11:30 am EDT, November 21, 2018

‘Grindelwald’ depicts long-hidden ‘Potter’ theme: Loss of morality is a worse fate than death

In one of the final scenes of The Crimes of Grindelwald, a longstanding theme of Rowling’s is displayed with chilling clarity.

“There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” snarled Voldemort.

“You are quite wrong,” said Dumbledore, speaking as lightly as though they were discussing the matter over drinks. “Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”

This conversation between Voldemort and Dumbledore in The Order of the Phoenix has always been a poignant moment, but in the aftermath of The Crimes of Grindelwald it gains new significance. Not only does the new film cast some light on the situations that might have led to Dumbledore gaining this particular piece of wisdom, but it also provides us with a scene that explores those “things much worse than death” in a very impactful way.

In one of the final scenes of the film, the remaining survivors of Grindelwald’s expanding circle of blue fire manage to make it out of the burning perimeter. Huddled up against stone walls and overcome with grief, they watch the buildings in front of them collapse. But it isn’t the burning that fills them with sadness — it’s the people they lost, in more ways than one.

The Crimes of Grindelwald was not a perfect movie by any means, but it certainly wasn’t forgettable, and my character-study-loving heart was thrilled to see the fascinating juxtaposition of character decisions in that faceoff with Grindelwald at the rally.

queenie ministry

Central to the scene are its three victims: Leta, Queenie and Credence — three people Grindelwald is desperate to get on his side, and three people who as an audience we have come to love. Newt, Jacob, the Aurors, and the audience are all desperate to stop the horrific scene that’s unfolding. And it isn’t a massacre (although people do die), but a clever, twisted manipulation of the truth that’s luring people to Grindelwald’s side.

Credence, perhaps the most predictable of the lot, foolishly rushes to Grindelwald, leaving Nagini behind in hopes of finally discovering the truth. Leta, after a lifetime of trauma and regrets, chooses defiance before evil — overcoming her own conception of herself as a wicked person through heroism. And Queenie, distraught at the injustice in the world around her, decides to take an impulsive, easy way out — siding with a tyrant even she doesn’t understand.

It’s tragic to watch the scene play out, but even more moving is what happens after, when Newt, Theseus, Jacob and Nagini stand just beyond the fire alongside Flamel, and we witness their grief overwhelm them. The camera and the music, more than anything, convey the real message: while Theseus’ grief at losing Leta is visible, there is some triumph in her death because of what it meant for her, and in the fact that it prompts Newt to make a decision.

Jacob and Nagini, on the other hand, remain alone, and the way the scene is shot makes it clear that they are mourning something much more painful than Theseus is — even though neither Credence nor Queenie actually died. But worse than their death is the knowledge that they consciously joined a dark wizard, leaving their partners on the other side, seduced by false promises.

Rowling, through the Harry Potter books, has been saying that there are worse fates than death for a long time, but never has a scene focused on that theme quite like this one did. We’re used to mourning the loss of life, but not the loss of principle — of a moral compass. In both Queenie and Credence, that loss is absolutely tragic, because we knew the purity of their hearts, and the potential for good they both had. Losing that — and out of their choice (after all, “It is our choices, Harry…”) — is more painful than losing Leta, who died on her own terms, unmovable good in the face of evil.

Of course, it’s not all tragic. We see Newt gain something extremely valuable: resolve. Though he was once uninterested in taking part in human battles, what he witnesses makes him finally decide to take a stand, and to pick a side… even when that side is flawed, and perhaps not very welcoming to people like him. He holds fast to a moral compass, and is moved towards action, which is a decision that will impact the Fantastic Beasts series far more than getting all of the characters out of the rally intact would have.

Is there a way out for Queenie and Credence? We’ll have to wait until the next movies to find out. But it’s okay to mourn them; what they lost in The Crimes of Grindelwald was, in many ways, more tragic a loss than their lives would have been.

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