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After confronting Kratos early on in God of War Ragnarök, Freya stands in the snow with tear-stained smudges of eyeliner still covering her cheeks Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

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God of War Ragnarök: great dad game, hellish mom game

Freya’s eyeliner doesn’t wash off easily

Maddy Myers has run Polygon’s games section since 2020 as deputy editor. She has worked in games journalism since 2007, at Kotaku, The Mary Sue, and the Boston Phoenix.

[Ed. note: The following contains full spoilers for God of War (2018) and God of War Ragnarök (2022).]

At the very end of God of War (2018), an important character undergoes a massive transformation. I’m talking about Freya, whose eyeliner becomes two tear-stained smudges that rain down her grieving face. As though intent on making her sadness as visible as possible, Freya never wipes these tears away, so those black smudges stay on her face all the way through the first third of God of War Ragnarök (2022). Her eyeliner is not only a shorthand for her grief but for her instability, her trauma, and her abuse at Odin’s hands. That’s why those black smudges disappear, like magic, after Freya breaks the curse that Odin placed upon her.

At the start of Ragnarök, Freya attacks Kratos and Atreus, sticking by the vow she made at the end of the previous game. She had sworn revenge on them for killing her son Baldur and, more importantly, for not allowing Baldur to kill her — a death she was willing to accept on the condition that Baldur would finally forgive her for a protective spell she had placed upon him. The spell had not only protected Baldur from pain but made him incapable of feeling anything at all — the ultimate symbol of how a mother’s love could become suffocating, even abusive.

Having killed his own father, Kratos defends Freya’s life, hoping to break what he perceives as a cycle of violence by stopping Baldur from killing his own mother. The result is that both Baldur and Freya never achieve closure for the abuse Freya inflicted on him — abuse that began with an attempt to help, but which spiraled into its own toxic cycle. Like Kratos, I agree that Baldur killing Freya doesn’t seem like the best possible way for them to achieve any closure. But I also don’t see why the only options were to kill Baldur or let Baldur kill Freya. This is what haunts me when I see Freya’s eyeliner, the persistent visual symbol of her lack of agency.

Freya, her face clean of eyeliner and newly determined, speaking to her brother Freyr about breaking Odin’s curse: “I only just got back what’s mine”
Shortly after breaking Odin’s curse, Freya’s eyeliner stains have faded away, as shown in the following scene with her brother Freyr.
Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via GameClips/YouTube

Freya’s eyeliner, specifically its appearance and disappearance, also serves as a straightforward visual shorthand for her entire character arc. She’s miserable, and that misery is all over her face — literally. Her marriage to Odin and mothering of Baldur have resulted in nothing but suffering and abuse. It’s magical abuse, too, that plays out in the form of curses. And even though they aren’t her family or even her friends, Kratos and Atreus are the people who help to break both curses.

The moment that Odin’s curse breaks, Freya’s eyeliner begins to fade from her cheeks, revealing itself to be just as magic as her trauma’s origin. Her mind changes magically, too. From that point forward, Freya becomes more polite and accommodating of Kratos and Atreus, aiding them in their side quests and enduring their constant bickering about whether to attack Odin. And while Freya makes these compromises, Odin continues to manipulate and exploit her, because he has secretly inserted himself back into her life by disguising himself as trusted confidant Týr. In this disguise, Odin lives in the same house as Freya, talking to her every day and listening to her secrets, as well as those of her allies. Freya’s new facsimile of family becomes tainted by the presence of her abuser, a man so powerful that he can always find some new way to torture her if he so chooses.

Unlike its predecessor, Ragnarök gives quite a bit of dialogue to Freya, and even introduces flashbacks to Faye, Atreus’ dead mom. But this isn’t their story. This is a game that’s about fatherhood in particular and masculinity in general — valuable themes that the game ultimately handles with care. But as a result, the game’s female characters mainly exist to serve as counterparts to the male characters; they’re on standby to offer a listening ear, a cautionary tale, or a prophetic tidbit that a male character can then use to advance the main plot.

After a heated discussion about when and how to attack Odin at Asgard, Kratos tells Freya and Týr, “I do not seek war...”
Kratos dismisses Freya’s request to attack Odin and Asgard, even as Odin stands behind him, disguised as Týr and manipulating them both against the attack.
Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Ragnarök and its predecessor depict a conspicuously binary, simplistic view of motherhood, despite God of War (2018)’s focus on fulfilling Atreus’ dead mother Faye’s final wish — and Ragnarök’s continual flashbacks of Faye. While Freya is depicted as an abusive mom who also got abused by her husband, Faye gets presented as the other side of the motherly coin — the sweet, gentle side who similarly lacks agency but takes it in stride. Unlike Freya, who desires death and is robbed of it, Faye has knowledge of her impending death and the power to influence her surviving husband and son’s approach to grieving her. Freya receives no similar respect from Baldur or Odin, both of whom die by hands other than her own. After all, it’s not her story.

Freya’s smudged eyeliner suddenly reappears during the climactic battle in Asgard. It happens right after Sindri destroys Asgard’s dwarven weapons, which leads to the deaths of some Midgardian refugees that Odin purposefully placed in the way of the heroes’ siege. Atreus tries to “close [his] heart” to the despair he feels at this wartime sacrifice, but Kratos surprises his son by saying that burying his emotions is bad, actually: “I was wrong, Atreus. I was wrong. Open your heart. Open your heart to their suffering. That is your mother’s wish, and mine as well. Today, son. Today, we will be better.”

At this exact moment, Freya and her blackened, eyeliner-coated cheeks appear on the scene. As her eyeliner would suggest, she is deep in the throes of irrational anger when she shouts at them: “Why have you stopped? Ragnarök is here. We finally have Odin right where we—”

An angry Freya and calmer Kratos exchange words during the final climactic siege on Asgard, with Kratos reassuring Freya, “We will stop Odin.” Image: Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via GameClips/YouTube

Kratos cuts her off, explaining that he and Atreus have to go do some heroic main character stuff first. Before they leave, Kratos promises Freya, “Odin will not get away.” She responds, “If he does, so help me—” to which Kratos says, “I know.” But what is the end of her sentence? What would Freya do, if Odin got away again? The implication, thanks to the eyeliner, is that her homicidal, irrational rage would return in full force.

The next time we see her, Freya’s eyeliner has washed away again. It’s during the final showdown against Odin, during which Freya seems to delight in torturing her husband, but she ultimately chooses to spare his life when given the opportunity. It’s Sindri who deals the final blow, due to his grief over Brok. His grief is similarly depicted as a visual change; after Brok’s death, the whites of Sindri’s eyes remain endlessly bloodshot, and his skin pales to ashen gray. Perhaps the best comparison would be Kratos’ cursed white skin, covered in the unwashable ashes of his first wife and child.

Freya’s eyeliner has the potential to be just as powerful and effective as a symbol, but unlike Kratos and Sindri, her emotional arc never really wraps up. Kratos’ personal journey has been about coming to terms with his past abuses. Similarly, Sindri’s arc in Ragnarök is about his debilitating fear of death — specifically, his brother’s death. Sindri is the side character who is most honored by the story, since he gets the killing blow against Odin, as well as a post-credits scene — Brok’s funeral — that serves as the ultimate conclusion to the entire game. Freya gets no such treatment, with her eyeliner’s brief resurgence indicating that her trauma is still there, still unresolved, and still manifesting as a scary display of uncontrolled violent emotion in times of high stress.

Freya, in the foreground, looks away from her brother Freyr in the background, who is disappointed by her refusal to reprise her role as queen Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

In Ragnarök’s narrative, men may be capable of learning and growing after having been abusive or irrationally angry — particularly to their children — but women may never recover. Father figures are given the chance to take accountability and earn forgiveness; though Odin refuses this, deflecting blame to his last breath, Thor and Kratos both get redeemed, or at least forgiven, for their past abuses. At the end of Ragnarök, Kratos even sees a prophecy of future people worshiping him. Meanwhile, mother figures Faye and Freya are either dead or forever haunted. (And Thor’s wife Sif plays only a minor role.) As my friend and former co-worker Gita Jackson wrote for Kotaku about God of War (2018), the “characters’ lives shift and center around their children, and that theme is consistent and coherent throughout the game. I get that. What is frustrating is why Kratos is slowly but surely emotionally freed by being a father, while Freya’s motherhood is a dead end of despair and isolation.”

Freya’s inability to brush away her own tears could be a sign of either the trauma she must overcome, or the stubborn strength she must embrace — but her arc is too stunted and dissatisfying to determine that. She barely gets a better fate than Faye, whose perfect motherhood remains pristine in death, or Angrboda, who steals every scene she’s in but keeps lampshading the fact that, according to prophecy, she’s not destined to play a big role in Ragnarök. She grasps for relevance despite that, appearing in the final battle to get some good hits in, though her own trauma never gets addressed — as well as the abuse she experienced at the hands of her grandmother, Grýla, who, similar to Freya, is consumed by grief that manifests as violent anger. It’s an entire plot point that gets introduced and then summarily left behind, since it’s not related to Atreus’ or Kratos’ personal growth. In Ragnarök, men are given the narrative space to fully process their emotions, whereas women do their processing off screen (like Faye and Angrboda) or get consumed by their emotions instead (like Freya and Grýla).

Still, the end of Ragnarök suggests this isn’t the only path for female characters in this world. Despite the prophecy, Angrboda carved out a place for herself in a new story — and that’s a lot more exciting, as far as prophecy-defying moments go, than Kratos surviving past the credits. The women in these games deserve to navigate and process their past traumas just as Kratos, Atreus, and Sindri have done — and to achieve the closure they’ve been denied, over and over, up to now.

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