Legends In Their Own Minds

Thoughts on Joss Whedon and The Last Duel

This essay assumes that the reader has seen The Last Duel.


I finally got around to watching Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel last weekend and, on first blush, thought it was perfectly fine.

I didn’t think the film’s premise warranted the Rashomon structure, as the variations among the three perspectives were obvious, repetitive, and not necessarily worthy of deep exploration.

Basically, the two male figures flattered themselves, saw themselves as the heroes of their own journeys, as men are wont to do. Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges saw himself as a great husband and a wonderful lover when, in fact, he was a mediocre husband and a terrible lover. Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris convinced himself that de Carrouges wife, the woman he raped, wanted him as much as he wanted her, that her protestations of “no!” were part of a romantic dance of sorts, a sexy game of cat and mouse. And then, we finally see the truth when de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), tells her side of the story. When she smiled at Le Gris, it was not because she was flirting, or because she wanted him. It was to keep her husband in his good graces. When she screamed no and struggled beneath him, well, it was because she didn’t want to be raped.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the film—other than the duel itself, which was rad—was the very end. After defeating Le Gris, de Carrouges is hailed as a hero. Had he lost the duel, his wife would’ve been burned at the stake, but no mind to that. It was never about her anyway. “Why does he keep doing this to me?” de Carrouges bellows when he finds out that Le Gris has raped her. After he wins, he puffs out his chest in victory as the villagers cheer and Marguerite follows behind meekly. Despite her incredible bravery in coming forward with the accusation, she has become a footnote in his hero’s journey. Ain’t that way it has gone for women for centuries?

I didn’t think too much about the film after I saw it, until two things occurred. One, someone on Twitter expressed surprise that Le Gris’ memory of the rape was not totally unlike what had happened. No, it wasn’t quite as violent as the truth, but it was adjacent to the truth. I expected his version to much more gauzy and romantic. Instead, he convinced himself that Marquerite had to pretend to struggle, pretend to be afraid, because she was a married woman. He saw it as a bit of face-saving theater, designed so she could forgive herself when she succumbed to her desires. At the end of duel, when de Carrouges has a blade to his throat, Le Gris denies that he raped her. He’s convincing, because he believes it to be true himself. The mind’s ability to rationalize is rather extraordinary that way.

The second thing that happened was I read Lila Shapiro’s brilliant, damning profile of Buffy the Vampire Slayer showrunner Joss Whedon in Vulture. A few things need to be established here: One, the things Whedon is accused of doing don’t even come close to the severity of rape. He’s accused, basically, of being a jerk—a fake feminist, a narcissist, a cheater, casually cruel, among other things. That stinks, especially to someone like me who worships Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s not a crime.

Also, Whedon is, at times, much more self-aware than either de Carrouges or Le Gris, almost to a fault. “I have seen the enemy . . .and he is in my brain!” he told his biographer. (This reminds me of another fallen would be male feminist, Louis C.K., who once warned that men were the “number one threat to women.” You would know, bud.) At another time, Whedon explains that he bedded his young female actresses because of deep insecurity. These were women who had never paid attention to him before he became rich and powerful and he feared that if he didn’t sleep with them, he “would regret it.” Points for honesty, I suppose—and nothing else.

But it was in Whedon’s denials where he reminded me most of The Last Duel, particularly Le Gris—almost to the degree where I’ve reassessed the film to some extent. If the film can be that spot on in its depiction of guilt and denial, maybe its insights are worth exploring.

When asked if he once violently grabbed the arm of a female costume designer, Whedon said: “I don’t believe that. I know I would get angry, but I was never physical with people.”

The “I know I would get angry” part is key here. By acknowledging part of what actually happened, he’s able to convince himself that his version is the truth. Yes, I was angry, but I never hurt her. (Yes, she screamed and said no, but she really wanted me.)

Whedon continues to deny things throughout the piece.

Did he make out with an actress on the floor of a writer’s office? “That seems false. I don’t understand that story even a little bit.”

Did he call a pregnant woman fat?

“Of course I didn’t.”

Did he threaten actress Gal Gadot with reprisal?

“I don’t threaten people. Who does that?”

His denials here are full-throated and I believe that he believes them. (Much as Le Gris believed that he didn’t commit a rape.) The “who does that?” is particularly telling. Not just I didn’t do that, but I can’t even conceive of such a depraved human being.

Also, speaking of perspective, in life, we don’t know what we don’t know. When confronted with the anecdote that young actress Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Buffy’s sister, Dawn, wasn’t allowed to be alone in a room with him, Whedon said he “had no idea” that was the case. Why would he?

Look, men aren’t the only ones who mythologize themselves—we all do to some extent. But men are repeatedly allowed to get away with it. Because they hold positions of power, because they are often propped up as peerless geniuses, people are compelled to flatter them, to obey them, to indulge them. They never suspect that they aren’t genuinely adored. To this day, Whedon is able to see himself as a benevolent leader. (“I think I’m the one of the nicer showrunners that’s ever been,” he says. Still!)

But now we’ve gotten new perspectives. From Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia on Buffy and Angel. From Gal Gadot. From his ex-wife. From Justice League’s Ray Fisher, who is Black. Society has shifted just enough so that the Maguerites of this world, the people who don’t traditionally hold the power, no longer need to stand meekly behind the male hero. They can take center stage, let their voices be heard. They get to go on their own hero’s journey. And, just as was the case in The Last Duel, they are often the keepers of the truth.