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The Old Guard's witch trial paradox delivers an unforgettable haunting image
Living for thousands of years means experiencing a cornucopia of violent atrocities that most will only read about in history books. From battles to medieval torture devices, there are plenty of ways to die a horrible death through the ages. In The Old Guard, Andy (Charlize Theron) has witnessed and been on the receiving end of the pain and misery inflicted by man, so it is no surprise she is weary of immortal life.
Methods of torture have evolved over the years, but her mercenary purpose resembles an exercise in futility. War still rages, exploitation is rife, and persecution continues across the globe. Rarely letting anyone get close to her, a loss Andy suffered 500 years ago is a wound she has yet to recover from. Tying this significant moment to the witch trials that raged across Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries before culminating in New England, is another case of genre turning to this worldwide frenzy as a source of inspiration. The accused were often caught in a paradox that meant whatever choice they made could end in death — whether their own or someone else's.
The Old Guard joins television shows like Outlander, Timeless, Bewitched, and Doctor Who in using the instantly recognizable event to add to the tension and danger levels. It doesn't matter if a character has powers or not; their fate is in the hands of reactionary and uncompromising men.
Spoilers for The Old Guard ahead.
Taking up only a few minutes of screen time, the witch trial sequence delivers a haunting image that is impossible to forget. A specter haunting a seemingly unkillable warrior, it is a brief interlude that plays a pivotal role in setting up a sequel. The loneliness of living forever is a theme running throughout The Old Guard — few relationships can stand the test of eternity. Taking the squad leader role — she outranks everyone by age and experience — Andy has a "leave no immortal behind" policy, which she broke through no choice of her own.
As the first immortal Andy found, her relationship with Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) goes deeper than effectively fighting together. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) joined the team during the Crusades and their eternal romance puts them in a unique position of coupledom. Hundreds of years later, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) was "activated" during the Napoleonic War and still bears the scars of loved ones long since passed. Time doesn't heal the wounds of solitude.
Organically telling backstory with this many components (and covering a huge swath of time) isn’t easy, but The Old Guard uses newbie Nile’s (Kiki Layne) nightmare as a way to economically tell this tale. "Way back, it was her and Andy. Before me and Nicky, it was just the two of them," Joe explains after this unpleasant awakening. "They ran through the world together. Fought thousands of battles side by side." Communicating without words, images of Andy and Quynh balletically fighting alongside each other establishes the bond shared. Unlike Nicky and Joe (who have managed to survive for centuries together), this partnership is horrifyingly torn apart.
"They were in England, free so-called heretics from the witch trials. But then, Andy and Quynh, they were accused of witchcraft themselves and they were trapped and caught," Nicky continues. Surviving the hangman's rope proves the suspicions of the witch hunters. In what appears to be somewhat of a lark with a dash of literal gallows humor, they discuss the next method of execution they will face together. Being burned at the stake is what they believe is next on the list, which they agree will lead to excruciating pain. No doubt it will be awful, but sharing this fate makes the prospect less grim.
Unfortunately, they haven’t factored in another common method of confirming a witch is present. No, we're not talking touch or prayer tests, but something far more dangerous. Water was used to prove someone’s guilt via dunking or a "trial by water." In either case, if you floated to the surface then it was clear you were a witch, whereas an innocent person would sink. Consequently, those who didn’t possess powers or the backing of Satan might also drown. A not guilty verdict is good news, but it is a hollow victory when the person is not alive to celebrate.
In the case of Andy and Quynh, immortality saves them but it also leads to repeat punishment — it is not clear why they don’t play dead to escape this cycle of death sentences. "Just you and me," Quynh tells Andy before the expected fiery damnation — but those in power have decided to separate the women to diminish their power. "For creatures such as you, there is no salvation," they are told as their centuries-long partnership is destroyed in the most brutal circumstance. A terrifying iron maiden awaits the warrior, which will take her to a watery grave.
Unlike the accused witches who are bound and forced under the surface by the weight of rocks, Quynh's torture device is a prison for one. Over time she would break free from ropes, but an iron coffin cannot be broken by fists alone. For most, this would involve several minutes of agony before succumbing, but for an immortal, it means an endless cycle of pain and terror. What Niles sees and feels in her vision is the pain, rage, and question of sanity caused by 500 years in an underwater cage.
Setting everyone up to fail, an accusation of witchcraft results in zero winners. Even those with eternal life cannot escape punishment as cruel and harrowing as this one. It is a Catch-22 situation for all; a confession might still result in your death, pleading innocence leads to painful consequences. In the present day, terms such as witch-hunt and witch trials are shorthand for baseless accusations and collective hysteria — and are often used in the wrong context, reducing the meaning and effectiveness. Nevertheless, it continues to be a fruitful narrative device for genre to wield to increase tension and to use an allegory for contemporary issues.
Time travel has a way of landing those from the future in witch trial trouble whether in Scotland, Lancashire, Plymouth, or Salem. Actual witch Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery), has to use magic to save her husband from accusations after he uses a match in 1620 Massachusetts in an episode of Bewitched that reflects on the importance of tolerance and diversity. In Doctor Who, commentary regarding how women have been treated in history is unleashed including the explanation that the dunking punishment is "To silence foolish women who talk too much."
Timeless uses the infamous Salem witch trials to put the life of Benjamin Franklin's mother in danger — therefore, dramatically changing history — alongside lead character Lucy Preston. Meanwhile, Outlander's Claire Fraser has experienced witch accusations in three different countries. Jealousy and her medical knowledge have both informed these cries of trickery. An instantly recognizable trope, its versatility adds to its storytelling benefits.
In Greg Rucka's comic book, Quynh is washed aboard a ship during a storm that Andy fails to find her in the aftermath (her name in the comic is Noriko but was changed to Quynh after Vietnamese actress Van Veronica Ngo was cast). This would lead to a dramatic (and expensive) sequence, but the image of the iron maiden getting pulled closer to the harbor haunts Andy and the viewer.
As soon as Nile mentions she has seen Quynh in her nightmares, seeds are planted pointing to her return. Setting up a much-needed sequel, she appears in Booker's Parisian kitchen looking pretty good for someone who has spent that much time underwater. Not a wrinkle in sight! Still wearing her signature burgundy, she lacks the sartorial symmetry of the immortal squad, which instantly sets her apart. The men who put her in that iron coffin and accused her of witchcraft are long gone, but the impact of perpetual drowning suggests she isn't stopping by Booker's apartment to simply introduce herself.
Elevating the horror of her ordeal, the witch trial element is more personal than if it was a simple accident and has no doubt impacted her state of mind. Similarly, feelings of guilt percolating for 500 years are going to leave their mark. Andy's "until the end" vow she made to Quynh in their shared cell has a double meaning, which applies to how long she regrets not finding her friend. Paving the way for an emotional and explosive reunion, the scars of persecution and abandonment run deep — even for those that can heal from any wound.