This piece has major spoilers for the PARTIZAN season of Friends at the Table! Don’t miss the best mecha anime of the year (a podcast.)
PARTIZAN is my favorite season to this point of the Friends at the Table Actual Play podcast, for a number of reasons. It’s the fastest paced, using the groundwork laid by the preceding Road to PARTIZAN arc to jump right into the action without much downtime. It strikes a great balance between explosive robot action for and by robot fans, and leveraging those robots as a metaphor for imperialism and exploitation. It has an unapologetic political perspective, cheering collective action as a means of smashing empire, but doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of organizing or how social movements can be broken by factionalism. Finally, it has some of the best characters in the Friends at the Table oeuvre: the idealistic alien Valence, the former revolutionary Sovereign Immunity, the religious leader Gur Sevraq.
Then there’s Clementine Kesh. Clementine the scion of empire, a bratty child who dreams of one day ruling her Stel. Played to perfection by Jack de Quidt, she’s the breakout lead of PARTIZAN’s first half: hapless enough to engender sympathy, but vain enough that cheering her stupid mistakes never stops being enjoyable. She accomplishes incredible things, seizing the legendary Fort Icebreaker and defending it from the armies of the Divine entity Motion. She’s also subjected to real setbacks and indignities, from a near-death experience via another party member’s poor medical treatment to the genuinely awful way that her mother (a stateswoman and powerful spymaster) treats her. But PARTIZAN never forgets that Clementine is a jailer, someone who not only keeps the rest of her party under lock and key but believes she is entitled to them. PARTIZAN never forgets that for her personal struggles, Clementine remains the inheritor of an imperial line who never once questions the rightness of her position in the face of the oppression and terror in which she and her family are complicit.
By the end of the Millenium Break arc, the pivot by which PARTIZAN transforms from a story of robot battles to a story of political revolution, Clementine has been left behind. The mobile fort she claimed has been co-opted by rebels who see her as little more than baggage at best, an enemy at worst. The Panther robot that was her signature mech, a relic from an earlier Friends at the Table campaign, has been commandeered by the fan-favorite character A.O. Rooke. Abandoned by her family, isolated in a community that despises her and everything she stands for, Clementine’s story ends in a murder-suicide when she baits a religious leader into trying to kill her, then falls with them to her own death.
Yet I can’t help but feel sorry for Clementine. She may be a bad person, a child of privilege who believes that her life is more valuable than those under her thumb. She refuses to listen, learn or change when presented with the evidence that the government her family helped create has hurt billions of ordinary people. Yet there was always a chance that, at the very last moment, Clementine might lower herself to see the world from another’s point of view. Gur Sevraq extends a hand to her over and over again, even after they have realized Clementine’s total ignorance and inflexibility. Sovereign Immunity, who once saw her as a potential ally (or if needed, a tool) to reform Stel Kesh, worried for her safety even as he comes to see her as little more than a spoiled child. Other members of the revolutionary group Millenium Break chastise Sovereign constantly–why give Clementine the benefit of the doubt? Why assume that Clementine is pitiable rather than dangerous? Why not harm her when she has done so much harm to others?
I never stopped believing until the moment of her death that Clementine could change. Call it my belief in the way these stories sometimes go, that villains in anime can redeem themselves for their past mistakes. Call it naivete on my part in hoping that people like Clementine, who have lived their own life enjoying the fruits of imperial dominance, might be able to starve themselves of that privilege. Call it my own guilt, as someone born into a privileged family who lived among the rich and powerful for much of my childhood. Just like I’d like to believe I could be better than that, I hoped that Clementine could be better. But Clementine was herself to the end. Rather than compromise, she lashed out to make herself feel better, and then died.
Really, Clementine had no excuse. Thinking back across the arc of PARTIZAN, we have seen so many others who changed when push came to shove. Kal’mera Broun transformed from a mercenary fighter terrified of responsibility to someone willing to organize with their friends for a revolutionary cause. Valence began as an idealist, but became someone able to take any risk for those ideals. Even Gucci Guarantine, a member of the imperial line whose politics are more moderate than the rest of Millenium Break, has the self-awareness in one crucial moment to reject the imperial throne. Every character in PARTIZAN has suffered, some far more than Clementine has suffered, and many of them chose equality over imperial rule. If Clementine desired power because she wanted others to love her, her fellow party members forged those bonds of love with others on their own and then seized power.
Clementine’s life extends beyond her death. The being she killed has been repurposed as a voice for the imperial state; Clementine’s ghost is seized as a weapon by the capricious entity Perennial. I don’t know what comes next for her, whether her story will continue or whether she will exist instead as a spectre from the past always haunting the present. All I know, with grim amusement, is that of course the only thing that made Clementine reassess her priorities was truly hitting rock bottom.