If you enjoy this review, please consider signing up for Buy Me A Coffee (link to the right). For $10 a month, you can get early access to posts like this before they become public.
To say that as a fan of Critical Role I was excited for this episode of Exandria Unlimited would be an understatement. Of all the countless NPCs Matthew Mercer created over the course of both the Vox Machina Campaign and the Mighty Nein Campaign, Shaun Gilmore is perhaps my absolute favorite. Full of flair, pinache, and a sprinkling of melancholy at times, Gilmore was one of the first openly gay characters I can recall being introduced on a live Dungeons and Dragons game. And I’m happy to say that the episode was in a word, Glorious.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the episode.
At this point, it wouldn’t be an episode of Exandria Unlimited if the adventurers didn’t attempt to do something stealthy (like sneak back into the city of Emon) and have it go horribly right and wrong at the same time. Instead of just sneaking in, the group decides to change their appearance and create distractions for the rest of the group. Fortunately for us as viewers, the plan does not go exactly as drawn out. Seeing Fearne, Dorian, and Dariax create an impromptu jam session/dance recital is something I can honestly say I wasn’t expecting but I’m glad it happened. Opal and Orym also got in on the act, pretending to be a mother looking for her lost child, respectively. It’s these kinds of shenanigans that make Dungeons and Dragons games so much fun and I applaud the cast for diving head first into the absurdity of the situation.
However, Aabria is a good enough Dungeon Master to make sure that the party’s failed attempt at sneaking into the city catches the attention of The Nameless Ones. As any good storyteller is tell you, actions should always have consequences. In a scripted series or story, the group’s antics probably wouldn’t have occurred (unless you were going to for a more comedic tone in the story). In Dungeons and Dragons, the onus is on the players to figure out how they want to approach a given dilemma and then it’s up to the Dungeon Master to figure out how to incorporate their actions into the narrative. In this case, the party draws the attention of the Nameless Ones after their entrance to Emon but with some quick-thinking on Dariax’s part, they are able to escape further notice and make it to Gilmore’s Glorious Goods. I’m beginning to like Dariax more and more as the story unfolds. Mercer infuses this rather dim-witted character with enough charm and likeability that you forget he’s one of the more morally compromised characters in the group.
Aabria Iyengar’s performance of Gilmore was everything I hoped it would be and more. She captured an older, wearier Gilmore perfectly. Shaun Gilmore as a character was always ready with a quip, a flirtatious comment, grand gestures, but most especially, heart. There’s a reason Critters love Gilmore as a character and its less to do with his sexuality and more to do with how Mercer made him a relatable and sometimes tragic figure (specifically his affection for Vax’ildan that was never reciprocated). Aabria uses Gilmore to give the players and us as the audience more information on what has been found by the group, namely the Circlet of Barbed Vision, as well as pointing the group in a direction to solve the mystery of the glyphs found on the mesa from the last episode.
One important piece of information that Gilmore provides the party about the Circlet is also one of the more insightful statements that I’ve seen on Critical Role (which has no shortage of astute observations over the years): While the Circlet is tied to The Spider Queen (an evil deity with a capital “E”), the Circlet itself is simply Power. What one chooses to do with that power is a different matter altogether. Power calls to those that can be easily corrupted, such as the nascent adventurers that make up this group. What they choose to do with the power the Circlet can give them is entirely up to them. With that being said, Gilmore does not protest when the group decides to keep the Circlet. Instead, he provides them with an enchanted box that is good for one use only. The purpose of the box is simple: if the party decides they don’t want to hold onto the Circlet, they can place it in the box and close it. The box will then teleport back to Gilmore’s shop, where he will take possession of the Vestige.
Gilmore sends the party far to the south of Tal’Dorei to find the ruins of a pre-Calamity civilization known as the Qoniira. This culture viewed magic differently than others, with little care for the moral implications of magic but accepting all the wonders that could be created from it. In particular, they studied runecraft, a practice of infusing sigils and glyphs with power to bring about desired effects. If the party can find examples of their runic language, Gilmore should be able to decipher the rune found on the Oh No Plateau.
Getting out of Emon to begin this journey south is going to be the difficult part, given that The Nameless Ones are still hunting the party. Gilmore arranges for them to use one of his carts to at least get to the southern gates of Emon. From there, the party can find their own transportation out of the city. But as fate (in this case a dice roll and Aabria’s judgment based on that dice roll), Poska and The Nameless Ones find the party, taking control of the wagon they are using. The leader of the thieves’ guild makes it clear she wants the Residuum and the Circlet, claiming them as belonging to her (since she was attempting to steal them from their rightful owners). She is angered to find that the group has sold the Residuum and the Circlet to Gilmore (which is a deception on the part of the group). Poska claims she’ll kill Gilmore after dealing with the party.
Of all the people to get the group out of this tense situation, Fearne steps up, casting the spell Charm Person on Poska, which succeeds. This grants Poska a more amenable demeanor toward the group, which Fearne uses to convince her to let the group disappear. Poska relents, letting the group go despite her desire to harm them for stealing from her. As the group makes their escape, Dariax reveals that they indeed still possess the Circlet. The ending of the episode comes about with the party making their way out of Emon while hearing the wrathful screaming of Poska as she’s understands how badly she’s been played with this group of erstwhile heroes.
Next week’s episode will mark the halfway point for this limited series and I’m interested to see how this plays out. Moving away from Emon is a good idea from a storytelling perspective, since it forces the characters into a new situation rather than relying on the same antagonists repeatedly. The path the group is taking will lead them through Byroden, Opal’s hometown. Aabria and the others have admitted that Opal’s story becomes the linchpin of the series and I’m guessing that this is the start of that surfacing. As Tolkien once wrote, “the road goes ever on and on…”, and the road beckons the party forward to an unknown and potentially dangerous place. It’ll be interesting to see where the road takes them and what wonders they will find along the way.