REVIEW: ‘Moon Knight’ Episode 5

Moon Knight’s fifth episode is one of the best hours of television produced by Marvel Studios, setting the stage for a thrilling finale.

After the hard twist at the end of the previous episode, Moon Knight managed to channel the momentum into arguably one of the best episodes of Marvel or Marvel Cinematic Universe television to date. It does so by leaning almost exclusively into the emotional and mental health elements of the character rather than the superhero aspect. Such an angle will always be divisive among fans of the superhero-based franchise, but when the series handles the character work of a complex character this well there really is no loss. In the short term, Episode 5 is simply an excellent episode and piece of Moon Knight. In the long term, it serves as a brilliant and colorful foundation for the hero that is mostly unrivaled in the MCU.

While Episode 5 certainly feels fresh, it is reminiscent of WandaVision’s penultimate episode in terms of plot advancement and structure. The bulk of Episode 5 involves Marc Spector and Steven Grant working through Marc’s memories—in the form of rooms in a mentally-projected psych ward—that reveal the bigger picture of who Marc Spector is and how he ended up in the position we see him in in Moon Knight. It is confirmed that Marc’s background as a mercenary and his original connection to Khonshu is virtually the same as his comic book origin. Khonshu asked him to be his avatar while Marc was dying at the foot of the god’s statute after his ex-partner (and classic nemesis) Bushman massacred a team of archaeologists, including Layla’s father, in a raid. Even this memory and revelation is somewhat rushed, making room for a much more human perspective.

Meanwhile, an indulgent and high-stakes plot plays out throughout Episode 5, yet it does not steal the show still. We learn early on that Marc and Steven are supposedly on a journey to the Egyptian afterlife, traveling on a dramatic ship while trying to balance their hearts on the scales of justice in order to be admitted into paradise rather than succumb to the sands of the Underworld. As Marc revealed more of his past to Steven, he presumably makes himself more complete and more favorable on the scales. Still somewhat confusingly, the scales only balance once Steven sacrifices himself overboard to save Marc from the sandy unbalanced soul monsters. Up until that point, the fact that the scales were imbalanced seemed like a clear indication that the third alter (presumably Jake Lockley) would need to be revealed. So, Marc’s entrance into the Field of Reeds raises a lot of questions. Is Marc “whole” because his alter “died”? If so, considering all the evidence points to a third alter existing, why is their absence not preventing the hearts from balancing? Otherwise, is it just an unfortunate timing issue or the work of an outside influence? It is highly doubtful that this is where the main characters remain through the end of the series, so those questions will likely get answered soon.

But the lingering contents of Episode 5 that exist beyond the more pressing plot are surely Marc’s childhood memories. It is revealed that his dissociative identity disorder developed from the loss of his little brother and ensuing trauma. In a nutshell, Marc’s little brother drowned while the two were on a playful adventure—one in which Marc roleplays as Dr. Steven Grant from the VHS movie we saw last episode. After the death of the brother, Marc’s mother blames him and harbors extreme anger and resentment towards the young child. She screams at him when he tries to attend the funeral, refuses to acknowledge him, and actively accuses him of purposefully killing his little brother for years. Ultimately, it is revealed that Steven’s personality was developed in an episode where he was beaten (presumably not for the first time) by his mother as a means of escape. 

His story is absolutely heartbreaking and arguably one of the darkest and saddest backstories in the MCU that we’ve seen play out. The way it is presented in this episode adds to the inherently sorrowful nature of the story and makes the cut so much deeper. For example, the highly stressful and desperate moments where Steven is in the flooding cave trying to save the children is on another level. There is something so much more brutal, heartbreaking, and gut-wrenching about childhood loss and abuse, particularly when it is not as filtered as much as a similar project with such wide appeal might be expected to. Marc’s story is obviously not the first of its kind both in general and in the MCU, but it is showcased in a way in Moon Knight that hits harder than the target audience is likely used to. While superhero origins and later stories often involve themes of escape, the typical picture is the hero prevailing over the adversary and the suffering—here, Marc was in such anguish in a situation he could not escape that his mind created a separate person to try and do so.

What is framed as a major revelation is likely not a shock to many viewers. Marc Spector, not Steven Grant, is the original personality and Steven Grant is the alter. Despite a straightforward approach, the psychological torment it puts Steven through, and the mental warfare on the part of Ethan Hawke’s excellent performance as Dr. Arthur Harrow, allows for the episode to substantially develop not one but two personalities at the same time. We do learn specifically about Marc’s violent past. Interestingly, his time as a mercenary is not what haunts him here. Instead, it is the people he killed during his work as Moon Knight under Khonshu’s guidance. Themes regarding rebirth are present in a number of ways, but Marc’s obvious discomfort with his past work as a “superhero” seems to be signaling a changing of ways—at least on Marc’s part.

Oscar Isaac remains supreme in terms of his MCU performance. Despite the fact that the final product had to constantly handle two of him on screen at the same time, it felt seamless and almost natural. Not only does Isaac have to play two separate physical entities that exist and interact with each other, he plays two unique people as well that come with specific accents and affects. The way Episode 5 captures Marc and Steven’s dynamic would have been extremely impressive if it involved two separate actors for two characters. Obviously, Isaac’s solo performance goes far beyond even that in this episode and in the series as a whole.

The penultimate episode of Moon Knight is an emotional punch to the face in the best way. It manages to succeed on delivering that aspect in a way that most stories, MCU or not, cannot quite reach. The series’ arc has blossomed into a rather beautiful story and introduction to the titular character. Moon Knight as a costumed persona happens to be part of it, and that phrase “happens to be” is bound to lose a few fans. However, Episode 5 demonstrated more than anything that the series is creating its own origin story for the MCU’s Fist of Vengeance that may define the character more than any other character in the universe that we have so far seen. One of the biggest and routine questions remains, perhaps with even more on the line, of whether the series can stick the landing. The progression of episodes has the right momentum, but there are so many potential threads, twists, and writing choices that make the fact that there remains only a single episode a bit daunting. 

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