Episode Analysis Moon Knight: The Tomb
Moon Knight's fourth episode deepens our understanding of the characters while using clever tricks to make hard to film scenes happen.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for all of the MCU as well as Moon Knight through episode four, The Tomb. Proceed at your own risk!
Moon Knight’s fourth episode, The Tomb, was very interesting to me. I know a lot of people are going to be talking about the hospital scene and all the symbolism to be found in it. And normally that’s my jam! Symbolic external portrayals of psychological issues? Sign me the heck up!
But instead I found myself coming out of this episode with more of a focus on budgeting and clever (and not quite so clever) decision making to make tricky scenes work. Which isn’t intended as a slight against the episode by any means! This is entirely a comment on myself as I sit here going “Huh, so that’s where my brain felt like going with this.”
I mean if we’re going for the short intro review it was a perfectly good episode. Not one which moved the plot forward significantly but it wasn’t one which was intended to. Instead this was an episode about character development and it used action, horror, and then the aforementioned psychological symbolism with which to do it. All the character depth, none of the audience being bored.
As I write it out I think some of what’s getting me is that while we had character moments none of them were really character reveals so much as character confirmations. Like the show already laid the groundwork for Marc’s involvement in Layla’s father’s death, so all that happened here is us seeing Layla’s reaction to being told her fears were correct. Which means the thing to judge is if her reaction was handled well (which I think it was) and not so much the detail itself.
The hospital scenes obviously are ripe with things to analyze for reveals but other than a couple - which I’ll get to in a sec - I’m waiting until we see what episode 5 does before trying to shake meaning out of it all. And again, this is not a slight on the show! This is entirely about my personal preferences. I give all props to people who want to dig into things like the various BINGO numbers and whatever code they represent. Fandom is stronger for you and I look forward to reading the theories. It’s just not where my brain wants to go when there’s things like how this episode was put together to talk about.
To that end we’ve got characters, we’ve got writing, we’ve got directing, and we’ve got FX. Some of these are going to be grouped together because they go hand in hand, so let’s dig in.
The Presentation of the Story
Look, I don’t want to say there’s distinctive directing on this show but when you start out with an unnecessary upside down shot which is exactly like the unnecessary upside down shot in episode 2 it’s time to start taking a look at yourself in a mirror and ask if you’re developing the wrong signature style in your work.
This week’s episode saw the return of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead in the director’s chairs. The good news is that means Mohamad Diab will be bringing us home in episodes five and six and you can guess how geekily excited that makes me. The slightly less good news is... guys, c’mon. There’s two of you. You’re supposed to lift each other up, not reinforce bad habits.
Which isn’t to say the episode was horrible! As I said, I liked it. But at the same time when I was writing my notes I was pinging on the distinct directing issues we had in episode 2 because they were the exact same problems. Like not even sorta kinda in the neighborhood! Literally the same! Then sure enough the credits rolled and there’s our boys Justin and Aaron.
For instance, in addition to the aforementioned upside down shot for no reason we also had yet another POV break which showed no understanding of how crucial narrative point of view is to Moon Knight as a series and to the episode in question. It was fine that we had mixed POVs during the first two thirds of The Tomb, but once we went into the hospital that was a tight Marc POV because that’s the entire fucking point of what’s going on.
Marc got shot, Marc went somewhere, therefore everything we see is Marc’s point of view. Doesn’t matter if Marc’s having a hallucination, if he went to a special magic otherworld, if he’s deep in his mind palace, if he’s in the back storage room of a Wendy’s, whatever. Everything is exclusively what Marc is seeing and experiencing.
Therefore can you clever readers at home guess the one shot we should not have seen? That is correct! The moment of Harrow and the security guard alone in his office! Because Marc wasn’t there! And we know this wasn’t intended as a purposeful hint that actually we’re secretly in Harrow’s point of view because in the very next scene Marc is hiding and nobody chasing him knows where he is. Harrow having an omniscient POV would mean Marc can’t hide because if we see Marc then Harrow sees Marc.
Alternatively if we are intended to be in Harrow’s omniscient POV then it’s the scene of Marc being hidden which is the mistake. But either way we’ve got the exact same issue we had in episode 2 where there’s an abrupt POV shift which shows no acknowledgement or understanding that those are supposed to have meaning. And I wouldn’t be such a hard ass about it except that narrative POV is a huge part of the language of this show! I don’t bring up these points when I’m talking about Our Flag Means Death because on that show it doesn’t matter! Here it does. It’s one of the biggest building blocks for telling the story! How are you getting this wrong?
Now there were some things they got right but that goes into the FX part - as well as another thing they got wrong - so instead let me shift focus to how the same directors do help us understand where writers have an impact. Another thing which was sadly notable about episode two was that Layla wasn’t a person. She basically existed to be female and shout Marc or Steven’s name repeatedly. Episode three and four, however, gave us a much more fully formed character with her own agency. Given how well May Calamawy handled the various challenges presented to her as an actress in episodes three and four, we can conclude that yes, indeed, the issue with episode two and Layla was the writing. Which gets confirmed for us when we see that while The Tomb shares directors with episode two, the writers were Alex Meenehan, Peter Cameron, and Sabir Pirzada. Peter and Sabir worked on The Friendly Type which gives us a hint that they’re among the writers that understand how to treat Layla like a human and not a protagonist name shouting device.
Among the things I loved about Layla this week was how we got to see her being clever in a crisis. She was a plausible human heroine, in the sense that as far as we know she doesn’t have a Natasha Romanov style background to give her elite fighting skills so instead she’s had to learn how to be scrappy and improvise in the moment. I also love the very relatable beat when she saved herself from falling, took a moment to try to catch her breath, then screamed to get out the build up of her emotions.
And her telling Harrow that clearly he had a monologue prepped so if he could please just get on with it already made me love her. Because I am so right there with you, Layla. (ETA: Immediately after I hit publish on this article Marvel shared this interview where May explains that she and Ethan came up with that conversation between Arthur and Layla themselves, so credit where due on who's responsible for bringing Layla to life in that moment.)
The one thing which didn’t work for me was the amping up of Layla and Steven’s relationship. I’m not faulting their desires. I just said how much I appreciate Layla now and I’ve been wanting to give Steven a hug since episode one. I’m fine for them having burgeoning feelings. What didn’t work for me was how quickly we’ve jumped to sexual tension and kissing when it was pretty much five minutes ago that Layla didn’t even think Steven existed. Likewise, other than the driving together in this episode, during which Steven spent time talking to Marc, Steven and Layla haven’t spent much time together at all, let alone time in which they could be bonding.
Don’t get me wrong, Marc punching Steven amused me the same as everyone else. But the kiss leading into it didn’t work for me the way it was handled. Like you could’ve even gotten me to a kiss but something more like Steven awkwardly trying to take his crush to the next level or something. This idea that Layla and Steven have been falling for one another the whole time is just... dude, do either of you even know each other’s last names? C’mon.
Another bit which didn’t work for me was the handling of exposition. Here I’m blaming the writing because the first problem is that it was clear they put no thought into who should be doing the exposition and why. In The Friendly Type it was established that Steven was the expert on all things Egyptian and Egyptian gods, so why did he need Layla to explain Heka priests to him? Likewise if Layla was so familiar with Egyptology that she knew more than Steven, why did she need Steven to break down something as well known as the Eye of Horus in the earlier scene?
Don’t get me wrong, I get they needed to explain all this to the audience. But you need to do that believably with the characters and genre TV writing 101 is you pick your exposition character and stick with them. Somebody is the one who does the technobabble while another character says “Speak English!” and that’s how you get it done. Moon Knight even has the easiest entry into this because Steven loves geeking out about Egyptology, so you can keep Layla’s own intelligence and even build the missing rapport with the two of them by having Steven excitedly infodump while Layla listens with affectionate amusement or even comes to the same conclusion he does at the same time he does. (I’ll grant that in the Eye of Horus scene Layla does have an amused look on her face but not in a way that implies she already knew this information, which is the problem.)
Honestly the fact that Steven was the expert in one scene and then ignorant in the next came off like the scenes were written by different people and nobody bothered to compare notes. And when you have three writers working on the episode the odds of that are pretty high.
There’s more to talk about, both good and bad, but this gets into the use of FX and budget so let’s shift our gears accordingly.
Moon Knight and Effective Use of Budget and FX Limitations
As a Disney+ show Moon Knight falls into an interesting production category where it doesn’t have the gigantic budget that the MCU movies do, but at the same time it’s got exponentially more than, say, a genre show on the CW which has to make do with whatever change someone fished out of the commissary vending machines that week.
As such Moon Knight can do things like have a talking hippo goddess and have it look pretty good. To say nothing of the many more CGI tricks used to make green screens and location shots in Budapest look like they’re taking place in Cairo.
Even so there are limitations. We’ve already seen clunky green screen work in earlier episodes and shots of Moon Knight in full costume running over rooftops that aren’t as polished as they could be, and so on. So the question then becomes, for people running the show, how do you effectively use your budget to do what you need it to do? Particularly if you know you’re going to need to blow your wad on a clear shot of a hippo goddess in the same episode that you’re doing a combo action-adventure and horror piece inside of a pharaoh’s tomb?
To that end, I wanted to tip my hat to the level of creepiness that the show managed to achieve with Layla’s scenes with the Heka priest by having glimpses of movement through holes in the wall, and hands reaching out through gaps. Yes, we did see full body shots at the start to give us an idea of what we were dealing with but the more shots of those you do, especially in different times of filming (which would’ve been required as Layla moved locations in the tomb) the more money that costs. Glimpses and makeup that only needs to be applied on hands instead of the entire body is a great way to save money while actually being creepier than even more full body shots would’ve managed. So well done there.
I also want to give a nod of respect to the scene of Marc talking to Harrow at the hospital. Here there was CGI work to be sure, but a lot of the mood was achieved with props and attention to detail. You already have the containers for organs from the tomb scenes, you can have them suddenly appear in a doctor’s office and that doesn’t cost you anything extra. It’s a lot of work to keep track of everything and make sure the visuals are building in a way to feel as unsettled and disoriented as Marc is, but they managed it and managed it well.
This is a bit of FX and a bit of acting and directing but I also want to talk about the Marc and Steven scenes. First up because we can appreciate how Moon Knight managed to figure out what Loki didn’t, which is if you have your lead playing multiple roles the easiest fanservice in the world is have them directly interact with each other. (But, you know, insert your own joke here about how doing better than Loki in pretty much anything is a bar so low it’s beneath the floor.)
Now Marc and Steven have been talking through mirrors, true, but putting them in the same room is the real glory moment for shows like these and I want to point out what they did well because it’s subtle. Basically when you’re doing the same actor talking to themselves you shoot the actor in one role, bring them back to shoot the other role, then shoot the room they were in with no people in it so that gives you a clean slate to edit everything onto. As needed you bring in a double if the actor needs to physically interact with themselves, such as with a hug.
The easiest way to do this, going back to the most basic of Hollywood FX like in the days of The Patty Duke Show, is to keep a clear line of separation between the two versions of your actor. Sometimes this is even an actual line like one character standing by a wall or a doorway. What you also do is keep the camera still because a static background is easier to edit with. If the two characters need to interact or cross that line, you bring the double in, don’t show their face, and hope nobody notices that they’re wearing a wig.
I say all this so that you can by extension understand the degree of difficulty that comes from things like seeing the actor’s face in the same shot, having the actor cross from one side of the frame to the other (particularly if that means passing by a version of themselves), and by having the camera move and change angles.
As always the Into the Spider-Verse style god-tier standard is Orphan Black, as you can see from this scene from season one:
In this we’re seeing Tatiana Maslany three times, frequently all in the same shot with her face clearly visible, the camera moves just as it would if filming three separate actors, and characters move back and forth in the frame while crossing over where other characters are sitting. That is an insane amount of work. Doing that means not only does Tatiana have to hit her marks and eyelines every single time but so does the camera.
Now you can get a special camera that does this. Basically you tell it how to move as it films and it will then repeat that exact movement over and over so the only variable is the actors. Granted this takes a while and on the set of Orphan Black they referred to this setup as the vampire because of how much time it sucked away.
But I tell you all that so you can appreciate the level of detail and work that goes into making realistic scenes like the one in Orphan Black so you can better appreciate what’s going on in Moon Knight when we get moments like Steven and Marc giving each other a hug. Because yes, we do see the camera move and as we’ve established that adds a layer of difficulty. But in actuality if you break the moment down you can see they aren’t actually doing the level of work in the above Orphan Black scene. They did one part in a brief moment and that gave enough of a vibe that the rest of the scene feels like the same thing.
I wish I had a clip that I could edit in here but the moment starts when we are looking at the back of Michael Benjamin Hernandez’s wigged head as Oscar Isaac’s double. That’s not great, it’s basic Patty Duke stuff. (No offense to Michael who’s not at fault here, nor to Patty Duke which was advanced for its time.) But then the show spends the money and effort to give us a CGI edited camera rotation which allows for Michael to be swapped out and Oscar to be swapped in. We now see Oscar playing opposite himself in a scene that did have camera movement and which feels like a oner (i.e. a long shot with no edits). But! Notice how clever they were. After that camera rotation we don’t get any other significant movement. It’s the same shot of the room which is infinitely easier and cheaper to stitch two versions of Oscar into.
As for Steven and Marc facing each other, the show again brings back Patty Duke stuff by having a line of demarcation between Steven and Marc that they do not cross, even when making hand gestures. And, even more clever, the line isn’t the obvious corner of the room which we see in the center of the frame but just to the right of it, as pictured below:
By making the line something not super obvious to the regular eye, the audience doesn’t pick up on how Marc and Steven aren’t actually interacting with one another anymore. Because we had movement and connection at the start, we buy the suggestion that if we’re not seeing movement now it’s because we don’t need it, not because it costs too much time and money to provide it. That is genuinely very clever and I love how the show handled it.
Carrying this over to when Marc and Steven are moving down the hallway, you can now guess where they saved some things in order to spend them elsewhere: Again the camera doesn’t move in order to reframe the shot, which allows the show to put the time and effort into having Marc move back and forth from one side of the hallway to another, crossing over where Steven is standing as he does. They even have reflections of Steven and Marc in the floor which is a degree of difficulty they didn’t need to have but they added it in anyway.
The hallway scene also has clever editing (credit to Ahmed Hafez who did last week’s episode as well) in that it implies Steven is also moving back and forth but doesn’t actually show it. Of the two, Marc is the only one we actually see move from one side of the hallway to another while crossing over Steven’s line. For Steven we see him move in the direction of the other side of the hallway but then we cut to Marc looking into the room with the rattling sarcophagus. When we cut back Steven is now on the left side of the frame and he walks in a straight line for the rest of the scene. Again: clever way to make the audience think they’re seeing more than they are without having to put in the money and time to achieve that actual level.
I will say one thing which did not work for me in the hallway scene was the very end. Because Oscar doing Marc and Steven in the same room was the time for him to really shine in making these two distinct characters and... look, he’s fine. Again not everyone can be Tatiana Maslany because Tatiana is an actual goddess where even her own mother had to remind herself that her daughter didn’t have multiple co-stars she was acting opposite from.
So if we move away from unfair comparisons that nobody can reach and take Oscar as he is... like I said he’s fine. For the most part he’s been doing fairly okay. In general if you see a sill photo from the show you can usually tell based on the facial expression if we’re looking at Steven or Marc no matter what outfit or hairstyle they’re wearing. And for the most part we got to see distinct body language in the scenes of Steven and Marc in the same room.
But that ending moment. Oh honey.
This is the same damn facial expression! Yeah the pitch of the screams was different but come on. The mouth is even the same downturned curve! From this moment through the scream it was the exact same facial journey and seriously, for real? Never mind that Oscar didn’t come up with something different in what should’ve been the easiest acting challenge given that it’s both an extreme emotion and fear which is in Steven’s wheelhouse. But you’ve got two directors and they both looked at every single take and went “Yeah, that’s fine”? (Or, perhaps even scarier, this was the best take out of all possible options?)
And remember this isn’t actually two actors! They had to do multiple takes of Oscar as Steven and multiple takes of Oscar as Marc. Plenty of opportunity for someone to speak up and suggest that maybe Oscar try doing literally anything else with his face and nobody took it? Meh. That’s just freaking lazy.
So yeah, good ep but not great and those are the reasons why. Luckily next week Mohamed Diab is back in the driver’s seat.
As always, things which didn’t fit anywhere else.
- It’s obvious we’re ramping up to a reveal of a third personality. Last week we had the scene of something the body did which neither Steven nor Marc were responsible for, then this week the moment of someone trapped in a sarcophagus right after we saw Steven stuck in one. What I like, though, is how in retrospect this adds layers to moments we already know about. For example if we go back to episode one what we know about Marc now is that just as Steven didn’t ask that woman at the museum out on a date, Marc probably didn’t either. Ergo this was probably personality number three.
- Likewise there are other things we, like Steven, assumed were done by Marc but which could’ve been personality number three this whole time. For instance cleaning up the apartment and buying the new fish.
- Taweret is a goddess associated with motherhood and protection. Her appearance at the end could have interesting implications on our ongoing mystery of whether Steven’s mother exists and, if she does, who she is.
- I liked that Layla mentioned that if Marc disappeared that would have a significant effect on her life because it’s a valid point. Though Steven also has a valid point that Marc had already abandoned her.
- Another detail I liked is that at no point did they tell us what Layla wrote in the sand. They explained that it was in honor of her father but not what the word was exactly. Certain other pieces of media could take a lesson in how to respectfully show a language on the same level as English from moments like that.
- Steven saying hi to the camels would pretty much be me in that situation. At all times I want to be saying hello to and interacting with any animals in the area, thank you.
- Boy good thing Steven was in the passenger seat at the beginning since if he’d been driving there wouldn’t have been a mirror for him to talk to Marc in, huh Marc?
- It’s hard to tell if it was Marc pushing forward or Steven dropping out but I do like the possibility that Steven saw Layla being mad at Marc and was like “Yeah this is your mess, I’m outie!”
- I don’t want to second guess Alexander the Great’s people but if I had to hide something in a pharaoh’s tomb in a place where no looters would think to look, I’d be tossing it in the nearest urn that looked like it doubled as a trash container instead of the giant golden “Here’s where the important stuff is!” sarcophagus in the center of the room. I’m just saying.
- As I said I’m not going to get into the tons of things the hospital scene gave for us to interpret, but two things that stood out to me are 1) The bit where Layla talks about “this time” she’ll share winnings with Marc, which implies something in their past where she screwed him over and 2) Marc was in white while Steven was in dark greys. Given that they’re connected to a moon god that implies one of them represents the full moon and one represents the new. Also given that we know they’re leading up to a third personality reveal, that has interesting implications given that the moon has four distinct phases. If Steven is New Moon and Marc is Full Moon, which quarter moon is personality number three and is there a fourth rattling around in there who represents the final phase?
- I couldn’t be 100% certain even on multiple rewatches, but it looked to me like Ethan was actually using the cane properly in the hospital scenes. This in contrast to the usual scenes with Harrow where he doesn’t align the cane with his leg movements at all, just has it moving along next to him as he walks. If so that would be a great attention to detail to show how hospital Harrow actually has a leg injury while real world Harrow uses the cane as an affectation.
- I’m fascinated by the apparent belief by the directors and the media that this episode was supposed to blow the audience’s mind and make us wonder if anything we’d seen so far was real or if Marc had been in the hospital the whole time. Because no? The Cockoo Nest trope is well known and rarely results in being the true reality. Also, even if we ignore the part where real world hospitals don’t have sarcophaguses or hippo goddesses in them, we’ve had three and three fourths’s episodes worth of selling us on the world as Marc and Steven interact with it with a particular mission statement about correcting inaccuracies in how Hollywood depicts Egypt. You don’t do that by flushing those depictions down the toilet and saying they were a hallucination from a guy watching a bad Indiana Jones rip off the whole time. I mean it’s an interesting story beat! I’m curious to find out where Marc and Steven actually are, absolutely. But oooo, was it all a dream? No. Not in the slightest. Very strange that they would assume that’s where everyone’s minds would turn to.
- The first four episodes were the ones released to critics before the series started and, when the topic of Moon Knight and Judaism came up, a lot of those same reviewers insisted that the end of episode four made it super duper clear that the show was going to address Moon Knight’s religion. Having now seen episode four I am curious what the fuck these critics were smoking.
- I’ll be honest, of all the actor callbacks in the hospital scenes I’m disappointed the waiter wasn’t in there. This in no way interferes with my belief that the waiter is the worst Marvel villain of all time.
And that’s all for now! Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!