Update 9/23/2020: I wrote this a while back, but since then a certain author has fully outed herself (See? Pronouns aren’t that difficult, Rowling, you crybaby) as a misogynistic, transphobic asshat. I feel like if I’m going to be talking about her work, I ought to use the space to promote something more useful, so here’s a link to some U.K. groups that help trans kids:
I would encourage you to donate money to them or another trans UK-based charity instead of feeding money to Rowling.
Spoilers: Yes, for this book and the Harry Potter series.
Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with the Harry Potter series.
Star Rating: **
Part One: Time-Travel Fuckery
What’s better than a poorly-written sequel? A poorly-written sequel with time-travel, of course! Because this portion of the story predominantly involves the main characters being stuck in one of many parallel universes, I think it’s worth discussing the use of time-travel in the Harry Potter stories. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the only Harry Potter narrative prior to Cursed Child to make much use of time-travel, and even it only uses the feature at the end of the story. Prisoner of Azkaban stands out among the Harry Potter novels as a bit of an odd duck, being the least focused on Voldemort, more critical of the wizarding world than most of the other novels, and arguably focusing the most on exploration of Harry’s character. The time-turner is almost a deus ex machina, introduced in the last third of the novel as a way of achieving a happy ending. It’s not technically a deus ex machina because it merely extends the story rather than resolving existing problems wholeheartedly, and it does have an established presence earlier in the story. However, the time-turner is still an abrupt element that seems out of place in a world where magic is mainly cosmetic.
Time-travel is more of a science fiction staple than a common element in fantasy, really. When it is incorporated into a fantastical story, characters traveling to a new time are usually transported far into the past, and often become trapped there for most of the story. Time-travel in this case works more like portal fantasy, rarely having an effect on the characters or their future. Fantasy rarely concerns itself with paradoxes or the butterfly effect. In this regard, Prisoner of Azkaban is especially unusual.
The function of time-travel in the Prisoner of Azkaban is not plot-driven, but character-driven. When Harry and Hermione go back in time, literally seeing recent events from a different perspective, they are doing so out of somewhat childish wishes. If only they could go back and do things over, they could rescue Harry’s godfather from a horrible fate. If only they could go back, they could free Buckbeak. If only they could go back, Harry could see his father. The discovery that these things have already happened, and not necessarily in the way the characters want, precipitates character growth. One of the most significant moments in the films is the spectacular sequence where Harry conjures a fully-formed patronus to ward off dementors. The time-travel is thematic, as for the entire story, Harry has been struggling to reconcile the past with his present. Through the time-turner, Harry realizes that the two are inextricably connected. It’s not an entirely happy ending, but it’s surprisingly nuanced for a children’s series about magic.
But we’re not really talking about Prisoner of Azkaban, are we? The time-travel in Prisoner of Azkaban is the closed-loop sort, playing upon events built up within that book and ending without much complication. The third book has a narrative that allows time-travel to fit within the story, but as the books become more focused on a good-versus-evil narrative, the utility of the time-turner diminishes. Going back in time to stop a bad guy is rarely engaging, which is why Prisoner of Azkaban needs to use its time-travel for character purposes. Time-travel fit within the third book, but wouldn’t work elsewhere in the series.
Cue Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Rowling wrote the time-turners out of existence in the fifth book, presumably so she wouldn’t have to deal with them, but Cursed Child introduces a hidden time-turner that escaped destruction. Okay, that’s a bit weird. Why bring something back if you went to the trouble of removing it in the first place? I think Cursed Child gets a lot of flack for reintroducing time-turners as a break in continuity, but I honestly don’t care much about that. If a bad element serves its plot effectively, the problem doesn’t lie with that element. And boy does it serve the plot.
Cursed Child uses time-travel in two ways — first, to revisit characters and events from the original series for titillation, and second, to create non-binding scenarios where the characters can explore uninteresting what-if scenarios. I guess those are pretty much the same thing, really.
Part Two: Harry Potter, the Fucking Fascist
After escaping the Hogwarts Express, Albus and Scorpius team up with Delphi, Amos Diggory’s niece, and steal a special time-turner from Hermione’s office. We get some setup in Delphi explaining that she (as an absolutely-not-suspicious twenty-something) never went to Hogwarts. Albus expresses romantic interest in her and she fucks off while the boys go back in time. Delphi is about as one-dimensional as an unreliable character can get, so she ends up adding very little to the story and her mere presence confounds the thesis of the narrative. I’ll leave Delphi be for now, though.
Time travel in Cursed Child is revamped to allow the characters to go back in time for five minutes to any time period. Naturally, they pick the First Task of the Triwizard Tournament from Harry’s schooling instead of, for instance, the place that Cedric died, or someplace they could more easily keep him from getting injured. Let’s be honest, Dumbledore wouldn’t give two shits if Cedric were tied up in a closet for the entire Third Task. Or the entire tournament, for that matter. The reason they go to the First Task has little to do with plot coherency and is mainly an excuse for the young protagonists of this story to run into the protagonists from the original series as children. Albus and Scorpius sabotage Cedric’s performance and after their five minutes is up, get transported to the present once more.
Except, of course, they’ve changed history and end up in an unfamiliar alternate universe. Only a few things are changed — namely, Albus is in Gryffindor House instead of Slytherin and Hermione is no longer his aunt. These changes are silly and at their root detestable, the logic behind them being that because Albus and Scorpius were disguised as Durmstrang students, Hermione became suspicious of Viktor Krum and didn’t go with him to the Yule Ball, which meant that Ron got to go instead, which meant that Ron never got jealous, and as we all know, envy is what makes true love blossom.
I like to think that Ron is secretly dying inside this entire book because he only ever got together with Hermione out of spite for Krum. Harry is obviously his one true love. Harry or Malfoy.
Anyway, this all seems like it wants to demonstrate that Albus and Scorpius would still be close if they were in separate houses, and that Albus still wouldn’t live up to his father’s expectations if he were in a slightly better position. I like the sentiment, but it comes at a severe cost — namely, claiming that smart women are only competent because of the men in her life and that brown people are bad. I mean, yeah, those are some pretty fucking atrocious idea to bring up in any story, never mind Harry Potter. This is a sour point for a lot of readers, and rightfully so. Hermione ends up a vindictive shrew teaching her least-liked subject, all because she never married Ron. Ron, meanwhile, ended up marrying Padma Patil (did Krum go to the ball with her, then?) and Albus’ alternate timeline cousin, Panju, is treated like a negative outcome of this because he exists instead of darling asshole Rose. I don’t really care what the intentions of the writers were at this point, this subplot flat-out shouldn’t be in the damn book. Neither point takes up much time in the story, but even in a series that already has a shaky foundation when it comes to the slightest bit of worldliness, this is a low blow.
A marginally less garbage but still highly perplexing choice builds once the boys end up in the alternate timeline. Harry is upset that Albus is spending so much time with Scorpius and commands him to stop seeing his friend. His literal only friend in the world. Great parenting there, Harry. His reasoning is treated like a both-sides sort of issue, as most of Harry and Albus’ fights are, which becomes unintentionally hilarious as the book strains to make Harry not look like a domineering asshat. It fails thoroughly.
Before this point, Harry has, in both the original timeline, been experiencing pains in his scar like those he got when Voldemort was still alive. This leads Harry to suspect that Voldemort is on his way back somehow. Ignoring the confusion that comes with this subplot trying to work its way through a story that involves substantial time-travel, signs of Voldemort’s return really don’t fit the narrative of the Cursed Child.
For one, Harry’s response really isn’t justified even if Scorpius is dangerous; he invades his child’s privacy at school, he deprives his child of positive social interaction, and coerces McGonagall into what amounts to unauthorized government surveillance of a minor. In the best-case scenario where Voldemort isn’t returning and Scorpius is harmless, Harry is acting paranoid to the point of criminal behavior. This isn’t a simple matter of him being a helicopter parent, nor is it him asking the teachers to make sure his son doesn’t get into trouble. The book tries to play his behavior as ordinary parental concern, but despite Harry’s insistence otherwise, his actions don’t seem to offer much if any protection to Albus. Having McGonagall spy on Albus is a fairly weak and over-complicated way to protect him, and aside from the questionable morality of such an action, it’s also ineffective. Harry prefers to give orders than follow-up on them, implying the whole charade is an excuse for him to use his power to bully those around him.
And in the worst-case scenario where Voldemort comes back, the theme of parents learning to trust their children and vice-versa is fucked. You can’t have a flesh-and-blood villain be the main concern for a story about interpersonal drama. Certainly not the way Cursed Child does it.
I should note at this point that none of Harry’s actions seem to be the result of the alternate timeline, either.
I get what this part of the story is trying to do, particularly with Harry. It’s trying to show that Harry is an imperfect person who doesn’t always think with a level head, especially where his problem child is involved, and it’s merely incorporating a well-known item from the books to give lip service. However, the Harry Potter series is so massive at this point that it doesn’t get to use good intentions as an excuse. No series should, really, but this one especially should know better by now. The similarities in the way Harry demands things of the people around him and real-world caustic behaviors like illegal surveillance and child abuse are too many to be dismissed.
Part Three: I Wonder if Voldemort is Back
In some ways, I feel like this book’s worst crime is how boring it is. The awkward dialogue and perplexing stage directions are still an occasional delight, but it’s not really bad in the ingenious way you might hope for. It would be one thing if this screenplay went far off the deep end and did things so odd that it would be difficult to believe they ended up in a published work of well-regarded fiction, but moments like that are few and far between. Mostly, it’s just cliches heaped on top of one another.
This is a long play, and I don’t say that lightly. At five hours, it’s longer than the vast majority of films, and it’s not structured like two plays shoved together. The two parts seem arbitrarily conceived to give a cliffhanger before intermission. If it were two complete plays shoved together, it might actually have a decent pace. As it is, you feel the length of every unnecessary scene, even though the script is a fairly short read.
Regardless, credit where credit is due, and I still like the dynamic between Albus and Scorpius. The one thing the Harry Potter series always did well was the friendships between its main characters — not in them always being enjoyable, but in them feeling organic and nuanced. Neither Albus nor Scorpius are especially compelling characters, but their love for each other is genuinely charming. I make jokes about them being in love, but friends or more, they make a solid duo, and they care about each other the way few friends ever do. They’ve certainly been through more than Harry and Ron ever did on the friendship front, and that they’re under pressure from their parents to pick other friends only solidifies their bond. That they’re both male characters is also noteworthy, as so many stories these days still deign to let their male characters show more affection for one another than a manly handshake. It’s a shame the writers didn’t go the gay route because at this point, the Harry Potter series’ lack of queer characters is laughable, but I’ll take what I can get.
That said, it’s an outright insult that Albus and Scorpius are frequently shoved out of the story entirely. As Harry becomes more distasteful, it almost feels like the book is intentionally trying to draw attention away from Albus and Scorpius. Like it wants to keep the audience from even wondering if its main characters could be gay.
The book continually gets more viscous as it plods along, becoming an odd mix of the most predictable cliches a writer could conjure and a few truly inexplicable artistic decisions. The first half ends with Albus and Scorpius going back in time once more, this time to humiliate Cedric rather than just sabotage him, and the upshot is another parallel universe. This one features death eaters everywhere to demonstrate how much worse things could be, and I wish I could say it excited or even intrigued me in the least, but it doesn’t. This story has no stakes whatsoever. Even for a children’s tale wrapped up in blankets of nostalgia, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child manages to dissolve any illusion of tension as soon as time-turners arise.
I do, however, like that the “dark cloud” hanging around Albus seems to have very little to do with this dark alternate universe. The structure of the story implies a connection between them, but the writers just can’t pass up the opportunity to write in a last tired plot twist that reveals this new universe to be unrelated to Harry’s scar or the omens sewn so far. So it’s good to know this entire act was essentially a wash.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 3
Aesthetics and Style: 2
Overall Plot: 2