Animation is an art of astounding range, but every once in a while, a cartoon finds a way to push the boundaries to the limit. Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward’s The Midnight Gospel is one of those cartoons. The new Netflix series adapts conversations on mindfulness, mortality, spirituality, and other existential issues of being human from episodes of Trussell’s podcast, the Duncan Trussell Fantasy Hour for hallucinatory visuals conjured out of some psychedelic abyss by Ward and his animation team. It’s irreverent and profound in equal measure. It also ends, without losing any of its strangeness, with one of the most arresting representations of reckoning with maternal loss in the history of the medium.
With its finale, “Mouse of Silver,” The Midnight Gospel matched the nearly unmatchable Steven Universe, The Land Before Time and Neon Genesis Evangelion at the grim game of portraying grief. The episode finds its protagonist, Clancy Gilroy, a spacecaster (thing podcaster, but via video, and in space), entering a simulated world in search of someone to interview for his spacecast and finding himself, instead, on a spaceship with his mom. Except it’s not really his mother — it’s Trussell’s, and if there was any doubt, she calls him Duncan immediately upon his arrival. Trussell’s late mother, Deneen Fendig, recorded the audio for Trussell’s podcast in 2013, three weeks before she died.
In most cartoons, the death or disappearance of a parent is the call to adventure for a character. It’s a classic storytelling trope taken from mythology, folk lore, and fairy tales. It might not happen right at the beginning of the show or series, but it often happens near it, or at least serves as a precipitating event. In Trussell and Ward’s season 1 finale, it’s a reckoning, and a reconciliation. Instead of being a stop along the journey, it’s a return home. It’s the whole point.
Over 36 minutes, Clancy-Duncan and his mother discuss his birth, his life, and her impending death with a combination of compassion and frankness that’s almost hard to take, fourth wall be damned. Behind them, as they wander about the ship, a staff of sentient teddy bears perform a series of scientific studies in interpersonal connection and the inevitability of death. About a third of the way into the episode, Clancy-Duncan, having aged years in the short span of the conversation, tucks his now-elderly mother down into a bed, where she dies. Shortly after, he becomes pregnant, and gives birth to her, and their conversation picks right back up at where they left off. Trussell tells Polygon the scene is the representation of a cycle he became aware of after becoming a parent.
“For me, one of the odd things about losing a mother is that we don’t,” Trussell tells Polygon. “Their bodies are gone, but I still have my mom. She’s in me. She’s in my DNA, and she’s in me.”
The two continue their conversation about mortality, mother consoling son about accepting that we, and those we love, are all going to die. “It breaks your heart open,” she says at about the two-thirds mark. “Our hearts have been closed, because we’ve closed them, we’ve defended ourselves against pain. And this opens them.” In that moment, the two are released together into space, Clancy-Duncan’s reborn mother transforming into a sentient planet and he into an orbiting moon, both pulled faster and faster through space toward a growing black hole. With tears in his eyes, the moon Clancy-Duncan says, “Well, I love you very much, obviously.” His mother, the planet, replies: “I love you, too. And Duncan, that kind of love isn’t going anywhere. And that’s another thing you find — that I may leave this plane of existence, sooner rather than later, but the love isn’t going anywhere. I’m as certain of that as I am of anything.”
The human struggle over the temporary nature of life are central to The Midnight Gospel, and this episode is its culmination. In most episodes, Clancy’s conversational tone with his guests is a combination of crude but intelligent joshing and perceptive open-minded wonder, even when discussing, or facing, the possibility of death. In fact, in the show’s penultimate episode, the guest of his spacecast is Death, voiced by the mortician and writer Caitlin Doughty, cleverly providing the setup for the episode to follow without revealing its hand. You thought a literal conversation with death was a swing, huh? Well, try this.
The combination of the sheer emotional power of a real conversation between a dying mother and her grieving son with the richness of metaphor, synthesizing an abstract, impressionistic fantasy with the fleeting beauty found amid the cruelties of reality, is almost overwhelming. It’s an effort almost sure to make all of its viewers cry while also asking them to learn: that your heart has to be broken for it to really be open, that we have to accept that we will die but that we don’t have to like it, and that even in death no one can truly be lost. Some things transcend even the inevitable.
“My guru says everything’s perfect,” Trussell says. “And it’s one of the great teachings that maybe takes lifetimes to understand. The thing that I don’t understand, but that is real, and that we were trying to get across in that episode is that it is perfect. It is beautiful. But it can also be catastrophic simultaneously. And maybe a human life is just going between those channels, until finally we begin to learn how to choose which one we want to tune into.”
My biological mother died in front of my eyes before I was five years old — the age, as Clancy-Duncan’s mother says in the episode, at which she believes the person someone will be as they grow is fundamentally set — and I’ve been watching cartoons that deal with maternal loss almost obsessively since. Many have affected me profoundly, as did this, but here, it was different. It wasn’t like watching The Land Before Time, where death is a reminder of how hard the road will be ahead, or Neon Genesis Evangelion, which illustrates the terror of trusting people in its wake, or even Steven Universe, which finds its protagonist coming to terms with his mother’s legacy, and how it has changes and shaped him after she is gone.
Instead, “Mouse of Silver” brings a chance to say, and to understand what it means to say, goodbye, as if in real time and to those we’ve lost or will. It’s a chance to accept the perfection, painful as it may be, of the cycle of life, and of the love that makes it bearable and unbearable at the very same time. And those chances don’t come around very often. Not even in cartoons.