This is the thirteenth part of a journey through Marble Hornets, a YouTube-based horror mystery series. You can find the introductory post here.
Second acts are difficult. You can’t change entirely, but you can’t stay the same; you can’t keep raising questions, but you can’t answer them all either; you can’t start afresh, and you can’t wrap everything up. Somehow, you have to keep those plates spinning in an interesting way, while raising the stakes and making things worse for your beleaguered protagonist. It’s harder still when you’re improving your craft as swiftly as the Marble Hornets crew did — the shift in quality and ambition through season one was remarkable (so much so, in fact, that I remarked upon it), but the step up to season two is striking.
Speaking narratively, the most marked difference between the first and second seasons is structural. We’ve all but abandoned the anarchic, puzzle-piece structure of season one in favor of a less ambitious, though no less difficult, flashback sequence. Having Jay lose and then rediscover the seven missing months allowed the storytellers to engage with some of the same devices they used in the first season — missing or unexpected footage, questionable allegiances, different perspectives on the same events — while reframing them and bringing more urgency and immediacy into the story.
Let’s try to tease apart some of the techniques used. We should begin, as we will surely end, with Jay, and his role as unreliable narrator. As I observed in my commentary on Entry #52, Jay’s transition from narrator to author has been generally compelling, although the decision to actively engage with his decision-making process on camera, rather than leaving it as an exercise for the viewer, was a mistake. The details of his motivation remain somewhat obscure, his goal is uncertain, and his choices are not always for the best, but he remains a fascinating and consistent character — as presented, at least. He is foolhardy, impetuous, and loyal, or so we are led to believe. As on-screen-Jay becomes more active, and the stakes are ever higher, some of the decisions of YouTube-uploading-Jay become more troublesome. On the one hand, we have to excuse this dissonance, since the series is stretching beyond the format it established at the beginning of the first season, and that’s to be applauded; at the same time, it’s difficult to reconcile Jay’s infrequent editorial captions and his lack of certainty about… well, about anything. When he asserts that two seemingly-unrelated events took place on the same day, are we supposed to accept the word of the film-maker, or are we supposed to question it?
This problem is bad enough considering the relatively simple chronology of the second season, and is another reason we should grateful that the more fractured narrative of the first season was left behind. Jay can narrate, or can take action, but it’s enormously difficult to do both.
The great benefit of Jay’s involvement in the story, of course, is that things begin to matter. We care about Jessica because Jay does, not just because she’s a moving part in our ongoing drama. We are distrustful of Alex, and betrayed by him; we are haunted by Tim’s masked persona, but also pity him. The stakes are higher, and the connection between the characters more immediate, and more meaningful.
One consequence of this evolution is that Alex has replaced the Operator as our primary antagonist. Indeed, while the Operator has remained an ominous and disturbing presence — his appearance at the end of the season is clearly one of the most audacious physical effects that the series has attempted thus far, and certainly one of the most successful — his motives are now less clear than we believed them to be in season one. Instead, the focus shifted to Alex, and while that reduced the scale and ambition of the storytelling, it too became more personal, more involving. For my money, the second most shocking moment of the second season was Alex breaking Tim’s leg in the abandoned house — it’s a moment of such human violence that it stands stark even against the Operator’s brooding presence.
The flashback, then, was a part of the series’ evolution, but it also worked on its own terms. It’s true that there were no immense surprises, and the broad beats of the missing months were predicted long before they unfolded, but there’s an undeniable weight and purpose to the storytelling as we close out the season. We know something bad is coming, and while we can guess at its general shape, its still striking to see Alex take such personal action, to see Tim intervene, to escape to safety only to have the Operator wipe that time — and those revelations — from Jay’s mind. The structure also falls foul of the classic problem with flashbacks — because we already now how the sequence ended, at least in broad strokes, there’s no real concern for Jay’s welfare during the missing months. Thus, while the story is neatly wrapped up, we’re left with the relatively weak tease for season three. Don’t get me wrong, I’m eager to see what became of Tim, but compared to Alex threatening Jay with a gun and the appearance of the Operator — along with wiped memories, and some more possible teleportation — it’s a little soft.
I drew attention, all the way back in part seven of this series, to the images posted on the @marblehornets Twitter account prior to the start of the second season.
I mentioned at the time that these images were probably non-canonical, and now we can see why — at the time that they were posted, Jay was still accompanying Alex on strolls through Rosswood Park. There’s no real way of tracking the dates, but it seems likely that the first image was posted around the time the Jay fled from the Operator in Rosswood Park, and the hooded figure returned his camera; the second was probably around the time that Jay broke into Alex’s house and recovered the tape. It may seem significant that the images were posted when Jay encountered the Operator, but there’s almost certainly no connection between the events. Rather, I think that the images are purely promotional, and should be discounted.
So, let’s take a run at untangling season two, and presenting the entries in chronological order. We’ll skip the framing devices and concentrate on the main content of each post.
After tweeting about his terrible headache, Jay — or someone else — uploads footage of Alex’s childhood birthday party.
2006 (original Marble Hornets film era)
While shooting Marble Hornets, Brian and Alex go to the abandoned hospital, and encounter both Tim and the Operator.
Two weeks after the end of the first season, Jay investigates a red-brick house in search of Alex.
Back at the red-brick house, Jay and Alex discover the masked man, and assault him violently.
In the aftermath of the red-brick house, Jay confronts Alex and learns that Alex sent the tape at the end of season one.
A week after the red-brick house, Alex summons Jay to Rosswood Park. Jay sleeps in his car, and is watched in the night.
Jay explores Rosswood Park alone, encounters the Operator near the brick chimneys, and flees.
Jay’s camera is retrieved from the forest and returned to his car by a hooded figure.
Alex arrives at Rosswood, finds Jay, and returns with him to the parking lot, where they discover Jay’s camera in his car.
Alex takes Jay to Amy’s house, then goes by himself to Rosswood Park, where he encounters the Operator.
Alex’s apartment. He calls to reassure Jessica, coughs blood, sketches with charcoal, and seems to be taken from his bed by the Operator.
Alex is lured out of his house by the hooded figure, and then attacked.
Jay breaks into Alex’s apartment while he is taking out the trash, is discovered, and flees from an encounter with the Operator.
After the break-in, Alex tracks Jay down and angrily confronts him. Jay gets Jessica’s phone number.
Jay tracks Alex, and follows him to the mysterious tunnel in Rosswood Park.
In the tunnel, Alex kills the bearded man, and the Operator appears.
Alex and Jay walk through the forest at twilight, and Alex tells a story about criminals being lashed to rapidly-growing trees to die.
Alex leads Jay into the forest, but Jay decides to leave. Later, he sees Tim, and gives chase, only to end up at the tunnel. Jay breaks in to Alex’s apartment, and steals the tape.
Alex leads Jay and Jessica into the forest. His plan to murder them is foiled by Tim; Jay and Jessica escape to the hotel, where the Operator appears in Jay’s room.
Jay wakes up in the hotel, having forgotten the events we will see unfold over the course of season two.
Jay meets Jessica, and we are introduced to the key, the safe, and the strange nocturnal noises which seem to be coming from Jessica’s room.
Jay talks with Jessica, whose presence distorts the footage. Strange thumping noises are heard at night from Jessica’s room, along with coughing, but they stop when Jay investigates.
Jay goes to nearby Rosswood Park, and fears that he is being followed by a hooded man. He returns to the hotel, and is confronted by Jessica, who asks him about memory loss.
Jay is again confronted by Jessica, who begins to explain the severity of her condition. Jay decides to tell her the truth, and uploads the footage before going to her room.
Moments later, Jay enters Jessica’s room to find that she has gone. A scrap of paper reveals the code to the safe, and Jay takes the contents before being attacked by the masked man.
Entry #52 – Epilogue
Jay sees Tim walking down the street, apparently in good health.
The more perspicacious reader will notice that one video is missing from the list: Entry #29, or the “noentry” footage. Fitting it into the timeline is difficult, because its origin is unclear. The most obvious connection is to Alex’s murder of the bearded man, but Alex — as we see through both his and Jay’s footage — is wearing the chest camera throughout that encounter. The only way that the footage seen in Entry #29 could follow the murder is if Alex left the tunnel, ran through the forest, somehow — voluntarily or involuntarily — returned to the tunnel, and saw the Operator. Jay doesn’t acquire the chest camera until much later, and even if he investigated the tunnel while wearing it, the blood from the bearded man’s murder would no longer be fresh. There are also less likely possibilities: that the footage was taken by someone else, in the aftermath of the murder (in which case we must explain who, when, and how the footage ended up on Jay’s hard drive), or that the footage was indeed shot by Jay after acquiring the chest camera, and the blood is from a different incident. That would account for the blood-soaked fabric (presumably a T-shirt) which we see in Entry #29, but which is absent from the scene in Entry #49.
It is also possible, we must concede, that something more otherworldly is going on. Jay is wearing the chest camera when he encounters the Operator in his hotel room in Entry #52. We then see him flicker and vanish — evidence of the teleportation that we have seen before in the series — only to reappear, with his hand-held camera, on the floor of his hotel room. Is it possible that when he disappears, he finds himself in the forest, running for his life until he finds himself at the tunnel in the aftermath of the bearded man’s murder, or some other act of violence? We should remember that we’ve seen time behave strangely in the series, so it isn’t impossible — taking the broadest possible interpretation of events — that Jay’s teleportation moves him through time as well as space.
I should acknowledge that whoever filmed Entry #29 was wearing a dark long-sleeved coat or jacket, not the orange-red shirt that Jay is wearing when he encounters the Operator, but it’s a fleeting glimpse, and may be a production error. I don’t generally like ignoring details like that, but when the author’s intent is unclear, an open mind is a good thing. For what it’s worth, the blue short-sleeve shirt that Alex is wearing when he murders the bearded man doesn’t match either. The real-world explanation seems obvious: Entry #29 was filmed during December 2010, Entry #49 in August 2011.
The significance of the tunnel itself is also unclear. It is obviously significant, given the Operator’s presence, the murder, the “noentry” footage and the fact that Jay, while pursuing Tim through the forest, is either led there, or stumbles across it. What is debatable is whether the tunnel is significant only because of the murder, or if the murder took place there only because the tunnel was already significant. Jay watched Alex go into Rosswood Park many times, and when he finally follows him, Alex goes to sit in the tunnel for a while. While there’s no direct evidence, it isn’t hard to believe that the tunnel is a place of special significance, or that Alex has committed other acts of violence within it.
Unfortunately, without more information, Entry #29 is an enigma. It speaks to one of the more interesting issues with the second season — what are we supposed to trust as the authors intent, and what are we supposed to question and debate? How many of the inconsistencies in the storytelling are purposeful, and how many are simple oversights?
Really, these questions can only be answered when the series comes to a final end. For now, let’s trust in a narrative that has delivered a fairly complex second act in a confident and accomplished manner.
Before we conclude, let’s shift gears into high-level storytelling, and address the largest questions at play in Marble Hornets. Who is the Operator? What’s up with Tim’s masked persona? What is Alex trying to accomplish? Who is the hooded figure? Perhaps by staying focused on its central mystery, this season has developed those mysteries without actually offering answers. It isn’t at all clear, even at this stage, whether any or all of the Operator, Alex, Tim, ToTheArk, or the hooded figure are working together. We’ve seen Tim’s masked persona and the hooded figure attacking Alex, of course, and the Operator always seems to be lurking near Alex, but we have no sense of shared goals or philosophies. It isn’t hard to read the Operator as Alex’s implacable enemy; likewise, we can, with a little effort, see Tim as a twisted ally.There are simply too many moving parts, and too many interactions which are taking place in the darkness — and that’s making the (possibly unfounded) assumption that there’s an underlying motivation we can even understand, and that the Operator isn’t a Lovecraftian beast with an entirely alien psychology.
But if we can’t be certain, we can at least play the odds a little. It seems likely that both masked Tim and the hooded figure are associated with ToTheArk; it seems likely that Alex is working with or for, either voluntarily or not, the Operator; it seems likely that Jessica is dead, and that the Operator took her body. Under those circumstances, it’s somewhat easier to read Tim’s intervention at the hotel as helpful — he presumably wrote the code for Jessica’s safe (judging by the Operator symbol), then gave Jay time to recover the tapes, then chased him from the hotel before… what? Is Alex dead? Is the Operator taking revenge against Jay? Is this all part of a larger plan? It’s simply too soon to say, and that uncertainty saps some of the urgency as we move into the third season. We have a mystery, certainly, but we don’t have a pressing need to engage with it. There’s no strong sense of the antagonist’s presence, and, particularly contrasted with the urgency of the first season’s conclusion, this feels a little loose.
Overall, then, the second season was less ambitious than the first, but far more solid. We’re going to spend some time exploring the events of the off-season before we return, but I’ll try to spend more time with these posts and move more rapidly through season three. Thanks to everyone who has left comments, notes, thoughts and encouragement — I appreciate it, and I’m glad you’re enjoying it!
If you enjoy Marble Hornets, support the creators by buying the DVD set.