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.
Fantasy and science fiction have always been used to address modern day social struggles through an abstracted lens. The golden age of American fantasy and sci fi pulp in the 20th century used the veil of imagined worlds, races, and civilizations to address civil rights issues they couldn’t directly acknowledge in their stories. Because of this tradition of tokenizing real world oppression, creators sometimes use it as a way to further erase real representation. In the 21st century, there is no longer an excuse for writing a story using aliens or elves as a metaphor for chattel slavery, while hiring exclusively white actors in all human roles. The time of "Immigrants: but they’re invasive species aliens," or "Trans people: but they're sex-morphing aliens" is rolling across our entertainment landscape, for good or for ill.
Critical Role is no exception. However, the setting of Exandria is explicit in its inclusion of different human ethnicities and queer characters of all fantasy races. In the previous campaign, NPCs included a married female couple, a gay man of color, and a gender nonconforming dragon who ruled and entire city. I’m excited to see what this new region of the world exposes from Mercer’s imagination.
Right now, the permeating theme in S02 is prejudice. Almost every PC is experiencing it in one way or another, and the main source of their trouble is a brutish and suspicious law enforcement, the Crown Guard.
Firstly, let's look at the social outcasts: two of the players entered the game as carnival workers, and Mercer (GM) does an excellent job in showing that when nomadic people are confronted by law enforcement, it’s much more dire than anyone else. NPCs outside of the carnival are suspicious and quick to condemn them because of their place in society.
"Are you a devil? I don't speak with devils."
"I've been called worse."
The two tieflings in the party experience prejudice which is impossible to escape without using magic for a disguise, and even then it’s not guaranteed to keep them from being harmed by the ignorant. Most striking is Sam Riegel's goblin character, who must always keep her race a secret for fear of being met with violence. This is a situation very few people can identify with, but when you do identify, it cuts deep. With an astronomical murder rate and the looming threat of police brutality, people of color and transgender people know well the instinct to keep their heads down in (real world) enemy territory.
There was an interesting moment in Episode 4 when Caleb (Liam O’Brian), one of the two humans in the party, exposes his goblin friend's race in front of a courtroom full of untrusting small towners in order to prove a point. This behavior is classic for misguided allies, who will sometimes put their minority friends in uncomfortable or even dangerous situations in order to prove their allyship. The unmasking results in the prosecutor immediately grilling Nott about her clan's whereabouts, implying they were about to be her next target. All because a human really needed to show his audience that he was friends with a goblin. Whether O'Brian meant it this way or not, it's very authentic behavior. And just like real life, it's quickly forgiven under the terms of their close (and necessary) friendship.
Paradoxically, the party relied heavily on the prejudice of the small town in order to condemn the Devil Toad they fought against, while also expecting their prejudice to be withheld from the party. Unfortunately it just doesn't work that way, and it was only when people of authority corroborated their story that they were exonerated.
This poignant quote from one of Mercer's NPCs rounded off the episode's theme on prejudice nicely: "Learn about injustice. If the system is not doing its job, destroy the system."
With the first boss fight done and first on-stream quest turned in, our PCs are set on a path that many minority groups know well: You win respect only after proving your greatness, not simply by nature of being a human being.
I'm excited to see how this band of misfits continues to balk authority and just how corrupt the Crown Guard will prove to be.