April 12, 2010

Maya mummy in Castle

Last week's episode of Castle, Wrapped Up in Death (airdate: 4/5/10), featured a Mesoamerican plot. Here's the story:Castle’s Life Is in Danger--from a Curse?--on ABC’s “Castle”

“Wrapped Up in Death”–The investigation into the shocking death of a museum curator, crushed by a falling gargoyle, takes a bizarre turn when Castle and Beckett learn that he isn’t the first member of a recent archeological expedition to die. It turns out there was a legend inscribed over the burial chamber the team unearthed warning that “all who gaze upon the face of the mummy are doomed.” Was the curator just the latest victim of “The Mummy’s Curse”? And if so, what does that mean for Castle, who snuck a peek at the mummy when no one was looking?
Rob's review

The episode offered several moments of Native lore, most of them less than stellar. Among them:

  • The museum where the story takes place is unnamed, but it seems to be New York's American Museum of Natural History. This museum does have Cultures Halls: "a series of exhibition halls that explores the traditional cultures of Asia, Africa, North and South America, and the Pacific," so it might hold an exhibit on Maya mummies.

  • But the idea of including indigenous cultures in natural history, as if Natives are close to animals, is a relic from a previous era. Since Castle didn't name the museum, why not make it an anthropology or (human) history museum instead? Heck, why not make it the National Museum of the American Indian in the Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan?

  • The mummy lies in a stone sarcophagus in a workroom. There are no sterile facilities or climate controls. A winch that anyone can operate lifts the lid off. Anyone can take some or all of the mummy, and a couple people do.

  • It's ridiculous to treat a valuable mummy, the centerpiece of a major exhibit, so cavalierly. Would a museum leave King Tut's mummy unprotected in a workroom? I don't think so.

  • After searching the Internet, I don't think Maya mummies exist. If they do exist, they're rare. Building an episode around something that's (practically) nonexistent is misleading. Our culture associates mummies with evil, so this feeds into the stereotype of the savage, bloodthirsty Mesoamericans.

  • The show mentions a couple archaeologists finding gold Maya treasures and returning them from Mexico. This is the "Indiana Jones" version of archaeology. Actually, archaeologists are scientists, not treasure hunters. A great discovery is more likely to be a new site, a mural, or a written record than a gold object.

  • The curse stereotype

  • The whole curse theme is obviously phony. I'm pretty sure archaeologists have never found an actual Maya curse.

    Naturally, Castle and company don't believe the curse. But a series of accidents and deaths makes them wonder. Even if the episode uses the curse for comedy, it still reinforces the stereotype: Indians place curses on burial grounds. Black magic happens whenever their remains are disturbed.

    The curse bolsters the evil Maya theme in a few ways:

    1) Someone says the Maya king sacrificed so many people that his followers hid his body so his spirit wouldn't find them. Actually, I believe most Maya practiced their religion as fervently as their rulers did. If they didn't, they were free to walk away.

    2) Castle shows a photograph of human skulls that supposedly comes from the Maya tomb. I believe the image is a version of this one.

    But this comes from the Great Ball Court at Chichén Itzá. The producers have cherry-picked an image from another part of Maya culture to make the Maya look worse.

    So...nothing about the Maya's achievements. Just mummies, curses, human sacrifice, murders, and skulls. What would the typical viewer conclude from this? That the Maya had a sophisticated civilization? Or that they were bloodthirsty savages?

    Guest star Gil Birmingham

  • Gil Birmingham plays a Maya Indian who's in town for some event. He has only two scenes: one when the police bring him in for questioning and another when they let him go.

  • In the first scene, he makes a nice little speech. He says the Maya still live and are seven million strong. They're the rightful owners of the Maya artifacts, not the Mexican government.

    This is a good approximation of what a Zapatista-style activist might say. It's one of the few times we've heard a movie or TV show state this position--maybe the only time.

  • Someone on Facebook said, "Gil Birmingham's character wasn't exactly a hero." That's fine with me. I was afraid he was going to be a wise shaman type who imparts Maya wisdom with inscrutable aphorisms. This approach is better.

  • Birmingham's character's name is Cacaw Te. This looks like a genuine Maya name. More important, it's pronounced like "Chakotay"--an obvious reference to Star Trek: Voyager. Since Chakotay supposedly came from a Maya-like tribe in Central America, this reference is acceptably cute.

  • We might even read it as an attempt to "correct" Voyager by giving Chakotay a real Mesoamerican name. In other words, "Chakotay" might be the anglicized or bastardized version of the name "Cacaw Te."

    After the initial setup, the rest of the episode gives us comedic hijinks over the curse while it unravels the murder. Fortunately, the mystery doesn't involve the supernatural. It evolves from drug smuggling to artifact smuggling to something more personal.

    All in all, I'd say Wrapped Up in Death was a typical example of Indians in a TV show. Give it one point for Birmingham's role and take away two points for the stereotypical curse and the museum and mummy mistakes. It was better than The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, but that's not saying much.

    For more on the subject, see Indiana Jones and the Stereotypes of Doom and TV Shows Featuring Indians.

    "Indiana" Castle examines fake Maya artwork:

    A short promo:

    The full episode:

    1 comment:

    John R. Platt said...

    Yeah, I like Castle, this this ep was a bit embarrassing.