(Part 4: Yellowing)
Also known as xanthosis, citrinitas (yellowing) is sometimes considered to be an independent stage of the alchemical process, while other times, it is grouped together with the final stage of alchemy, rubedo. In The Joker, Arthur’s transition from citrinitas to rubedo is climactic and should thus be given special attention.
Citrinitas is known as “yellowing” because it encompasses the transmutation of silver into gold. In albedo, the alchemist deals with lunar light, or light that was reflective, illuminating the projections emanating from the pre-nigredo and nigredo stages. Now, in the yellowing stage, the insights gained from albedo produce an inner light, a solar light, which reconciles the outlying dualities and earns the alchemist wisdom. In Jungian psychology, this stage is typically symbolized by the archetype of the wise, old man.
With the self-knowledge gained through the understanding of his past, and the destruction of his delusions, Arthur becomes one with himself. He has achieved enlightenment, and he shares his newfound revelation through the following monologue:
“You know, you used to tell me, that my laugh was a condition, that there was something wrong with me. There isn’t. That’s the real me. Happy…I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire f****** life. You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize…it’s a f****** comedy.”
He has embraced his shadow, transcended dualities and illusion, reconciled his past and has accepted himself for who he is.
He has nearly mastered himself…but there are two last things which must take place in order for him to fully enter into the rubedo stage, the step in which he will fully transmute his “self” into gold and create the Philosopher’s Stone, thus achieving “perfection.”
As mentioned in “Part 3: Purification” there is a kind of Oedipal element surrounding Arthur, Penny, and the “father” figures in his life. Arthur is the man of the house, he takes care of his mother, the only romantic relationship that he has ever had only took place in his imagination, and all of this is done without ever actually knowing who his father is. There are, however, male figures in his life who reflect aspects of fatherhood to varying degrees, and Arthur must confront them in order to progress along the path.
In one of his lectures, Dr. Jordan Peterson quotes Sigmund Freud’s statement that “no one could be a man unless his father had died,” while also adding that Carl Jung elaborated on this by stating that the death could “be symbolic.” Dr. Peterson explains this opinion by pointing out that independence and individualization ultimately stem from the realization that parents do not know everything. And upon learning that one’s parents will not have the answers to all of your questions, especially with regard to the course of your life, you must then either choose to mature and accept responsibility for your life, or willingly choose to remain in an infantile state and forgo the ability to make your own decisions in favor of your parents’.
Thus, the death of a father (symbolic or otherwise) brings about manhood in a son.
It is my belief that Arthur must transcend this obstacle in order to achieve the Philosopher’s Stone. Interestingly enough however, he does so with a streak of vengeance, and this sense of poetic justice lends itself to the transformation that he has undergone. As the archetypal wise, old man, he now wields the ability to administer justice, understanding the power of subjectivity, a concept which will present itself in full form later on.
Soon after his final encounter with Sophie, we find Arthur sitting in Penny Fleck’s hospital room, the same scene in which he delivers the speech mentioned above. However, just before he begins, he states that he always hated the name “Penny Fleck.” He rejects his “adopted” mother, and following his speech, he proceeds to smother her to death (it is worth noting that this act of matricide may be a nod to Joaquin Phoenix’s role as Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in which he commits patricide in an almost identical way). It runs contrary to the classic Oedipal format, but as a single mother, Penny reflects the most direct parental/authoritative presence in his life (which does include to some degree the role of the father). Also, there is some level of resentment from Arthur that we glean from his words that the “condition” that she told him he had, really wasn’t a condition at all, but simply part of his true self. It is a classic trope of irony that her belief that he had a condition, conditioned him, and it is his reversal of that belief which “cures” him of the condition, as from that point on his laugh is not involuntarily brought on by fear, stress, or sadness.
Next, he gets his revenge on Randall who plays a minor, but necessary role in the transformation of Arthur Fleck. Our exposure to Randall is pretty limited, but from what we do observe, it is plain that there is some history of friendship between them, and that Randall has probably looked out for Arthur. He is one the “father figures” in Arthur’s life as he is the one who gives Arthur the revolver while telling him, “You know you’re my boy.” He betrays Arthur, however, by later telling their boss that Arthur tried buying the gun from him, leading to his being fired from Haha’s. Arthur returns the favor by calling Randall out for his lie in front of their coworkers, and then later by savagely killing him in his apartment after Randall and Gary stop by to visit.
Randall’s death proves to be significant not only because it removes another “fatherly” figure from Arthur’s life, but it also shows us that Arthur’s killing spree is not indiscriminate. He spares Gary’s life because by his own admission, Gary was “always nice to him.” This scene resolves any questions prompted by Penny’s murder and provides a stronger motive for what follows afterwards.
The next death which occurs is the symbolic death of Thomas Wayne. Chronologically this takes place moments before Randall’s death, but in terms of significance, I prefer to discuss it after Randall’s death. As Arthur is preparing to go to the Murray Franklin Show, he finds an old photo of Penny which has written on the back of it, “Love your smile…TW.” Arthur looks over the photo, reads the note on the back of it, and then crumples it. It is inferred that the initials “TW” stand for Thomas Wayne, and in my opinion, this brief scene addresses the link between Arthur and Thomas.
I believe that Arthur is the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne. Logically speaking, it does not make sense for this scene to exist except to confirm for the audience that Thomas and Arthur are father and son.
The narrative was already ambiguous. We as the audience are not given convincing evidence from either Penny or Thomas that their sides are wholly and independently true. Some have posited the theory that Penny’s psychological issues stemmed from the emotional trauma of being forced to hide her romance with and impregnation by Thomas, and subsequently signing papers stating that Arthur was adopted. As such, it is quite plausible that a man as powerful as Thomas could have had things covered up to hide an affair with one of his house staff. And quite frankly, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility for his temperament. On the other hand, if Penny had psychological issues prior to her time working for the Waynes, then it is possible that the story of a romance between herself and Thomas was simply a delusion. If the scene with the photo had not occurred, we would have been forced to choose a side depending on how we empathized with either character.
Instead, we are prompted to revisit the issue one more time and this time we are shown a photo that is simply signed “TW.” Penny refers to Thomas Wayne throughout the film as either “Thomas Wayne” or “Thomas,” but never as “TW.” If their romance had been a delusion, then Penny would have simply signed the letter herself as “Thomas” because that’s how she referred to him during her conversation with the psychiatrist at Arkham, and it would have made a stronger case for convincing herself or others that it was indeed Thomas Wayne. “TW” makes the most sense as a signature for someone who does not want to be identified. Even if someone were to find out that Penny had a tie to Thomas Wayne through employment, there would be no definitive way to prove that “TW” stood only for Thomas Wayne. This proves to me that the romance between Penny and Thomas was true, meaning that Arthur is indeed Thomas’ son.
But here’s the catch…it doesn’t even matter!
That knowledge has no bearing or influence on Arthur’s journey at this point, and his crumpling of the photo represents Jung’s “symbolic death” of the father. This death is only the death of Arthur’s biological father however, and he must complete the process by confronting his “adopted” father, Murray Franklin.
When we are first introduced to Murray Franklin at the beginning of the film, we experience Arthur’s first delusion in which we witness Murray telling Arthur that he would give up all of the lights, the show, the audience, etc. to have a kid like him. It all proves to be a scene from Arthur’s imagination, but it does establish a precedent for Murray serving as Arthur’s “adopted” father. Murray is the father that Arthur wished he had, and them being worlds apart protected that sentiment…until Murray received the footage of Arthur’s stand-up performance and broadcasted it at Arthur’s expense.
The footage from Pogo’s in fact shattered two illusions for Arthur during the albedo stage. It corrects Arthur’s delusion about the performance being well-received, as well as ruins the delusion which he had about being on the Murray Franklin Show at the beginning of the film. The very man who served as his ideal father figure ends up causing him the most humiliation by ridiculing his first major act of independence (stand-up comedy) in front of an audience. It is worse than Thomas Wayne’s rejection.
Ironically, Arthur’s footage earns him a slot on Murray’s upcoming show, and it is at this point that we reach the climax of the film, and the most pivotal event in the alchemical process. By the time Arthur meets Murray face-to-face, he has advanced from his dependent, child-like state to the stage of adolescence, confronting and enacting “justice” upon his lesser father/mother figures. He now stands upon the threshold of manhood, and Murray is his final test and his greatest adversary.
Just before the show is to begin, Arthur and Murray meet in person backstage and Arthur asks to be introduced to the audience as “Joker,” a moniker taken from Murray’s own scathing comments about Arthur’s Pogo’s performance. Murray agrees and the show begins (entrance; first joke).
Arthur, now the Joker, confesses to and defends the murder of the Wayne Enterprises employees, berates society for its hypocrisy, condemns Thomas Wayne, and confronts Murray Franklin.
His remarks on the concept of subjectivity are particularly worth noting because they succinctly, yet comprehensively, encompass all of the insights that Arthur has gained along the path:
Joker: “I’ve got nothing left to lose. Nothing can hurt me anymore. My life is nothing but a comedy.”
Murray Franklin: “Lemme get this straight…you think that killing those guys is funny?”
Joker: “I do. And I’m tired of pretending it’s not. Comedy is subjective, Murray. Isn’t that what they say? All of you, the system that knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong. The same way that you decide what’s funny or not.”
The entire exchange between both men is masterfully crafted. If you analyze it critically, Joker’s time on the Murray Franklin Show is a whole stand-up routine, complete with all of the classical elements of comedy. There is the performance side which includes the dancing and the big kiss he gives to Dr. Sally, the knock-knock joke troupe, socio-political commentary, and sarcasm (Murraaaay). And if you are attuned to his argument of the subjectivity of comedy, then you’ll find that it is filled with dark humor. Murray also proves himself to be formidable in classic De Niro form, with his crisp, and “to-the-point” responses.
Then finally, we get to the climax of the entire movie, Joker’s condemnation of Murray Franklin:
Joker: “You’re awful Murray.”
Murray Franklin: “Me? I’m awful? Oh yeah? How am I awful?”
Joker: “Playing my video. Inviting me on the show. You just wanted to make fun of me. You’re just like the rest of them.”
And then, as Murray responds by calling Joker to account for the consequences of his actions, Joker delivers his “punchline.”
Joker: “How about another joke Murray? What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get…you get what you f****** deserve!”
And far from Jung’s symbolic death, we instead witness Murray’s brains being splattered on the wall behind him, courtesy of the infamous revolver. Arthur has traversed the madness of the nigredo stage including the “dark night of the soul,” navigated the realms of illusion and acquired self-knowledge in albedo and has now found his inner light and has “matured” into manhood through citrinitas. And keep in mind, this final action of killing Murray Franklin, would not have been possible without successfully integrating his shadow. It is not a whimsical murder, but rather, a calculated act intended to call an adversary to account, and it is the power of the shadow which allows him to follow through with it. The combination of intention and action demonstrates that this has indeed been a progression (dark and twisted though it may be), and not merely a reaction.
[To be continued]