The Untamed

Reverse spoiler alert: if you tell me anything that happens past episode 17, right hand to G-d I will make sure you have a rock in your shoe for the rest of your days.


I have a biannual obsession. Every two years, give or take, I click onto something new, and that is that. I am a better person because of this. In the short bursts where all I can think about is a character or scene or a shot, I do a ton of reflecting. I’ve gained friends and left jobs and changed names. I did some math earlier today and realized it’s been two years, almost exactly to the day, since my last one. Then I did some more math and realized how many anniversaries are coalescing onto this moment. I am, as you have experienced, not a hugely private person, but once I finally put together all of these time hauntings the wind of screeching publicly about this show blew right out of my sails. So on a personal level, all I will say is that my current obsession is called The Untamed, and if you are thinking about me, I am thinking about it. In the meantime, I will be in a tarot group chat with people who have already finished the show and harassing the friend I’m watching with who “has a life” and a “full-time job” to stop what she is doing and watch with me.

The Untamed is a Chinese show adapted from the xianxia book Mo Dao Zu Shi by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. It follows the relationship of two cultivators, who are kind of like Taoist ghost-hunters, across a variety of deaths and political battles and general escapades. The cultivators, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, are canonically in love. They fight spiritual evil and have sex. It’s awesome.

But “China has an uneven stance on homosexuality, which is not criminalized but also not legally recognized. Its censors have no clear, comprehensive policy on such content, but it is deemed sensitive and is inconsistently but regularly removed. Same-sex themes are technically banned from appearing on TV and, since 2017, in online streaming.”* This is a drag, adaptation-wise, but it doesn’t require any innovation. Gender can get shifted, romantic lines reassigned, important character development completely skipped. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

My sister is a therapist and a generally collected person. When I had my first hypomanic episode, I told them exactly what was going on. Plus, it was bipolar week at social work school (which I did not know until later and will never not be funny to me). They believed everything that I said without question, and they were clinically prepared for what might happen. But I’ll never forget the first time the first time I came up around them and saw them literally put their hand over their open mouth. It did not matter how much they believed, or how much they knew. There was not going to be a way for them to understand until they saw it. 

This is the way that The Untamed is queer. I can tell you and tell you and tell you and it simply is not going to work. Because when they adapted, they did not shift, and they did not reassign, and they did not skip. They just took out the sex. There is a sequence where one of the characters is potentially dying and asks the other to sing him a song. The other sings him a song that he wrote about him. While he sings it, there is a montage of every time in the preceding many episodes that the two have made eye contact. Fans did not have to come up with a ship name because the song is literally called WangXian. 

The King of Cups is the embodiment of “no one understands me.” The Knight of Cups says that no one understands him all the time, but the Knight of Cups is a brat. The King would never say it, because they think they’re too mature for that, but that doesn’t make it untrue. His smugness about understanding everyone else covers up the loneliness that brings. It’s a strange sort of loneliness, the kind that’s simultaneously a black hole and also shallow, something you can touch the back of but not stitch up. She knows that it’s her job to transform her understanding of everyone’s emotions into something public and powerful. She knows that she can do it. She’s decided that she will do it. But they also know that they will not be able to escape the quiet forlorn. 

There is no way to know what anyone making The Untamed feels about the queerness of the story that they’re telling. There’s not even technically a way to know that they know what they’re doing. It’s a secondary effect of censorship— not just the missing material, but an inability to acknowledge the void. It’s tidy, the way it disappears an entire concept. Not gaslighting, but something adjacent. There’s no way to know what anyone making The Untamed feels about being censored, either. We can empathize, but the more we have to make up, the more we’re just reflecting ourselves. 

The King of Cups knows how to bear that burden. They can live outside of the enormity of the unfairness. But it requires some amount of shutting off. Even only a third of the way through, this show means a tremendous amount to me as a queer person. Not just the explicitly queer parts of it, although those are kicking my ass, but in that way where queerness permeates all of my grief and my joy and my fear. And I have easy access to a ton of other uncensored queer content. I keep thinking about the queer people involved in making the show and what it must be like to give people a gift you know you’ll never be able to really share with them.

The King of Cups is good at sacrifice, but they shouldn’t have to be. The Untamed is a romance, and it should get to have kissing. I’m not thinking about the King of Cups when I watch, but he’s present in every shot. The show is heartbreak-y by itself. I’m curious how different it would be if the King of Cups was allowed to retreat, if only for a little while.


*Variety, June 2020


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