Critical Role S02E08 "The Gates of Zadash"

DISCLAIMER: I love Critical Role and have nothing but respect and admiration for the producers and performers. Any analysis or opinions here are stated with love, and understanding that a show which is largely improvised cannot and should not be held to the same expectations as a show which is rehearsed and written with certain representations in mind.

Fan art by Lewd Alfred Douglas

The latest episode of Critical Role happened to drop a bundle of new information about sexual culture in our laps. As with any world building project, whether it be a fantasy novel setting or the collaboration between a dungeon master and their players, sexual culture plays a huge role. Is the dominant religion puritanical when it comes to sex? If not, how has that changed the culture to what we know in our time? Are there laws regarding the definition of marriage, inheritance, and adultery? Is sex work legal, and how are sex workers treated? What gender identities exist and how are they defined, enforced, or dismissed? If you’re changing anything major about sexual culture from the world we live in now, it has a ripple effect on the entire society which is hard (but fun!) work to incorporate in the story. In E08, we got some tantalizing clues about the state of sex in Wildemount.

Don’t Fuck Us, Unless We Ask You To
A choice quote from Jester came after the group of adventurers met a tour guide who seemed to be a temporarily embarrassed millionaire. She surmised that he was a shady character, but it didn’t make him much different from her own group of companions. So she clarified:

"Don't fuck us. Unless we ask you to—in that case, you are welcome to do it." (Jester, E08)

Consent is everything, friends. And we can only assume that Jester's healthy if unflinching attitude about sex comes from the woman who raised her.

"My mother told me never to give anything away for free." (Jester, E01)

The Ruby of the Sea
Laura Bailey, who plays Jester, hinted previously that her mother may be a high-end sex worker of some kind, and confirmed it in E08. Not only is she high-end, she's a courtesan with a legendary reputation who only needs to keep a small number of clients at one time. However, things do not seem to be entirely ideal. Jester ran afoul of one of her mother's clients and was threatened with death, leading to her escape. This could just mean that the aristocracy in her home town are particularly tyrannical, but it could also imply that courtesans, even high end ones, are still considered serving class and not fully respected as parents. Indeed, was considered bad for business if the Ruby of the Sea should be seen with her daughter.

Prepare to learn more about the Ruby of the Sea and sex work in this setting, because Jester has written to her asking for more money, and something tells me the reply may be more complicated than she thinks.

I'm Just Built This Way
Taliesin Jaffe, at this moment the only openly LGBT member of the cast, has already established that this character does not mind what pronouns are used for them. In E08 we also got the hint that Molly is curvaceous, from this line discussing girdles:

"I’m wearing one right now. No, I'm not wearing one—but I could be. I’m just built this way." (Molly, E08)

Usually characters who are presented as genderfluid or androgynous are depicted with thin, slim hipped, flat chested figures resembling Ziggy Stardust or Desire from The Sandman. If Molly is representing that oft overlooked demographic of gender nonconforming people who have curves, this is great news.

Being Left Unspoiled
There is a temptation in many pseudo-Medieval fantasy settings to belabour the story with sexual assault, whether it be in the form of institutionalized misogyny, or the author highlighting just how much the reader is meant to despise the villain. Even in Disney films, antagonists are often habitual personal space invaders. It’s social shorthand we all recognize as a warning to stay away from a person. Fortunately, Critical Role has never made sexual assault a cornerstone of the story, and sexism, homophobia, and transphobia have not reared their ugly heads in the setting, masked behind the excuse of a medieval flavor.

In D&D, one of the jobs of the GM is to make sure the player characters feel confident using lethal force against an enemy—otherwise there would be no combat. Our group of adventurers were woken on the road in E08 by a band of young robbers. Attempting to avoid combat and being robbed, they claimed to be riddled with syphilis. The response from the thieves is a veiled threat:

"In that case, we’ll be leaving you unspoiled.” (E08)

Now that's one way to make an NPC remorselessly killable. It was a well chosen use of that narrative shorthand. A person who threatens sexual assault is not worthy of mercy. Though the players restrained from massacring all of them, they did vaporize the leader and give the rest a stern if traumatizing lecture on their chosen profession.

Chastity’s Nook
We left this episode with a brand new city location and a shady character acting as tour guide. After some palm-greasing, the guide told the players that they could find sexually explicit literature at a place called Chastity’s Nook. This simple exchange actually tells us a lot about the culture they’ve encountered. Though erotic material is accessible, it is still considered taboo. Why, in this world with high end courtesans who serve lords, would this be so? Is it a difference in moral attitudes of the working class versus the aristocracy? Does this particular city which even has “chastity” in its lexicon have a more puritanical view of sex than the region where Jester’s mother works? Where does the taboo come from:a religious institution or a governmental one?

Time will tell. When E09 airs this Thursday, we can hope to see a visit to Chastity’s Nook and some communication from the Ruby of the Sea. But of course, that all depends on the players.