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The 'title card' from Understanding Willow.

and so we find ourselves in the final five episodes of The Owl House's first season! as i've learned retroactively, Understanding Willow aired as a double feature with our previous episode, which came as a bit of a surprise to me as someone who got into this show well after this point. in terms of what these two episodes are trying to accomplish, it'd be hard to find a harder pivot in this show between low-stakes character building fun and some of the material we see here. scheduling choices aside, this is one i've been pretty excited to write about, so let's dive in.

perennial third-in-command cool kid Skara's birthday is coming up soon, and while she's handing out literal bugs as invites ('My dad spared no expense!'), Luz is busy introducing Willow to the ancient human art of thumb wars. this quickly draws in some snide comments from Boscha about how it might be interesting that a human's attending their school now, if it weren't for the fact that she immediately made friends with the dorks instead of the popular girls. it's a fun little scene that gives us a look at Amity's social circle and grants them a little more characterization - Boscha, for example, is more than happy to turn that ire inwards towards her own clique when they annoy her, while Amity, in keeping with what we've seen before, mostly just doesn't engage.

one theme song later and we're into the more direct introduction to this episode's premise - Luz and Willow are taking a photography class, which, in the demon realm, means using a set of fanged tweezers to pull people's memories out as literal photographs that need to be developed. before they can actually get to class, they cross paths with Amity and her friends, which gets Skara thinking about how Amity and Willow used to hang out. Amity, in turn, deflects and drops the world's most stone-cold response with 'We only associate with a select few. Keep annoying me, though, I'm happy to select fewer.' credit to her for being at least slightly more accepting of Luz lately, but she's still capable of some real venom, especially in front of people she feels the need to establish a social hierarchy with.

A screenshot from Understanding Willow, with Willow getting defensive about her memories.

in photography class, we get to see the process in action and get the important warning that physical damage to the photos will result in literal psychic damage to the memories themselves. Luz actually manages to use the tweezers quite deftly and we get to see several of Willow's memories - awkward hair phases, feeding a giant pet spider, spending some sort of demon Christmas equivalent spent with her two dads - but the last photo she pulls is a memory of Willow and Amity's friendship, which clearly bothers Willow.

Luz's response is two-fold - she does try and offer some genuine emotional support if Willow's willing to talk to her about it, but when her friend instead tries to put the memory 'out of sight, out of mind', Luz is willing to admit she wants more information for the sake of 'cooking up a scheme to make you friends again'. it's a very endearing form of meddling that i think fits nicely into how Luz tends to think about overcoming social tensions through the lens of the media she loves (see 'trying to befriend her cool rival because that's just what you do with cool rivals, right', for example) and Willow is pretty understanding about this habit, but she does try to make it clear that this isn't the time or place for that. unfortunately, Luz is determined to find a loophole, and Willow didn't rule out shenanigans, so she turns the hidden photo back around right before the two leave for lunch.

and, doubly unfortunately, Amity and Boscha just so happen to stumble upon the photography room, where Amity spots the memory and is clearly shaken by it, to the point of sending Boscha away (sidebar: i love the exchange here turning from 'you look like you've seen a ghost' to 'oh my gosh, is the ghost cute?') and trying to take matters into her own hands. either not understanding the dangers here or being panicked enough to not care, she uses a fire spell to burn this pivotal memory of their friendship, only for the flame to quickly get out of control and spread to all of Willow's memories.

A screenshot from Understanding Willow, with Willow overheating as her memories get burnt.

in the cafeteria, we see the effects of this kicking in quickly, and it's a really fun demonstration of how the memories, the physical objects, and Willow herself are all connected, as trying to cool herself off with water only leads to steam pouring out of her ears. there's something actually a little frightening about how quickly the memory loss kicks in, with Willow's eyes going dark and her genuine panic about not knowing who the people sitting across from her are - i think there's a certain expectation that everything will obviously work itself out by the end of this 22 minutes, but the writing and animation here do a really good job of conveying how urgent the situation is for these characters. luckily, Luz is quick to piece everything together and manages to get back to the photography room fast enough to catch Amity in the midst of trying to quell the flames.

Amity gets brought to the Owl House for the first time (and is incredulous that Luz actually sleeps in a place like this - 'when the night critters allow me to', in Luz's own words) as Luz turns to Eda for help, harboring a relatively safe space for Willow while her mind's still scrambled. she's still in bad enough shape that she identifies King as some kind of fruit and tries to peel him, sure, but at least there's a nice soft couch to get sleep-spelled onto. Eda proposes that their one chance to help repair Willow's damaged memories is the 'terribly dangerous and partially illegal' method of being magically sent into her psyche, and Luz is, relatablely, incredibly eager at the prospect of getting to do a 'journey into the inner mind' episode. only two people can go in at once, and with Eda on the outside managing the spell and Gus still fixated on his current journalism assignment despite everything, the only option left is that Amity's going to have to head in and help clean up the mess she's caused.

A screenshot from Understanding Willow, with Luz trying to pull Amity into one of Willow's memories.

Eda agrees with this bold choice and gives the two a heads-up to look out for an 'inner Willow', a sort of gatekeeper for Willow's innermost emotions and a potential helper when it comes to repairing memory. once they're sent in, they find themselves in a dreary forest, with each tree containing a picture frame that can be climbed into to access Willow's memories. i won't beat around the bush, it's very Super Mario 64 and i love it. honestly, the entire inner mindscape is one of the most visually striking locations in the show so far, especially once they start climbing into memories and we see literal burn marks across the skies.

the first memory they visit is of Lake Lacuna, where Amity and Willow took swimming lessons together and built a small driftwood fort for themselves. we quickly find that fixing the details of the memory - putting a flag back on top of the fort, in this case - repairs that chunk of Willow's mind and also allows the two to see how things played out. in the moment, Willow had promised that she'd use an illusion spell to make the fort undetectable to their teachers, but her lack of practice with magic seemingly led to the entire fort itself being an illusion, leading to the two getting swarmed by seagulls and caught by their teacher. up until now, Willow being a late bloomer has been mostly an informed trait - even when she struggled with abomination magic, this was almost immediately followed up with a demonstration of her aptitude for plant magic, so it came across more like everyone just overlooked her real talent? - so it's interesting to now see an actual moment where magic backfired for her and her friend, starting to drive that wedge between them.

with one memory down, Luz is eager to keep fixing more, ideally wanting to start with the birthday party memory that had Amity so shaken in the first place, but since Amity's still trying to avoid that, now seems like a good time to check in on how things are going out in the waking world. it's not even quite a full-on B-plot, but Gus is hung up on trying to find a perfect candidate to interview for his journalism assignment, and Eda and King quickly find themselves butting heads over who's the most interesting and deserving of Gus's attention. it's not something that's going to come up a ton, because it doesn't really hook back into the main plot in any way (aside from Eda displaying an unexpected talent for playing bells when Luz is trying to get her attention with the literal bell she was given for that) but it is a fun way to give this episode some levity so that the main plot can stay focused in on the heavier emotional material. particular shout-outs to Gus contemplating necromancy to find the best candidate.

back inside Willow's mind, Luz and Amity are getting the hang of repairing her memories, and Amity expresses her regret over almost erasing so much of Willow's life, although she still seems hesitant when Luz tries to ask her about the painful way her friendship with Willow ended. before they can really hash it out, though, Amity spots some kind of monster made of the same pink flames she used to burn the photos, which retreats quickly, leaving Luz to assume this is just another form of deflection from talking about her emotions. for as much as i talk about Luz's approach to emotional confrontation being sometimes insensitive or heavily rooted in emulation of fiction, i do want to highlight that when things are actually pretty serious, she does handle them accordingly, understanding that things might be painful or noting that 'if you don't wanna talk about it, just say so'. obviously, i hope if you're reading these overviews, you're also watching the show, but on the off-chance that this is somehow your one window into The Owl House, i do want to paint a clear picture of who Luz is and how 'wizard fangirl' isn't her only mode of engagement with people's feelings.

the two of them keep at it with some of the more ancillary memories that have gotten caught up in the fire, but when the birthday party is the only one left to fix, Amity only gets more and more defensive, trying to leave early and then displaying probably her harshest reaction to Luz since pre-Lost in Language, turning the whole situation around on her and questioning whether she wants to help or just wants an excuse to pry into her friends' lives. i really like this - as i talked about last time, i love when a character i like is a falliable person. it tells us a lot about Amity that she's so defensive about this memory that she'd relapse into some of this more venomous behavior, and the highest form of appreciation i think i can have for a character is when i think a lot about the bad choices they're making. this, too, gets cut off by the flame monster, who's quickly going back and destroying memories that Luz and Amity just finished repairing.

A screenshot from Understanding Willow, with the flame monster revealed to be Willow's inner self.

the nature of this monster is one of those things that i don't think is too hard to guess, especially when Luz notices a pattern - it's only re-destroying memories that have Amity in them. she displays some delightfully clever thinking by ducking back into the Lake Lacuna memory and using her ice glyph to send the monster sliding into the water, revealing it as the 'inner Willow' who Eda warned them about. i don't think i can quite do the ensuing bit of monologuing complete justice, so i'm just going to put the whole quote here as-is and implore you to also go watch the episode to see the moment in motion.

AMITY: Are you... the inner Willow?
INNER WILLOW: I was. Love, sadness, fear. I used to be a being made of all emotions. But ever since you set Willow's mind on fire, all I can feel is anger!
LUZ: Please, stop!
INNER WILLOW: But Amity wanted this. Every moment she touched, I'm going to burn.

the flames are, as inner Willow herself points out, an external force twisting her emotions into sheer anger, but this anger is still very much a part of Willow's overall psyche and i think it's fascinating to unpack that her response here is to lash out, to retaliate and 'give Amity what she wants' by self-destructing her memories of their friendship. Willow has always had some interesting traits and there's been a moment or two that imply a tougher side than what we've seen, but this episode goes a long way in showing us what that toughness might look like when deployed in response to, quite frankly, emotional trauma. as Luz's response showed earlier, journeying into someone's mind is a classic staple of all kinds of genre fiction, but this story in particular is a really well-executed version of that staple, and an undeniably massive portion of how well it's landing has to be credited to Tati Gabrille's vocal performance both as the awake, memory-wiped Willow and the embittered inner self.

A screenshot from Understanding Willow, with inner Willow showing Luz and Amity the memory of Amity's birthday party.

with inner Willow having shown herself and taken control of the situation, she decides it's time to finally show Luz what she's being dying to see and expose how badly Amity hurt her in the past, throwing the two of them into the birthday party memory. once again, i have to compliment how visually striking this episode is, as she turns the usual sepia tones of memories to a palette of bright pinks when letting her most painful memory play out. we already knew that the breaking point over Willow and Amity's friendship was her inability to keep up in terms of magical talent, but it's still heartbreaking to see it happen, especially now knowing that even at a young age, Willow knew she was struggling and desperately tried to apologize for it.

the inner Willow then, correctly, points out that this memory wasn't even the end of that struggle for her, calling Amity out for doing so little to keep her new friends from picking on her. we get a genuinely pretty haunting echo that Willow's philosophy to all of this is 'out of sight, out of mind' as she prepares to burn the whole memory down, presumably putting the very real Amity in front of her in danger too.

Amity, though, even with the pain of having to confront how much she messed things up, wants an opportunity to tell Willow something she didn't know about all of this, and even at her most bitter and hateful, some part of inner Willow is willing to pause and hear her out. i love the stylistic shift we get here as Amity tells her side of the story - everything in black and white except for the younger version of Amity herself, with sharp contrast and panels moving around to represent different pieces of the scene. it's a fascinating way of using a different visual language to convey someone 'adding' to a mindscape that's not their own.

A screenshot from Understanding Willow, with a memory of Amity being confronted by her parents.

the truth, as Amity tells it, gives us our first look at her parents, albeit only in the form of two looming silhouettes looking down at her. they were the ones demanding that Amity stop hanging out with Willow, saying that 'Blights only associate with the strongest of witchlings' and having picked out new friends for their daughter, in the form of Boscha and Skara. even at what seems like a pretty young age, Amity is clued in enough to know that these new friends are only here because of the business ties their parents all share. ultimately, though, Amity is backed into a corner and told that if she can't bring herself to let go of Willow, the Blights will make the choice for her by using their influence to ensure Willow doesn't get enrolled into Hexside.

when current, present-day Amity finally does speak up, even just her first line about the matter cuts deep - 'Willow, you were never too weak to be my friend. I was too weak to be yours.'. we've gotten glimpses into Amity's inner life before, but mostly through the lens of how she treats Luz and has to get over her initial assumptions to accept that someone might want to befriend her. this moment really starts to unpack Amity's place in the world she's grown up in, and how that process of growing up has been invariably shaped by a manipulative family neglecting her emotional needs for the sake of some kind of influence and reputation. even in the process of trying to extend an apology, she's looking down at her past self as 'too weak' to stand up for a friend - she's right to be apologizing, yes, but the terminology she's using says a lot about the language of strength and weakness the Blights have molded into their daughter's self-image. trauma aside, Amity knows she can't undo the pain she's caused Willow, but she devotes herself to doing what she can now, resolving to stop Boscha from bullying Willow.

inner Willow accepts this apology, noting that it's important for Willow to keep all these formative memories, good and bad. the pain Amity caused her is a part of the fabric of who Willow is - just like the pain her parents caused her is a part of the fabric of who Amity is. they're both informed by these tough situations and the solution here isn't to burn each other out of their stories, but to acknowledge where they've come from, and to acknowledge that right now, Amity is at least attempting to right a wrong. this isn't the last time we'll see this level of bittersweet emotional resolution in The Owl House's run, and it's a storytelling philosophy i enjoy a lot. maybe things aren't all good yet, but people are trying, and that's really the best anyone can do.

A screenshot from Understanding Willow, with Willow's inner selves healed and reconciled.

with the mindscape repaired, inner Willow restored (in the form of both her present-day self and her inner child), and Luz having an excellent cry at the sight of two friends beginning to mend old wounds, the two leave to see how Willow is feeling in the waking world. luckily, she's quick enough on the draw to give the two a quick scare before revealing she's fine. obviously, she and Luz are ecstatic to see one another, but as Amity tries to quietly leave, Willow calls out to her too, saying that she still remembers everything her inner self learned today and that they might not be friends again yet, but it is a start.

meanwhile, Gus has finally found his perfect interview candidate - Hooty. Eda and King are interesting, sure, but as he puts it, 'What could create such interesting people? Only the Owl House itself.'. can i just say that i love this? not in and of itself the thing happening in front of us on-screen, but the philosophy here. "ah, but isn't [CENTRAL SETTING] really a character, too?" is such boring trite media analysis, so i love that the writers have gotten out ahead of this by being hyper-literal about it in the form of Hooty. that's hilarious to me, as is Eda and King declaring that Gus is dead to them over this single grievance.

as you can probably guess from how much i wound up writing about it, i like Understanding Willow quite a bit. as i said above, it's just a really well-executed approach to a classic fantasy storytelling device. other episodes that deal with such standardized genre trappings have been a little hit-or-miss, but even aside from the excellent writing that gives us so many new layers to both Willow and Amity, this whole episode is really elevated by things like the vocal performances or the really engaging visual language being deployed to convey the inner mind. this is, thus far, The Owl House at arguably its most aesthetically pleasing, and at its most deeply engaging in terms of writing. like i told y'all - we really aren't slowing down for anything from here on out. this - all of this, writing and animation and capital-t Themes - is the show that gets me so hooked that i devote myself to recapping the entire thing, and things are only going to keep getting better.

next time on The Owl House - Luz goes to witch prom!

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