I've been watching the Hammer and Bolter animated series on Warhammer+, and I'm reviewing each episode as I watch it. There may be very minor spoilers, but ideally no more than you'd get from the episode description.
After two surprise Age of Sigmar episodes, this one returns to 40K and finishes off the series. This surely must have been the pilot episode, because it's stunningly good. A lot happens, and I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll be vague in everything but my praise.
The plot is that scene from Children of Men. Two desperate parents take their newborn infant through the war-torn streets of a city under attack. It's a strong setup, and it's a perfect recipe for all possible emotions. I'll try to step through the major story elements without giving anything away, but no matter what I can't possibly encapsulate it all. This is loaded with intensity and mixed emotion.
In the first scene, the husband hurries into a small apartment, and tells his wife they have to get off world. Now. She protests, saying that they can't leave everyone behind, and anyway they'll all be protected. She points out that there's a city-wide curfew, and that if they go out, they'll be shot on sight. It doesn't take much to put yourself in their shoes. When is it time to abandon your home, when faced with possible disaster? Could you do it, if it meant leaving most of your loved ones behind? Would you do it if it meant you might get shot the moment you stepped outside?
Once outside, the husband and wife, with their newborn swaddled close, keep to the shadows. They dart between buildings, biding their time as soldiers and civilians run past. Air raid sirens echo through the sky, and warnings to stay inside, by order of the God Emperor, are blasted from loudspeakers on every corner.
They receive help from a few family members along the way. The baby's aunt knows about a maintenance tunnel, and is able to use it to get them past a brewing riot between citizens and the Astra Militarum. The baby's uncle is in the Astra Militarum and has managed to secure them spots on a shuttle headed offworld within the hour.
The problem is, half way through the journey, the threat makes itself known.
The atmosphere is stunning, and the story is surprisingly complex despite the relatively straight-forward (at least in the physical sense) plot. But it never lets up, and there's a surprise or a new horror around every corner.
Sometimes, media has a strange effect on you. It's so good, and takes such a hold of you, that you just can't bring yourself to go through the emotions a second time. That's what this episode is. It's such an amazing episode that I'll probably never watch it again. And in this context, I mean that in the best way possible.
This episode is great scifi. It's dystopic, horrific, tense, and something nobody ever wants to experience in real life.
This episode is great Warhammer 40K. I've heard people say that Warhammer fiction is best when it's about humans. I don't agree, but I do agree that a story focusing on the regular hab-workers is important. Through most of the fiction, and any given Warhammer tabletop game, we get to see the soldiers and special forces and every possible angle of the war. And it's technically fine for the war to just be the war. We all know that the war has to exist in this fictional universe or else there wouldn't be a story. Warhammer is structured around constant war.
But when you get to see the civilians (such as they are), you see another side of the conflict. You see the side that's not a part of the conflict, and yet engulfed by the conflict.
Then again, maybe they are a part of the conflict. After all, hab-workers in the Warhammer 40K universe are by definition supplying the Imperium with the fuel it requires to continue its eternal galactic war.
Well, it's from a different series, but in the words of the great Ship Mistress Livia Solken, Who among us is truly innocent? And whomever we collectively blame, without the fiction to show us the desolation, desperation, and ultimate hopelessness of the human condition in the Warhammer universe, we wouldn't be able to see just how futile the eternal war actally is. In a game that needs a war to fulfill its stated purpose (it's a "wargame"), it's important to occasionally remember the fiction. And the fiction is, as they say, "grim dark". The Warhammer setting is not an aspiration. It's a warning.
If any episode of Hammer and Bolter demonstrates the horror of Warhammer, it's A New Life.
All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.