Can you feel it? The end. It’s coming. Slowly crawling towards you, ever picking at the recesses of your mind. You wish nothing more than to feel its sweet relief but also quiver in trepidation of the dark unknown it represents. But you press forward, fighting both the demons that plague your mind and the demons that stand before you. So close. Push a little further. A little more fire, one more spark.
But enough about myself, because we’re close to the end of Act V! If you are just joining us now, you can find links to every single dang installment of this monster I have willed into creation since 2015 below. I allowed the beast to get the best of me for a time, but I am here to finally lay it in the ground once and for all. The previous post covered the midsection of this album from Hunter expressing his undying love for Ms. Leading in “Melpomene” to Hunter expressing his undying love for opium in “Gloria.” We will now tackle the final five tracks, starting with “The Flame (Is Gone)” all the way through the final notes of the incredibly self-awarely titled “A Beginning.”
And it is here, dear friends, where the shit hits the fan. The foundation for everything that has been hinted at and all but spelled out over the course of more than five hours of music comes to fruition. In one corner we have our dear Hunter, our tragically flawed protagonist who has finally come to understand the magnitude to which he has royally fucked everything up for himself and others but is also finally summoning the will to make one final last-ditch effort towards making things better. In the other corner, we have The Pimp/Priest, the cold, calculating man of the cloth who has leveraged his network of secrets and sin to amass wealth and power but whose position is feeling less certain and enduring by the day. And in the middle we have Mr. Usher, the mysterious and dangerous man who is not at all subtly pushing our two main characters into the ring and on a crash course towards one another. We’ve already seen him work on Hunter, but as we round into the final stretch we get the full scope of his snake-like behavior working on TP/P to gall him into an action that will set off a fire he cannot control. The end. It’s coming.
*prognotes: The Dear Hunter’s Acts
11. The Flame (Is Gone)
“The Flame (Is Gone)” starts a stretch of music that is the darkest Casey and the band have gone to date. It’s almost jarring how different the tone of everything turns here after the more lightly eclectic bordering occasionally on jubilant series of songs in the middle of the album. But it’s all for good reason, and it’s a further testament to Casey and the band’s versatility that they can pull off all of these different styles and sounds (with a big assist from the orchestra, of course) without sounding anything but natural.
The crux of this track is Mr. Usher convincing TP/P that he’s losing control of Hunter and that the only rational course of action to rein him in again is to take away the one thing he holds dearest. The interesting dynamic at play here is that it’s the first time we’ve seen TP/P as anything other than a guileless mastermind willing to go to any length to obtain and preserve his power. Underneath all of his evils, there does still appear to be some small core of, if not empathy, at least sentimentality. He is more than happy to blackmail and extort people through their sexual escapades and more, but cold-blooded murder appears to be brushing up against a line that he, at the very least, doesn’t appear to enjoy crossing. Mr. Usher, on the other hand, as displayed plainly in “The Haves Have Naught,” views people as nothing more than pawns and tools to be used for a specific purpose. As soon as they no longer serve a purpose or would be more valuable dead than alive he has no qualms in signing their death warrant. TP/P may be rotten beyond redemption, but Mr. Usher is a true sociopath, and not even TP/P is safe from his poisonous influence.
I see you trembling like the Earth is falling from your feet
Like you’ve never felt the ground before
An indication you’re over your head again
That you don’t know how to settle the score
Through Mr. Usher’s description and perspective, we see TP/P for the first time as a vulnerable person, trembling at the thought of Hunter turning on him and breaking their pact of mutually assured destruction. Mr. Usher claims that TP/P in over his head “again,” implying perhaps that TP/P initially saw Hunter’s return to The City and entry into politics as a much greater threat than he let on by his coldly calculating demeanor in “Ouroboros.” In this instance, Mr. Usher describes him as an absolute wreck who has no clue what to do. One has to wonder what we haven’t seen and don’t know about this situation that has led TP/P to suddenly doubt his position so greatly as Hunter hasn’t actually taken any significant action or signaled publicly that he’s about to turn on TP/P. Most likely, Mr. Usher has been whispering in TP/P’s ear for a while that Hunter is about to flip. It’s possible that he found out that Hunter sent his family away outside of The City, an indication that Hunter was preparing for war. Either way, Mr. Usher is spelling out premonitions of doom for TP/P, and TP/P is being more than receptive to them.
I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t know
The way that you could fix it all
If you’re stacking your problems like a pile of bricks
You’ve gotta knock down the wall
Before someone, like you, breaks you and puts you in the ground
How convenient after painting such a bleak picture of the situation that Mr. Usher casually throws in that he knows how to neatly resolve this conundrum for TP/P. He likens TP/P’s situation of cascading cause and effect as building a brick wall around him. Eventually the only way through is going to be to knock down the wall entirely, meaning eliminating situations or individuals who are creating complications. The implication here is that TP/P has spent so much effort trying to keep Hunter in line with threats that at a certain point he will need to actually demonstrate that Hunter’s actions have real consequences if he wants to keep him under his thumb. What isn’t spelled out but becomes clear throughout the song is that Mr. Usher is suggesting that TP/P kill Ms. Leading to show Hunter that TP/P will take away everything he holds dear in his life if he doesn’t comply. The bold-faced point/threat made here is that if TP/P doesn’t break Hunter once and for all, “someone” else will. He could be meaning Hunter in this situation, but more likely is that Mr. Usher is using a very thinly veiled threat here to signal that if TP/P does not take care of this situation Mr. Usher will, and TP/P along with him.
Do the heavens ever spare the crop when the winter falls?
Could we really hide if the reaper calls?
And so it goes, the lamb will be lead to the loam
And you will return
Mr. Usher is channeling some of that good Old Testament god for our priestly friend, stating dispassionately that like the gods who, year after year spare no one in the harshness of winter, or like death himself when he comes to claim a life, TP/P must sacrifice the “lamb” of Ms. Leading as fair and just retribution for Hunter’s insolence. Given TP/P’s profession Mr. Usher clearly uses the lamb analogy wisely, as the full implication is that TP/P is the shepherd who must slaughter one of his flock for the good of the herd and himself. Once he does this, Hunter will succumb once again and give up any remaining resistance to serving at TP/P and Mr. Usher’s will.
I see a hesitating grimace held above your chin
Like you haven’t thought of this before
And though the sentiment keeps you from letting go
You know it’s irresistible
To hear those voices hush, you must be cold
In times when piece of mind is bought and sold
Cause someone, like you, would break you and put you in the ground
As mentioned earlier, there is hint that killing Ms. Leading is a line that TP/P is not keen on crossing. Whether purely out of his own sentiment for Ms. Leading as a human (or for the business she brings in), he is hesitant to go through with this plan. Mr. Usher remains firm in his stating that this is the best way to subdue Hunter, and he has a point. Even though Hunter sent his wife and son away out of fear of something happening to them, the truth is that due to who his wife is (the daughter of a senator), killing her is a liability magnitudes greater than murdering a prostitute. There will be no public outcry, no calls for investigation, and no one personally hurt or angered other than Hunter. It’s a “clean” plot, in theory. To seal the deal he reminds TP/P that he must be coldly logical and dispense any sentiment in order to quell whatever his conscience is telling him. There is no room for emotion in times when money and power are the only routes to success. Most importantly, if TP/P were in Mr. Usher’s position he knows he would do the same thing and “break” him if he were displaying this kind of doubt and weakness.
Don’t you want to see him fall apart
So you can pick the pieces up and put him back together?
Finally building up the perfect pawn
Another shadow lost in the dark, another shadow lost in the dark
Mr. Usher’s closing argument is a reminder of what’s at stake and what TP/P has to gain. Knocking down Ms. Leading will cause Hunter to fall apart and make him the perfect pawn in which to mold to his liking again. Ms. Leading will be nothing more than “another shadow lost in the dark,” a fitting description as the song fades into a grim instrumental that serves as a kind of off-screen murder. Interesting tidbit that some others picked up on that I didn’t initially is that the interlude at the end of this track that leads directly into “The Fire (Remains)” is a minor variation of the melody from “Melpomene,” which only hammers the point home who this is about and what her ultimate fate is. The goddess of tragedy falls to tragedy herself, and with this act, the stage is set for an act foretold since the very beginning of this series.
12. The Fire (Remains)
Before we can actually get to the present of what’s happening in this track, we need to take a brief trip down memory lane just to remember how long and how often we’ve been told this moment would come. Both the act of The Dime (and, by extension, The Church, as the two appear to be physically connected) being set on fire and the idea that this act would serve as a kind of sanctifying action of rebirth have been telegraphed by Casey many, many times. Even as some details of this story have evolved or changed over time, Hunter burning The Dime down has been the unifying moment and endgame of this series. If we go to the very first track of Act I, “Battesimo Del Fuoco,” you will likely recall that the track translates from Italian into “baptism by fire.” For most of the story this has been relevant as a way to say that Hunter’s life would be defined as one formed by adversity and hardships (also, as cited below, as a reference to being birthed in connection to another fire). But it was also giving the game away that his life would lead to this moment, in which he uses this act of fire as a means to shed his past sins and redeem himself by burning down the source of so much evil.
Also in Act I we have an act that mirrors what is happening now in a way that furthers the cyclical nature and themes of this story. The lyrics and action of “The Inquiry of Ms. Terri” describe Hunter’s mother, then another call-girl employed by The Dime, setting her room on fire as a distraction so she could escape (ergo “City Escape”) to give birth to Hunter in safety.
Touch, taste, feel it ripping me down
A reprise, two times, the Dime, burn it to the ground
Ms. Terri never told Hunter about this, which only adds to the sense of fate and inevitability that The Oracles have foretold but nevertheless tried to prevent. Then, as now, Hunter’s life will be bookended by The Dime being set on fire.
Elsewhere, there are signs here and there and plenty of references to “the fire” and “the flame,” though the most prominent other allusions have come in music videos from the band. The video for “The Church and the Dime” off of Act II (man, videos like this have really come a LONG way in the past decade, huh) is basically one long scene depicting The Dime being set ablaze and blown up. And it’s unlikely that many people didn’t notice The Dime already on fire throughout much of the lyric video for “The Revival.” What I’m trying to say here is that this damn fire has been a longtime coming, and yet the actual act and depiction of it here is still both surprising and thrilling.
For so long have my teeth held my tongue from a venomous voice
But the poison has passed from my lips to my hands, an incendiary ploy
And Hell will open up its flue
(I bare my soul through the flames before me)
And you will witness what the fire can undo
So, clearly killing Ms. Leading did not have the intended effect for TP/P. Rather than making him more compliant, the act is what has finally pushed the “poison” from Hunter’s lips to his hands, as in from thoughts and words to action. He has spent so long keeping this knowledge of TP/P to himself in spite of being in a position to theoretically do something about it. But now he has been pushed so far off the edge that he’s taking even more drastic measures in response. The “incendiary” plot or ploy referenced both here and in “Gloria” has come into fruition as Hunter gleefully sets The Dime on fire. And as foretold in “Battesimo Del Fuoco,” he is seeking to bare his soul through the fire and undo both their pact of silence and Hunter’s own full sublimation of his true identity in favor of his half-brother’s. Through this baptism of fire he will be reborn.
Far from the ash, I will be born again
Where every debt is repaid
Nothing left to keep me out of paradise
As portraits of the past fade away
Continuing the baptism theme, Hunter is pinning his hopes that this one act will essentially wipe the slate clean of all of the bad choices he’s made along the way. Because he is finally doing the morally right thing and looking to leave everything of his past behind him he hopes that he can find salvation and redemption in this life and whatever comes after. Of course, the idea that this one still impulsive act could erase years and years of terrible actions is perhaps a bit foolish, but this is what Hunter has left it seems. This is his last-ditch effort to make at least some things right.
The id dots the eyes of antiquity
While the ego, of late, has held sway
Too foolish to stray past the line, but too weary to stay
Too weary to stay
Just to quickly brush up on some basic Freudian psychology, the id is regarded as the most instinctual and primal part of the psyche. It commands our basic bodily and sexual functions and is a part of us from birth. It is more commonly referred to as the most immature and selfish part of ourselves. So here Hunter claims that the majority of his past has been defined by the “id” side of him, in which he routinely made impulsive and reactionary decisions on base emotions and desires without really thinking through any of it. This is a pretty accurate depiction as many of the most consequential decisions he’s made along the way have been made out of self-preservation and immediate gratification. His claim that his ego has been more in control of late though rings a little more than hollow. In theory, the ego is the part of ourselves that tends to achieve longer-term satisfaction through higher order thinking and planning while still ultimately serving most of the same desires and aims as the id. It’s honestly a bit hard to believe that this action Hunter is taking to set The Dime on fire chiefly in retaliation for TP/P murdering Ms. Leading is not serving many of the same base instincts and interests as his id and is not as reactionary as much of what else he has done. Theoretically the idea here is that he is letting his identity as his half-brother die for good in spite of its short-term ramifications because it will be the best thing for him and others in the long run.
The following line is a better summary of his current state of mind, however, as he calls himself foolish for believing he could keep up this charade indefinitely without incurring a massive toll on himself and reaching a point where he could no longer stand inaction. It’s also a reference to a couple of moments from Act IV, first in “The Bitter Suite V,” in which TP/P identifies Hunter in the sermon and attempts to warn him not to get any wild ideas and “tread too close to the line.” And in a moment I have since realized I read somewhat incorrectly in my own original interpretation, in “The Line,” Hunter officially crosses said line by making the full decision to abandon his previous identity and assume his half-brother’s. Of course as soon as he did that TP/P ensnared him and set up a new line he could not cross, leading us to now and Hunter too weary to and beaten down to avoid crossing this final line.
Far too long have I waited to witness the balances bend
In the favor of wrongs being remedied, wickedness coming to an end
Far from the ash, I will be born again
Where every debt is repaid
Nothing left to keep me out of paradise
As portraits of the past fade away
Far beyond the act, I will be whole again
A phoenix out of the flame
I’m burying that menace in a memory
A funeral held in my name
Next verse is mostly just a restating of the first one. Hunter claims he has been far too passive for far too long, simply waiting for this problem to fix itself and TP/P to fall on his own. Clearly that is not working, and now he must take matters into his own hands to remedy the wickedness that has been afoot for so long. The second half of the second chorus also is mostly just reinforcing the same rebirth and redemption themes, making the obvious comparison of himself to a phoenix and that this act is a funeral for his ill-fated identity as his half-brother. At this point Hunter has gone through multiple “rebirths,” and every time he feels he will be made whole and vindicated through it, not seeming to realize that he has really just been himself at his core the whole time and that his flaws have been consistent throughout. Once again I’ll go into more detail on this at the end, but there is a theme of vicious cycles going on throughout here where Hunter continually takes action to change things and start anew, only to find himself stuck with the same kinds of problems and turmoil time and time again. The fact that Casey seems to be aware of this makes Hunter’s obliviousness a bit more tolerable.
The ritual pyre’s sending smoke to the sky
As the building continues to burn
The wrath in the ruin, the pain in the grave
As the lies are retired to the urn
But we can’t keep the embers from catching
The truth from destroying us all
Do I die as the martyr or miscreant? I’ll make the call
I’ll make the call
At the end here, Hunter seems to recognize the futility in having tried to keep his secrets hidden for so long. Like TP/P, the truth will always eventually come out and swallow us whole. We don’t have a choice as to whether the truth will reveal itself eventually, but we do have a choice in the manner in which it will be revealed and how we ultimately live (and die) with it. Hunter, in a moment of self-delusion, ponders whether he’ll be remembered as a moral man who brought down corruption in The City, or if he’ll be remembered as the lout who lied about who he was, deceived an entire population, and was complicit in the corruption he based his political career stating he would fight. Though he sings here that he is the one who will ultimately make that decision, the fact is that he won’t. Even in this last-ditch effort to save face and make some things right, he cannot control how others will react and interpret it. Even under the best of circumstances, it is unlikely that the people he served will simply forget years of lies and corruption all because he set one building on fire and perhaps was successful in tearing down the most corrupt figure around. The truth lies somewhere in between the martyr and miscreant, and as is evident by what happens next, too often we do not get to be the arbiters of our own truth or version of the truth.
13. The March
If you want to understand or explain to someone why The Dear Hunter has such a fervent following that lends itself to this kind of manic analysis, look no further than “The March.” Not only does it stand on its own as one of the most deliriously fun and epic songs in the band’s catalog filled with deliriously fun and epic songs, but as soon as you begin digging into it you find that pretty much the entire thing is a series of reprisals and musical easter eggs of previous songs in the series. Just to lay out a few of the more obvious ones (I’ve seen more noted, but honestly some are bigger stretches than others) before we dive into the lyrics:
- Opening piano notes and drum shuffle is a slowed-down reprise of the theme from “Smiling Swine”
- The few seconds before the second verse (~1:05 – 1:10) features a reprisal of the acoustic guitar line in the middle of the choruses for “The Oracles on the Delphi Express”
- Right before the bridge section (starting around 2:02) there’s a brief musical interlude that appears to be reminiscent or a minor variation of the theme near the end of “A Night on the Town”
- That entire bridge section starting at 2:13 is a giant riff (both musically and lyrically) off of the chorus from “The Old Haunt”
- At 2:39, another “Smiling Swine” callout, this time in the heavily vocal harmonized refrains or whatever you want to call them
- The extended musical outro beginning at 3:20 is a blend of the acoustic outro theme from “King of Swords (Reversed)” and the main riff and refrain from “The Most Cursed Of Hands”
The fact that Casey was able to fit all of these callbacks in so fluidly without any of them sounding at all out of place or awkward within the actual song is just incredibly impressive. Have I also mentioned that it’s just a really damn good song on its own?
Moving on from that moment of fanboying, with The Dime seemingly past the point of being saved from the all-consuming fire, it appears that Hunter has slinked away unnoticed into the night back to his residence. Meanwhile, TP/P and his “congregation” have evidently finally noticed. An angry mob has formed in front of the building, and, just as TP/P grossly miscalculated how Hunter would react to the murder of Ms. Leading, so too does Hunter completely miss how TP/P can easily turn everything against Hunter while protecting his own reputation and image. TP/P, as he’s done in “Sermon in the Silt” and “The Revival,” gets up in front of a rapt audience and manipulates them expertly. The difference this time though is that he is able to do so by telling half-truths and completely twisting around everything else in the most convenient way for himself.
If one and all who hear my call
Could lend their ears to me
Then you could hear the crooked tale
Of how this fire has come to be
I must admit that the manipulator’s fate was resting at my feet
But all of his intimidation brought me to my knees when he said
“Keep this secret safe, or watch your flock devoured by the flame
Left in my wake; I’ll burn through you.”
“Recounting” the events depicted in “Ouroboros,” TP/P rightly claims that he had full knowledge of Hunter’s lies and false identity with the power to expose him, but the actual power dynamics he describes here are diametrically flipped from reality. TP/P’s depiction has him confronting Hunter with the truth, only to have Hunter turn on him and hold him and his people hostage through physical intimidation (we don’t have any real definitive depiction of Hunter as an adult, but this seems a bit humorous in that Hunter has never appeared to be all that intimidating or imposing, physically or otherwise). Once again, another pretty predictable bit of manipulation from TP/P that shows how much Hunter is simply out of his league when it comes to this game. Also just a clever bit of wordplay in twisting the entire flame and fire metaphor here against Hunter.
There is a vision you have come to know and love
(the deft defender with a heart of gold)
An imitation of a man he left to die
Face down in the mud
(such venom coursing through his veins)
And now the mimic is a cynic who laughs
While the house of God is reduced to ash
Well, I won’t let corruption carry on
Annnnnnd there goes the other shoe. With their pact of mutually assured destruction literally up in flames, TP/P folds whatever cards he had against Hunter by revealing the secret of his stolen identity in the most malicious way possible. He paints him as a heartless imposter who let a man die in front of him just so he could take on his identity. He is so cruel and twisted that he has burned down a church to punish and spite TP/P and his followers. In this version of the story, TP/P is, of course, the hero who must fight against political corruption. As the saying goes, the best lies are often built upon half-truths because they are just true and believable enough that the rest sounds reasonable and realistic. As usual, TP/P proves himself to be a far more deft political actor than Hunter, whose more pure motives of fighting corruption easily opened him up to this kind of manipulation and corruption himself. The interesting thing in this though is that while TP/P is citing one of the more morally questionable actions Hunter has taken over the course of this series, he doesn’t mention the worst one, which is what he did immediately following the events of “Son” in poisoning his father. This suggests that this is a secret that perhaps not even TP/P is aware of, one that would certainly only add to the case he is making here.
Come out from the dark and claim your life
Before you all but fall apart
(We can keep this wolf far from our flock)
So raise your voices, torches, rocks
And follow me into the night
(We’ll bring this evil to the light)
Having whipped up the crowd into an absolute fury, TP/P leads the mob in the march of the song’s namesake towards Hunter’s mayoral residence. He shouts towards Hunter to “claim [his] life,” a barbed jab taunting Hunter to own up to his secrets before the guilt consumes him entirely. Meanwhile, the mob answers that they will fight against the “wolf” that threatens their “flock,” utilizing the shepherd/flock metaphor that TP/P just invoked, Mr. Usher invoked in “The Flame (Is Gone),” and that Hunter will flip around in “Blood.”
You tried to take control
But you couldn’t with a stolen soul
So we’re coming after you tonight
Coming after you tonight
No word he could uphold
Cause the only truth he ever told
Was that there’s far too many ways to die
Far too many ways to die
Lost in his memories; the end in sight
The mob literally throws Hunter’s own words against him as they mockingly reprise both the melody and lyrics from “The Old Haunt.” Detailing Hunter’s own failures, they claim that he attempted to take control over The City and its people but that the secret that fueled his rise would also be his downfall. More than that, the only thing he has ever been right about is that there are a multitude of ways to bring about someone’s end. Erasing everything else Hunter spoke about in “The Old Haunt” and all of the perspective he brought at the time to move forward, not dwell on the past, and overcome your fears and insecurities ring hollow here as, once again, all it has led to is a situation that is trapping Hunter. The way he has gone about his life and the choices he’s made along the way have proven to be systematically ill-conceived time and time again, and in the end he will be most known for all the ways in which he has brought himself to this point.
The outro that contains reprisals of themes used in “The King of Swords (Reversed)” and then later in “The Most Cursed of Hands” suggests that the political games and gambles Hunter has played over the course of Acts IV and V are finally coming to a crashing halt. In spite of his best efforts, in the end Hunter is still the gambler who finds himself bested by the devil. The only thing remaining is the final reckoning between the two.
There is a fair deal of internal disagreement within the community as to what exactly transpires in “Blood,” the musical and narrative climax of Act V. With TP/P leading a mob straight towards Hunter, there is undoubtedly some final confrontation between the two characters. The questions though revolve around 1) whether the angry mob is actively involved in this confrontation and during the song, 2) if Hunter actually kills TP/P at the song’s conclusion, and 3) what happens in between the end of “Blood” and the beginning of the final track? I have my own theories and interpretations that have changed multiple times since first listening to this as more information has come out, and for the sake of trusting the man who actually wrote it I’ll be relying pretty heavily on fan accounts (and my own) of Casey talking about both this song and “A Beginning.” Once again if you don’t mind having all of these things spelled out by the creator and much more, feel free to read through the extensive thread on Lake and the River that aggregates everything Casey said about the series during the first Act V tour.
In essence, this song is much less about any kind of final showdown between Hunter and TP/P than it is about Hunter’s own final reckoning with himself. As the mob is outside his door demanding their pound of flesh, Hunter re-evaluates everything he has thought and done up to this point and essentially comes to the conclusion that everything he thought he has done along the way for the betterment of either himself or others has been wrong. TP/P, in fact, does not appear to really factor into Hunter’s internal monologue throughout here. We know that TP/P appears with the mob, and we know from Casey that he enters his home in an attempt to “reason” with Hunter so the mob won’t be privy to the actual conversation and truth they share. We also know that by the end of this song TP/P is dead from Hunter’s hands. There is both a way to justify this song taking place before as well as after Hunter commits this act, and ultimately the fact that he’s done so does not seem to matter nearly as much as what Hunter decides to do next. So with that in mind let’s just call this situation in “Blood” a Schrödinger’s cat scenario in which TP/P is simultaneously dead and alive during the song, and I will explore how the lyrics work around both realities.
Silence slights spirits of those gone into the night
But what was the cost?
Do I justify the loss
When a loss of control would be digging myself a hole?
It couldn’t be worth it
Either standing near TP/P’s dead body or waiting for him to enter so he can kill him, Hunter thinks of all of the people in his life who have died, nearly all either due to direct or indirect action from him. His brother, his father, and his love are all dead because of him, and for what? All of this so he could be a miserable man, a terrible mayor, an absent father. All of this so he could burn down a church and kill a single disgusting man. Was it worth it? Can he justify everything he’s done and continues to do, even if it is largely out of self-preservation? He ultimately seems to decide that no, it hasn’t been and is not worth this level of sacrifice of others to keep himself alive.
I’m a killer [x3]
But I’ve been killing myself all along
Had I done my best to protect innocence
Or did I lead the wolf to the fawn?
Not only has he killed other people, but ultimately he has killed himself this whole time by sublimating his own identity and repeatedly making life more difficult for himself through the choices he has made. More than that, in his mind so many of the choices he has made since returning to The City have been in service of protecting its people from the evils of those like TP/P, but his actions have only made the problem worse. TP/P only tightened his grip on the people he influenced, and worse, he attracted the likes of Mr. Usher, who is even more unscrupulous and likely to cause greater grief and suffering to his own benefit. Turning the whole wolf/flock/shepherd metaphor from “The March” around, Hunter refers to either TP/P or Mr. Usher (possibly both) as a wolf who he has allowed to feast on the innocence of his constituents through both his actions and inaction.
Watch your words
Keep them from bothering the herd
Provoking the stones
That they all can throw
No, I won’t carry on
Living this life that I stole
It just isn’t worth it
With the crowd growing ever louder, Hunter snaps back to the present for a moment and thinks about how he will address them. He knows that he will have to be careful in what he tells them and how as he is in a very vulnerable position where he is both metaphorically and literally open to them throwing stones at him. In spite of the risk it carries though, he makes the ultimate decision to give up his false identity and come clean as the man he truly is, faults and all. Based on the moral calculus he just performed, he determines that it is simply no longer worth maintaining this charade.
I’m a killer [x3]
But I’ve been killing myself all along
Divining the right from the wrong
Had I done my best to protect innocence
Or was something more wicked in store?
Is there villainy inside of me?
In search of worth
Have I burned the earth?
There’s no passion in being passive
And no inaction could bring an answer
So for you, I am a killer
Several things to unpack here! First, we get more affirmation about the mistakes Hunter has made in his search and quest to live a decent life and help others. Even if the intentions he had in his mind all along were good, it does not change the results and repercussions of those actions. His mere act of trying to separate the good and bad has only opened up an entire world of pain and harm to himself and others. Second, Hunter suddenly wonders if, in fact, his motives have actually been all that pure all along. He has operated under the core premise that he is the hero of his own story and thus whatever actions he takes ultimately must be good or justifiable because they’re in service of a greater and ultimate good. But given all that has happened, he finally understands that that is simply not true. He doesn’t go so far as to call himself the villain of his own life’s story, but he finally admits that there is a part of him that is perhaps villainous. There are parts of him that, in search of meaning and greater purpose, have created a net negative harm upon the world he has touched. Third, we also get a reference to a line from “The Moon,” in which he shouts “Must I burn the earth, before you turn to ash?” In that first instance he pondered what lengths he would need to go to in order to achieve redemption for the mistakes he’s made. Now he realizes that having “burned the earth” has only made things worse.
And lastly, we get the conclusion of the song, in which he realizes that there will be no definitive answer to these questions he’s asking himself. It is all far too muddied by the moral complexities of life to judge the extent to which Hunter is evil or “bad.” But ultimately doing nothing will bring no further clarity to himself, so, just as he has done at just about every single point throughout this story, presented with a major conflict or life juncture, he will act impulsively simply for the sake of doing something. And thus, if he is indeed a killer, then that is what he will continue to do. He will kill the part of himself that was his half-brother once and for all. He will kill TP/P (or has already killed? Nobody knows! Don’t open the box!). And, finally, his final act will be to kill his true self, once and for all. I believe the “you” in the last line is intended to be directed towards his identity as his half-brother as opposed to his corporeal self or TP/P, but ultimately both wind up dead at his hands anyway.
We leave off this song with another instrumental outro. Now, one could argue that it is at this point that he murders TP/P “off-screen” the same way that Ms. Leading’s death was implied at the end of “The Flame (Is Gone).” What keeps me from thinking that this is the intended effect and interpretation of this section though is that, as far as I can tell, there is no musical reference or callback here indicative of any of the songs and themes associated with TP/P. No “The Pimp and the Priest,” no “Smiling Swine,” none of “The Bitter Suite” or “Ouroboros” or “The Most Cursed of Hands.” Instead, we seem to have a mashup of two things here. The first one is the more obvious of the two as we just referenced it in “The March.” The horn melody is the same guitar riff identified from “The Oracles on the Delphi Express,” and I think given that it’s coming back so soon after “The March” is indicative both of its relevance to the original track – all of The Oracles premonitions and warnings throughout the series have come true – as well as in “The March,” as Hunter is likely confronting the angry mob outside of his door at this time and subsequently trying to escape them. In the process he may have also killed TP/P, but that is not what the focus is here.
The other thing I was hearing in this section may be a bit of a stretch, but it also would make sense thematically, and it’s in the conclusion of Act III in “Life and Death,” right as Casey shouts “We sit here waiting, waiting to die.” Given that Hunter just referenced passivity and inaction, as well as a resignation of both death and murder in response to it, it certainly feels like a fitting callback to make. I recognize it’s not exactly a perfect fit though, so I could very well be grasping at straws here. Closely examining such a long and dense piece of work that routinely features so many of these kinds of callbacks and easter eggs will do that to you.
Regardless, at the end of this track we are left with Hunter having put his brother’s identity to death for the final time and dealing with an angry mob. With the full realization and understanding of just how toxic he is and will likely continue to be, it is not entirely surprising that it is at this time that he also seems to make the decision to end his story once and for all.
15. A Beginning
I wrote at the top of my album review of Act V that the series has been chiefly concerned with the concept of beginnings. As Hunter has gone through life and has encountered obstacles he has repeatedly shown a desire to throw everything away and start with a clean slate, not understanding that there are never any such things as truly clean slates. A more complete assessment though is to focus less on the beginnings themselves and more on the fact that they are the start of a continual cycle that ends and begins anew consistently throughout. This story is ultimately one about the vicious cycles we throw ourselves into and constantly combat even as we perpetuate them. We think we change over time, but many of the core aspects of ourselves that truly make us…well, us, remain constant. Our base desires, instincts, virtues, and flaws for the most part remain unchanged for the vast majority of our lives. But we always believe we are capable of some change or improvement, so we spin through life in a constant state of ups and downs, replaying the same conflicts and scenarios with minor variations each time.
Hunter is a prime example of this as he is constantly led by his reactionary id to make changes he believes will substantively alter his life and identity, only to find himself in the same place and needing to change time and time again. There have been signs strewn all over the place that this has been the real key to understanding this series all along. The constant musical throwbacks and references are a fun and effective trick in maintaining consistency throughout the series and an easy way to identify certain characters or themes, but they are also a constant reminder that, even as their context changes or they undergo some slight change or variation, we are bound to encounter the same themes and conflicts over and over in a neverending cycle.
“Ouroboros” is where this game is laid out in plain sight though. On both the micro scale of that song and the macro scale of the entire series, it represents the admission that Hunter will never truly escape himself. He will be forced to reckon with his worst flaws and their repercussions, as well as the chief conflicts that define him internally as well as externally (namely in TP/P or others like him) over and over again. I already wrote a bit about this in my initial analysis of the track, and it holds just as true now. Without repeating myself entirely, it is hugely important that Casey chose the symbol of the ouroboros – a circular depiction of a dragon eating its own tail – to represent that moment in the story as it suddenly shines a light on why The Oracles are present as narrators and commentators of this continual cycle while acknowledging throughout that these things are inevitable unless Hunter somehow breaks the cycle (“past and present stay the same” off of “Writing On a Wall”). It brings so much extra context into much of Act III, from its sub-title of “Life and Death,” to its setting of war as a physical manifestation of this constantly churning cycle of death and cruelty that traps and transforms people into inhuman killing machines until someone actively breaks the cycle to end the war, to song titles like “In Cauda Venenum” – “the poison is in the tail.” The message is abundantly clear by the time we reach the conclusion of Act V as Hunter stands at the precipice of another turn of the cycle, finally having unlocked the inevitability of everything that has transpired and his complicity in it.
Turning back to the actual song and our story, Hunter somehow manages to escape the angry mob at the end of “Blood” and finds himself alone near the ocean’s edge (it has been established, or at least heavily implied over time, that The City is a port city likely on the Atlantic, and that The Lake and The River flow into it). He might be gravely injured from the encounter or not, but after his revelations about himself in “Blood” and the cycles he’s been trapped in, whatever injuries he sustained are besides the point. It is at this time that he decides he needs to break the cycle somehow, and if he is forever bound to his instincts pushing him through a continual cycle of errors, violence, and regret, then the only way to truly break free of it is to end his life. This is…a controversial mental leap to make, to say the least. It is way too easy in instances like these to glorify or rationalize suicide, and though I don’t believe that is Casey’s aim at all here, it does make it a bit difficult to analyze fully without bringing in additional outside societal context. Logically, I understand why this was the decision made for this character and why it makes sense within the strict confines of this story and its motivations. Emotionally, it’s kind of a huge bummer and letdown to see and hear this grand finale depict something so indicative of real-life crises we face in this country and elsewhere. And, frankly, whether that’s the point or not, the decision to commit suicide is really the ultimate act of escapism. In death, just as in life, Hunter is running away from his problems and seeking a “quick fix” rather than the hard work of actually dealing and living with the consequences of his actions. Perhaps that is really the point here, that this is just another part of the cycle that never ends or breaks. There are certainly hints of that throughout here, which I’ll get to momentarily.
One super quick comment just about the music here, which is just an acknowledgement of how absolutely emotional and affecting the composition and arrangement are. This is a song that can still get me choked up listening to it and produce chills, and the beautifully delicate arrangement of strings and piano through much of it is largely responsible for it. It is about as perfect and fitting a conclusion to this chapter as I could have ever possibly imagined.
The silence dominates, divining resolutions from my hands
Lines drawn in the sand
But my volition’s wry, my temperance twisted, faced with failing light
Nothing in my sight
As if to really hammer home the significance of “Ouroboros” and what it represents here, the verses of “A Beginning” feature an ascending vocal melody very similar to the one in that track. Hunter remarks that the same silence of those he’s lost along the way that he noted in the beginning of “Blood” is still at the forefront of his mind, and it was thoughts of them that brought him to “divine” the resolution of killing TP/P. With this done though, he feels himself drained of everything. His will to continue is dried up, and as he stares out into the vast expanse of the ocean, he sees nothing all the way to the horizon. Likewise, he sees no future for himself and no further reason to live.
If I fall into the ocean; send my soul into the sea;
Will these reflections trouble me? Will I dream my final dream?
It’s time that we make a final “dive” into water metaphors and symbolism throughout this series. We have established time and again that water represents a kind of moral purity, a means of salvation and rebirth, but also a threat of death. Those last two are not at all contradictory though because of the establishing of the life cycle as an immutable constant. Life and death are posed simply as reflections of the other, stages closely linked together as the head consumes the tail. The ocean specifically – as opposed to The Lake or The River – has been foreshadowed as the harbinger of death and the end of one cycle leading into the beginning of the next since the beginning of Act IV. In “The Old Haunt,” Hunter envisions himself struggling to keep his “soul above the ocean floor” and notes that there are too many waves to do so. Follow-up “Waves” is all about that same struggle to keep himself from sinking with the ship to the bottom of the ocean. At the time he concluded that by leaving his past behind him – his identity and his relationships – he could avoid the inevitable end of being sucked under. And just recently in “Gloria” he compared himself to a “rogue wave stuck in a savage ocean.” All this time he has been trying to forestall the inevitable end of one cycle into the next, only to realize that he’s been falling into this cyclical trap the entire time. So the only thing left to do is perhaps embrace it once and for all and literally sink to the bottom of the ocean. He wonders at this moment whether the weight of everything on his mind and the actions he’s taken will haunt him until his final breath or if he will be able to die dreaming of something better.
I sensed this silhouette who’s standing vigil growing very sore
Just one moment more
Before I close the curtain, fate uncertain; spirit to the dark
Can I fall into the ocean, send my soul into the sea?
No distant echoes haunting me, no further phantoms will I see
This silence held eternally
This silhouette or shadow is a manifestation of Hunter’s conscience and guilt, perhaps once again taking the form of himself as The Boy as we saw in him addressing his younger self in “The Old Haunt” and “The Moon.” This specter is part of the impulse pushing Hunter to take his life, and as it waits impatiently for him to go through with the act and “close the curtain,” Hunter begs for just another moment to take in the world. He ponders again whether he will be able to finally escape his guilt and the ghosts of his past through this final act.
But what if the silence is broken by the ones you’ve loved
Incredibly present, with a heavenly breath to wake you up
With nothing left to poison, a portrait of who I’ve become
Only elation remains, protecting us from this neverending night
As a character who does not project as very religious or particularly concerned with strictly religious matters other than how TP/P is connected to them, there hasn’t been a lot of thought or pondering about the afterlife throughout this series. Not surprisingly though, at this final moment before Hunter decides to end his own life, he thinks about what might be on the other side. Perhaps as a final moment of comfort he thinks about how as this tragic cycle ends a more hopeful one might begin, where everyone he has loved in his life is there to greet him, from his mother to Ms. Leading, his brother, and more. They will all be there and love him for who he really is, and there will be nothing left to corrupt him and lead him down these destructive paths and cycles of violence. As he takes the final step and plunges into the final unknown (presumably with some sort of weight attached to him so he sinks to the bottom and actually drowns), he proclaims that elation and true happiness await him to protect him from the infinite darkness of death.
Dear apparition, while my senses last
Is absolution far too much to ask?
Will you forgive a truly troubled past?
The silver lining still remains, the sights I’ve left to see
So trust that with this end, a new beginning’s waiting patiently
As Hunter steps off and sinks down, we hear the reprise of the same symphonic fanfare in the outro of “The Moon.” Hunter addresses the heavens one last time before he dies, asking if he deserves absolution and forgiveness for all that he has done. As opposed to before when Hunter commented that “silver lining” was too hidden for him to see, he reaffirms that it’s still there and it’s in all of the things that lie ahead in the great unknown. In his final moment he trusts that with the end of this cycle of corporeal life, a new beginning will be ready to take hold and start anew. And so it goes. Hunter dies alone at the bottom of the ocean, leaving behind a complicated story and legacy that very few will be likely to understand.
So, where does that leave us exactly, and where might we go from here? We leave off Act V in a real place of finality as our main protagonist, our main antagonist, and the main love interest are all dead. In the scope of a classic tragedy this is certainly where the story would end. Casey still insists though that there is an Act VI that at least exists in his mind, though he has been dropping multiple hints that it is likely to break form with Acts I-V in multiple ways, possibly in structure, in form (Act V supposedly being the last “rock” Act), and in actual consumption (there have not been a lack of rumors postulating that Act VI might take the official leap into cinema). In terms of the actual narrative content though, we are not left entirely clueless, and Casey leaves a gigantic hint right at the album’s conclusion.
The last sounds we hear in Act V come in a reprisal of the official theme of the entire series and of Hunter/The Boy in “The Lake South.” In one sense, this is simply closing the loop on another grander cycle of the Acts as a whole as we go from the end right back to the very beginning. But there is likely more to it than that because we know references to The Lake are usually associated with Hunter’s childhood and home there. And who just happens to be located there at the end of Act V? None other than Hunter’s son and the boy’s mother. Thus we find ourselves leaving Act V in a scenario not too different from where we started off in Act I. The Fiancee/Lover and her son are forced to flee The City to a home by The Lake and The River, and with the end of TP/P’s reign, another man marked by cruelty and greed seems poised to pick up the pieces and continue much of what TP/P already established. Once again, we don’t know for sure what Mr. Usher’s grander aims are here, but given that his purpose within this album seems to have been to essentially wipe the board clean of potential rivals and adversaries, it is unlikely that he is going anywhere anytime soon. In the end, Hunter may have closed the loop and chapter on his own life, but life goes on without him, and there are greater cycles at play.
So. That’s…that’s it. Once again, I can offer only my sincerest gratitude to each and every one of you who have read this series, have shared it on Facebook, to Reddit, and elsewhere, have reached out to me and interacted with me as a result, and to those who have actually used this crazy thing as the basis or inspiration for other projects and analysis. I started this mostly for myself as an opportunity to dive a lot deeper into these albums I love so deeply and gain a much better understanding of them, but it’s been the incredible response and welcome from the greater TDH fan community that has kept me going and determined to complete this once and for all (even if was rather belated). Without knowing what is actually in store for Act VI I really can’t say for certain if this series will continue. If it takes forms other than a straight-forward album package at the very least it’s conceivable that the way I have analyzed all of this up to this point would need to change as well. You can be sure that whatever happens though, I will be still heavily involved in making sense of it one way or another.
Much love, and let the fire always remain.