This article contains spoilers for Marvel’s Moon Knight episode 4.
Hmm, we thought we had it all figured out! We thought Moon Knight had settled into its groove as a globe-trotting adventure series in the vein of Indiana Jones or The Mummy. Sure, the show certainly had more mysteries to unravel, including Marc’s connection to Layla’s father and the third personality vexing him and Steven. And we expected that the show might jump from the Cairo setting of episodes three and four, in the same way it jumped from the London of episodes one and two, but we didn’t think the next location would be a mental hospital.
Thirty-five minutes into Moon Knight episode four “The Tomb,” Arthur Harrow shoots Marc and watches him sink into a golden pool of water. When Marc awakes, he finds himself in a clean, white mental hospital. In an unbroken one-shot, the camera floats through the space, revealing many of the side characters we’ve seen to be either orderlies and patients, including Layla. Even worse, Arthur Harrow appears to be operating the hospital, diagnosing Marc as suffering a mental breakdown.
For viewers of the show, the change seems to come out of nowhere. But readers of the comics will recognize the shift as a direct adaptation of one of the best Moon Knight runs, issues #1-14 of the 2016 series by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Greg Smallwood. “Personally, our biggest inspiration was the Lemire and Smallwood run,” directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson tell Den of Geek. “Within the pages, you turn the page and you start to see them reflect on each other in a Watchman-esque way.”
With that in mind, the Lemire and Smallwood run can provide some answers to what is surely the most confusing MCU episode since WandaVision.
Is This Real?
Yes. Sort of. One of Lemire and Smallwood’s most important contributions to Moon Knight canon is reframing his mental illness. When most creative teams would address Marc’s mental state, they would describe it as broken, as if there was a coherent whole that Marc needed to achieve. But in Lemire and Smallwood’s run, Marc discovers that his different way of approaching the world was itself a gift, a type of special ability. As he learned to work with his mental state, Marc discovered he could deal with issues in ways that others could not.
What we may be watching, then, is Marc fighting back against Harrow by looking at reality in a different way. By doing so, he’s fighting Harrow on Harrow’s terms. Like most cult leaders, Harrow maintains control over his followers by dictating reality to them. Marc may be throwing that all out the window, which will throw Harrow off his game.
Ok, but Is Khonshu Real?
Well, that’s the other possibility. At the end of episode three, the gods punish Khonshu by burying him in stone, effectively cutting Marc and Steven off from their source of power. The show has also suggested that Khonshu’s influence may be responsible for the divisions in Marc’s psyche – after all, they are recent enough that his wife Layla didn’t know about them.
However, if the show adheres to the Lemire and Smallwood run, then something quite different is happening. Like many comic book iterations, that series portrays Khonshu as far more meddling than benevolent. The series hints at that, with Marc’s clear resentment toward the god, but nothing has suggested that Khonshu is reshaping reality to manipulate Marc. Lemire and Smallwood depict the mental hospital escape as a way for Marc to undermine Khonshu and establish his own freedom.
Is That Why Marc Created Steven Grant?
Steven Grant may be less a side-effect of Marc’s illness and more of a strategy to escape Khonshu. To transition from Egypt to the mental hospital, directors Benson and Moorhead cut to a grainy VHS of a 90s movie about adventurer Steven Grant. The hero speaks in a (more accurate) British accent and goes boldly forward into the unknown.
It’s easy to imagine that Marc watched the Steven Grant film as a child, which gave him the inspiration to later become an adventurer (and later a mercenary). It’s also possible that he conjured his version of Steven Grant himself, without Khonshu’s influence, to preserve a part of his own identity.
Who Is the Third Identity? Jake Lockley?
That, we don’t know yet. But we likely saw that identity in this episode, trapped inside the sarcophagus. As discussed in the most recent Marvel Standom episode, Marc has two alternate personalities in the comics: Steven Grant, and Jake Lockley, a New York cabbie who patrols the streets looking for trouble. Jake tends to be a bit more rough and tumble than the other two identities.
However, given the fact that the comic book Steven Grant is closer to rich and suave Bruce Wayne than he is to the timid museum shop worker we see on the series, we shouldn’t assume that MCU Lockley will have much in common with his comic book counterpart.
What Part Does Layla Play in All This?
Even more so than Steven, Layla deviates from her comic book antecedent. Her origin resembles that of Marc’s on-off love interest Marlene, but that character has none of Layla’s dynamism or agency.
Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that Layla and others are in the mental hospital as well. It’s likely not that the adventurous versions we’ve seen in other episodes are fake and the hospital versions are real, rather that Marc is “remixing” reality to resist Harrow and (possibly) Khonshu. If that’s the case, Crawley is the far more important hospital resident.
Wait, Who the Hell Is Crawley?
In most of the episodes, we’ve seen Crawley as the gold statue man who Marc talks to. In the hospital, we see him leading a bingo game in which no one is particularly interested.
In the comics, however, Crawley is one of the most important members of Moon Knight’s supporting cast. An unhoused person and sort of street philosopher, Crawley generally interacts with Jake Lockley. On visits to Gina’s Diner, Crawley provides info to Lockley, and sometimes needs rescuing by Moon Knight.
Crawley also appears in the mental hospital in the Lemire and Smallwood run, in which he serves as something of a guide for Marc. Like Marc, Crawley exists on the margins of society, which gives him special insight on the rest of the world. As such, he’s able to help Marc break from the influence of Khonshu and embrace his own powers.
So, Everything is Fine in the Mental Hospital?
Well, probably not. In the Lemire and Smallwood comics, the hospital is operated by Doctor Emmet, a Nurse Ratched type who may or may not be someone that we’ve heard a lot about, but not yet seen: the goddess Ammit. In the same way that Harrow appears in the hospital as a doctor trying to convince Marc that everything is in his head, Doctor Emmet tells comic book Marc that he made up Moon Knight as a child.
So as much as the mental hospital may be Marc’s way of reshaping reality to battle Harrow, it may also be a construction of Ammit working through Harrow. Director Mohamed Diab references the influence of the Lemire and Smallwood comics on the show when he says, “We are seeing [the story] through someone who has DID, and the whole story could be in his head, you never know.”
In other words, as much as we can answer some questions inspired by the episode, the real answer may be, “We don’t know for sure.” And that can be very exciting.
We Gonna Talk About Taweret, the Hippo Lady?
Yes, the hippo who greets/terrifies Marc and Steven at the end of the episode is Taweret, Egyptian goddess of childbirth. She was briefly mentioned in “The Goldfish Problem,” but we know little about her purpose in this story because she’s absent not only from the Lemire and Smallwood comics, but also from the entire Marvel Universe (given some of Marvel’s iffy portrayals of pregnancy, that might be a good thing).
We do know that British actress Antonia Salib voices Taweret, in her first major role. We also know from Egyptian mythology that Tawaret is, like Khonshu, primarily a protector. She takes the form of a hippo for that creature’s protective qualities, as she seeks to defend pregnant women and newborns from anything that threatens them. Perhaps here, themes of birth and rebirth will be more oblique than that, especially surrounding Marc and his fractured psyche, but hopefully answers will be coming in Moon Knight’s final two episodes.