoned him. Frankenstein’s monster says, “I too can create desolation, my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries shall torment and destroy him.” Both the monster and Ahkos succeed in obtaining vengeance against their metaphorical fathers, but Ahkos fails when it comes to his mother.
The other common theme between the two works has to do with pride and ambition. Victor Frankenstein lacks humility, and aspires to create life without any thought to the consequences of his actions or their ethical implications. He says, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s.” Frankenstein becomes so wrapped up in the fantasy that he is unable to anticipate how his experiment could go very wrong. He’s expecting gratitude, but what he really creates are conditions that inspire hatred and revenge.
Just like Frankenstein, Hetty means well. She’s set out to pluck an unknown number of orphans from a life of poverty or violence. Nell describes it as trying “to play god in the lives of the people you say you love.” Unlike Frankenstein, Hetty does love these young people. But like him, she doesn’t always seem to have anticipated the downside of her interventions. She’s horrified by the monster Ahkos has become, and horrified at her role in it, vividly illustrated by her reaction when Ahkos bitterly asks her, “Do you see your creation, Mother? Are you proud of what you brought into this world?”
Frankenstein vows revenge for the death of his bride, but he also shows regret, telling a magistrate, “Man… how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say.” Hetty too, for possibly the first time, also second guesses her actions, telling Callen, “He was right about one thing. I failed him. This was not the life for him. I’m worried that this isn’t the life for you, either, or maybe any of us.”
The Path to Paradise Begins in Hell
The episode is replete with quotes from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. They’re striking and ominous without any additional context, but knowing their origins adds another layer to the episode. Of course, the extent to which ECO and Peerzada intended the additional meaning behind the quotes is unclear, but those origins do fit very well with the episode’s story.
Again, for those of you, like myself, who haven’t read this epic narrative poem, you should know that it was written in the 14th century and is considered one of the greatest works of world literature. It’s divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise or Heaven). It’s a travelogue that follows Dante and his guides on an imaginary journey through these places, but allegorically it represents the soul’s journey towards God. (And by the way, it’s not actually a comedy; the term comes from the way it begins badly but ends well – the opposite of a tragedy.)
The poem begins with Dante lost in a dark wood (understood as sin), assailed by beasts (a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf) he can’t evade and unable to find the way to salvation. He runs into Virgil (a Roman poet and author of his own epic poem, the Aeneid), and begs him to save him. Virgil agrees and tells him he must pass through hell and Purgatory to separate from the world and be disabused of his sinful ways. He guides him first to hell, a cone-shaped crater caused by the fall of Lucifer. This gives us the first reference in “Mother,” on the torn cardboard message Deeks picks up on top of the explosives, “The path to paradise begins in hell.”
Dante’s hell has nine circles through which Dante and Virgil must pass. The punishments suffered by the people in each become increasingly severe to match the vices of the individuals trapped there. For example, in the second circle, lustful people are blown about in a violent storm, without hope of rest. In the third, gluttons are forced to starve while being surrounded by all sorts of delicious looking fruits. The slothful are forced to run constantly. Fortune-tellers must walk with their heads on backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because that was what they had tried to do in life.
Ahkos is like Dante, with Hetty as his guide in the Virgil role. The first time we see him, Fimmel is telling him, “You- You died,” so maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that Ahkos, believed to have been killed a decade before, might see himself as already being in hell. His reference to himself as “now a fallen angel” would also fit this interpretation. He appears to be trying to literally send the team to hell, hence the message on Deeks’ bomb, along with the note on Fimmel’s hands: “Through me, you go into a city of weeping. Through me, you go into eternal pain. Through me you go amongst the people lost.”
He may also be trying to carry out punishments befitting Hetty’s sins, trying to make the punishment fit the crime. He holds her ultimately responsible for his own actions, among them the bombing of Nathasa’s family, shown on a loop lighting up Fimmel’s office. Nathasa even describes the act in vivid, hellish terms, calling it part of “the scorched earth of your foreign policy” and describing how her world “turned to fire,” wiping everyone she ever loved “from the face of this planet.” Perhaps his choice of explosives to take out Deeks and Kensi was at least a subconscious choice to mirror that sin?
Then there’s the especially gruesome way Fimmel is killed. Dante and Virgil do come across a sinner whose severed hands spurt blood; his offence was starting a feud between the two parties that divided Florence, the same type of meddling, or playing god, that Ahkos believes Fimmel carried out as director of Covert Operations. Dante sees other men who’ve been sliced apart from chin on down, and one particular headless man who walks about, holding his head by the hair like a lantern. In life, this man took a great deal of pleasure in seeing towns leveled, and he turned a prince against his father, the king. The man tells them, “Because I parted persons so united, parted do I now bear my brain, alas!” (See below under What’s in the Box? for a little more discussion of severed heads.)
Another aspect of the poem that bears a resemblance to “Mother” is the relationship between Virgil and Dante. Virgil isn’t simply a guide, he acts as a moral teacher, looking out for Dante on their journey. Dante in turn is kind of like the son Virgil never had. In the end, Virgil cannot accompany Dante into heaven, so the two part ways. Like Virgil, Hetty and Fimmel served as Ahkos’ guides. Hetty acknowledges as much when she tell him, “I’m the one who led you down this path.” Hetty cared for him until they were separated, and thought of him as a son, while he obviously saw her as his mother. And in the flashback to his childhood, he sits with Hetty at the museum, surrounded by but kept safe from some of the same beasts as those that attacked Dante.
Inferno contains lots of gory details from which ECO and Peerzada could have drawn inspiration, but I think the most important moment of the Ahkos-Hetty storyline comes from the repetition of these words from Inferno:
To get back up to the shining world
From there my guide and I went into that hidden tunnel
And following its path through a round aperture
I saw appear some of the most beautiful things that heaven can bear
Where we came forth and once more saw the stars.
The lines come at the very end of Inferno, as Dante and Virgil climb out of the underworld and back to the surface of the Earth onto the island of Purgatory, which Dante tours in the poem’s next section, continuing his trek towards salvation. Dante has taken the first step towards that salvation, and ending his nightmarish visit to hell by gazing up at the stars of heaven is an optimistic note on which to end Inferno.
It also makes Hetty’s recitation of that particular passage as Ahkos lies dying by her hand very moving. She’s taking him back to one of his few happy memories, but she’s also telling him that he will find peace, and that he’s not condemned to eternal damnation by his acts. It’s an incredibly comforting message, made all the more moving when Ahkos himself utters the final line, seeming to find solace in her words. Hetty can only hope that like Dante, he makes his way out of hell, through Purgatory, and into heaven.
The John Wick movies are hyperviolent tales of an assassin nicknamed Baba Yaga, or bogeyman (the fabled Baba Yaga is actually female). I’ve included the films here not so much because I think ECO and Peerzada necessarily used them as inspiration, but to show how much Dante has inspired similar works. The movies show an alternate universe where assassins live by their own pseudo-religious code. The first film is filled with references to Inferno, such as when a woman tells Wick that his journey to redemption “begins in hell.” Viewers can imagine Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) as Dante, cast back into the hell of his past life as an assassin (he’s retired when the movie begins) when he vows revenge on the mobsters who kill his puppy (don’t mess with a man’s puppy!). Willem Defoe serves as his helper – his guide – in the Virgil role. He passes through a variety of scenes, each of which could signify one of the nine circles of hell. For example his house starts out as Limbo, there’s a scene at a vault that represents greed, and a scene in the pools below a bar that represents lust.
What actually caught my eye was the “Mother” shoot-out at the museum, which bore a resemblance to the kind of violent shoot-outs that fill the John Wick films. Callen walks purposefully though a museum, shooting men at close quarter, and emptying an extra shot into each to make sure they’re really dead. He didn’t use Wick’s exact style, but the quantity of men, the close quarters, and the museum setting all called these films to mind.
What’s in the Box?
There’s one more Dante-inspired film I wanted to mention: Se7en. Again, it may not have been an influence – it may simply share common themes – but I have to believe that anyone who seems inspired by Frank Military’s dark approach to material has at least seen this David Fincher-directed horror film. And spoiler alert- if you haven’t seen it and plan to, you might want to skip ahead to the next section.
The film stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as two detectives, Mills and Somerset, who investigate a set of serial killings inspired by the seven deadly sins. Kevin Spacey plays the deranged killer, John Doe. The detectives work their way from one crime scene to the next, each inspired by a deadly sin, and all baroque and incredibly gruesome, befitting their inspiration. For example, an obese man guilty of gluttony is force fed until a well-placed kick to his stomach kills him. A slothful man is confined to his bed for a year and slowly starved. I could go through the list but it’s really too horrific to talk about in detail. The Dante references are overt; Somerset talks about The Divine Comedy being one of the killer’s inspirations.
The wise old Detective Somerset and the younger Detective Mills share a similar guide-pupil relationship with Virgil and Dante, and Hetty and Ahkos. Somerset worries that Mills isn’t prepared to deal with everything he’s going to see in this unnamed big city that may as well be hell. And although Somerset is planning to retire in a week, in the end he ends up sticking around, like Virgil, unable to leave hell, only able to show his pupil all the horrors it contains.
While Se7en may not have been a direct source of inspiration for “Mother,” the reason I mention it has to do with the box. When Nathasa appears at the mission with her box, one of my first thoughts was of the infamous one belonging to Deeks and Kensi, containing everything Deeks ever wanted. But when I saw the severed hands inside, and later Fimmel’s body, I thought instead of Se7en.
Se7en’s famous climax starts with Doe agreeing to confess to his crimes if the two detectives accompany him to the location of his final two victims’ remains. After they arrive at a remote spot outside the city, a box is delivered. Detective Mills opens it to find his wife’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) severed head. Doe had killed her for the sin of envy, and when Mills’ wrath drives him to kill Doe, the horrific murders are complete.
Doe doesn’t think he’s killing innocent people. He tells the detectives he’s doing “God’s good work,” cleansing the city of pedophiles and whores. It’s kind of a perverse version of the dogma fed to Ahkos to get him to do the CIA’s bidding, and a perverse version of the way Hetty sees herself as interceding in others’ lives for their own good, and training them to kill for the greater good. In the end, both Ahkos and Doe die as they lived, in violence.
We’re All Gonna Die
The final reference I wanted to talk about is the song that plays in the background when Deeks goes into the bomb room and when Hetty comforts Ahkos at episode’s end. A huge thank you to @TypingTess for identifying it for me. It’s called “Fourth of July,” and it was written and performed by Sufjan Stevens on his album Carrie & Lowell.
Lines like, “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?”, “and “Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?” make it an eerie accompaniment to the bomb room scene, but it works even better in the final Hetty/Ahkos scene, for the song is about Stevens’ reflections on his problematic relationship with his mother (Carrie), who abandoned him when he was one year old. He later spent a few summers with her and his step-father (Lowell) when he was a young child, but otherwise didn’t really have her in his life in a significant way until she was in the ICU, dying of cancer. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking song. I don’t know who found it or at what point in the process it came to be included in the episode, but it’s absolutely perfect.
Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?
Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light
It’s about the pain Stevens feels at losing his mother, and at all that was lacking in their relationship. The references to the stars in the sky are a perfect mirror to Hetty’s Inferno recitation. The song is also an exhortation to others to make amends with those they love before it’s too late. It ends with a stark reminder, the words “We’re all gonna die,” repeated over and over.
Want to Learn More?
- ECO’s interviews can be found at Parade and cartermatt.
- On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dan Grossman
- Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
- Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
- The Aeneid by Virgil
- John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 (both directed by Chad Stahelski and written by Derek Kolstad) and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (directed by Chad Stahelski and screenplay by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Mark Abrams)
- Se7en, directed by David Fincher
- “Fourth of July” by Sufjan Stevens
Thanks for reading! If you’ve gotten this far, you are likely a fan who’s going to watch “Mother” more than once, and I hope this info adds to your enjoyment of this fantastic episode. Do you have any different interpretations from mine? I’d love to hear them. Please share your thoughts in the Comments below.