::: Mark T. Conard
Kill Bill: Volume 1, the Bride (Uma Thurman) acquired the power necessary to reap her revenge on Bill (David Carradine) and the DiVAS, but she acquired it in a way that it alienated her from her own essence and nature. She took up a Hattori Honzo sword, a masculine symbol of power, indicating that the way a woman gains power is to become like a man, but in being so empowered, in becoming like a man, she is alienated from her true nature as a woman. Thus all the women in Volume 1 are powerful, but, having gained power in the same way, they’re also all psychotic, having apparently been psychically deformed by that empowerment.
In my earlier piece on Volume 1, I argued that the film was a kind of therapy session for Tarantino, that he was recreating his past in order to grasp it more realistically, with the father absent and the women powerful, and that he would ultimately perform the Oedipal act by having the Bride do in the father for him.
In Kill Bill: Volume 2, Tarantino fulfills this promise by having the Bride kill Bill, the father. But before she can complete the act, two things have to happen. First, the Bride has to reject the masculine notion of power and become empowered as a woman, thus reconnecting herself with her true nature. Second, Bill, the father, godlike in Volume 1, must be humanized, must be turned into a man, in order to be killed.
In Volume 2, we return to the Bride as we left her. She’s still a Samurai, and she’s coming after Budd (Michael Madsen). As it turns out, Budd is Bill’s brother, and like the other men in Volume 1 (except Bill), he’s emasculated. He’s a drunk who has given up his Honzo sword (his symbolic penis), and we see him taken down a notch by his boss at the “titty bar” where he works.
As the Bride hunts down Budd in his trailer, music from Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars plays. It tells us that while she doesn’t yet realize it, the rules have changed. This edition (unlike Volume 1) is a Western. Her sword is no good here, and Budd thus gets the best of her with a shotgun blast of rock salt. He then takes the sword from her, divesting her of the earlier symbol of power, and offers to sell it to Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah).
On the phone to Elle, Budd refers to the Bride as a cowgirl. If she’s a cowgirl and this is a Western—a Sergio Leone-inspired Western—then the Bride is the hero and she’s playing Clint Eastwood’s character, the Man with No Name. That is, she’s the Woman with No Name. Appropriately, while she had many aliases—Black Mamba, the Bride, Arlene—up to this point she’s had no real name of her own, no real identity, as a result of her alienation from her true self and nature.
In this new milieu, and without her sword, the Bride is powerless, and Budd proceeds to bury her alive. At the gravesite, Budd asks the gravedigger if she, the Bride, isn’t the sweetest little piece of blond pussy he’s ever seen. She has thus once again returned to pussy, receptacle, helpless without her symbol of masculine power.
About to be nailed into the coffin, the Bride struggles, and Budd threatens to burn her eyes out with mace. He gives her the option of the mace in the eyes, or a flashlight, but either way, he tells her, she’s going into the ground. She chooses the flashlight—light being a traditional symbol of enlightenment, wisdom, and knowledge—and refuses to be blinded.
Budd buries the Bride in the grave of Paula Schultz, a reference to The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz, a 1968 comedy starring Elke Sommer and the cast of Hogan’s Heroes. The heroine is an East German athlete who dares to wear miniskirts and ultimately escapes to West Germany. The reference thus brings back into play the East/West dichotomy so important in Kill Bill, along with questions and symbols of masculinity and femininity (there’s also cross dressing in Paula Schultz), that are themselves crucial to the film.
Inside the coffin and under the ground, the Bride goes on a mystical journey, in the form of a flashback for us, to visit the Kung Fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu). In front of a campfire, during former happier times, Bill plays the flute and tells the Bride a story about how the mythical Pai Mei received an insult from a Shaolin monk, and how Pai Mei repaid the insult by killing the entire order of monks. This is all nicely self-referential, given that David Carradine’s character on Kung Fu was himself a Shaolin monk (and of course played the flute). This foreshadows the fact that the Bride will ultimately use the skills and techniques she acquires from Pai Mei to kill Bill. We then see Bill drop off the Bride at Pai Mei’s temple. The master has agreed to give her training despite the fact that he despises Americans, Caucasians, and especially women.
On first meeting her, Pai Mei mocks the Bride’s ability with the sword. He then forces her to learn to smash her hand through a thick piece of wood from just a few inches away. The process is painful, and her hand is bruised, bloody and nearly useless for everyday tasks like using chopsticks. But under his cruel tutelage, what the master teaches her is that her power and strength lie not in the sword but rather in her own hands. In other words, she learns that she doesn’t have to take up the sword—the symbol of masculinity—to be empowered. She can have strength and power without denying her true nature; she doesn’t have to reject her femininity, and thus doesn’t have to be alienated or psychically deformed.
Having made this mystical journey and learned this lesson, the Bride uses her hands, her own natural power, to break out of the coffin and escape the grave, as blatant a metaphor for death and resurrection as they come. The Bride has been reborn or resurrected and can now both wield power and be a woman and a mother, something she had previously thought impossible. Because of this transformation, because of her realization and connection to her true nature, she now gains an identity and can be named.
Back at Budd’s trailer, Elle has arrived with a suitcase full of money to purchase the Bride’s Honzo sword. Budd tells her about the Bride’s fate and hands over the sword, but when he goes to count the money a black mamba snake (which we recall is the Bride’s codename) appears from within the suitcase and bites him on the face. Elle collects the money and phones Bill to tell him that his brother is dead.
During that phone call, Elle uses the Bride’s name for the first time. Previously, whenever anyone tried to use her name, the sound was bleeped out. Now, after the Bride’s resurrection and transformation, Elle speaks her name: Beatrix Kiddo. The joke (and surprise) is that “Kiddo” is what Bill has been calling her all along. In other words, what we thought was an endearment turns out to be (or becomes) her real name. It’s as if Bill, like God, has the power of logos, the word, and the ability to name things.
When Beatrix returns to Budd’s trailer, she and Elle fight, and during the battle Beatrix spots Budd’s own Honzo sword sitting idle in a golf bag. The two women then face off, swords drawn, as if this will be another epic clash of Samurais of the sort that we witnessed in Volume 1. Staring each other down, Elle reveals to Beatrix how she lost her eye. It turns out that she, too, trained with Pai Mei and had the temerity to insult him, so he plucked it out. She then reveals that for that injury, she killed Pai Mei by poisoning him.
The two of them cross swords, but, again, this isn’t the Orient any longer, so there is no sword fight. Instead, Beatrix plucks out Elle’s other eye, drops it on the floor, and squishes it with her foot. Unlike Beatrix, who has been enlightened and refused to be blinded, Elle is now completely blind, symbol of her blindness to her servitude to a masculine conception of power, and to Bill, her master.
When the Bride first encountered Pai Mei, Bill was her master as well—she was enslaved to him—and then Pai Mei became her master. But Pai Mei gave her the tools to escape her servitude, and now—especially since he is dead—she has no master. She serves no one but herself, having reconnected to her femininity and her true nature. She is now ready to confront Bill.
Volume 2 erases any lingering doubts that Bill is indeed the father that Tarantino is symbolically killing in his Oedipal play. He’s the father of Beatrix’s child, and at the wedding rehearsal Beatrix tells her fiancé that Bill is her father. But in Volume 1, we’re presented with a child’s view of the father—he’s godlike, removed, an ever-present threat; and as Tyler Durden so astutely reminds us, if our fathers were our model for God, and our fathers abandoned us, then we have to accept the possibility that God hates us.
But remember: When Nietzsche said that God is dead, he didn’t mean that an actual being, the Almighty, the First Cause, an omniscient, omnipotent creator had actually been killed. Rather, he meant that the idea, the institution of God ceased to have any meaning or relevance because we now view God as fictional and can no longer believe. Similarly, killing the father means killing the father’s power over us, and that means that we have to stop viewing him as God, we have to reject that fiction, that misinterpretation.
This is exactly what Tarantino does to the father in Volume 2. Bill, the father, God, is completely humanized. In the first film we barely saw him, and never saw his face; he existed merely as an omnipresent threat and a kind of puppet-master, pulling the strings of his DiVAS. Now, in Volume 2, he’s locally and physically present as a man, a mere mortal. Now he has a brother; he plays the flute; he tells stories; he gets beaten up by his master, Pai Mei; he plays games with his daughter; his heart can be broken; he even makes sandwiches, going so far as to cut off the crust.
In fact, Bill becomes so human in Volume 2 that we start to sympathize with him, almost to the point where we don’t want to see him die. He no longer seems worthy of killing, no longer seems to deserve to die. We learn that he never knew his real father, that his own father figure—Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks)—is a pimp who cuts women’s faces when they’re disobedient. In other words, we see that his father is as big a prick as he (our father) is, and thus that his childhood was no doubt as perverse and dysfunctional as our own.
This is that transforming moment when, as an adult, you recognize your old man’s frailties and his shortcomings. You see him having trouble getting out of a chair, or see him drunk and acting stupid. You overcome your hatred and resentment, identify with him, and perhaps feel sorry for him. This is at least part of what it means to mature, to become an adult, and to see your father for what and who he is. It’s then that he loses his power over you. Symbolically, as the godlike threat, he’s dead. And so now that Bill, the father, has been humanized, de-mythologized, he’s vulnerable and can be killed.
When Beatrix finally tracks Bill down, she discovers that her now four-year-old daughter is alive and that Bill has been raising her, playing daddy to her. Beatrix tells Bill that she ran away from him when she found out she was pregnant, believing that she had to choose between being an assassin (i.e., powerful, which is part of her essential nature—Bill says she’s a natural born killer) and being a mother. But now, since her resurrection, since she’s found her identity, she’s realized that she can be strong and powerful as a woman; she doesn’t have to be empowered as a man and alienated from her nature. This is nicely symbolized by the fact that she now wears a skirt and by the fact that she doesn’t need the sword to kill Bill (note, in fact, that she doesn’t use the sword to kill anyone in Volume 2).
Indeed, their final clash begins with swordplay, but Beatrix’s sword is quickly flung away in the fight, and as Bill jabs his sword towards her, she sheathes it in the case she’s still holding. If the sword has all along symbolized the penis and the power it represents, then the sheath is symbolically the vagina, now itself a symbol of power—and consequently the pussy overcomes the cock in this fight, the woman, as woman and mother, defeats the man, the father. Mommy kills daddy.
Beatrix then uses the “five point palm, exploding heart technique” on Bill, a move which Pai Mei taught her, but didn’t teach Bill. She touches him at five pressure points on his body, and as soon as he takes five steps his heart explodes, and he dies. She can now reclaim her daughter and be a mother to her, as herself, as the strong, powerful woman that she always was.
So Tarantino succeeds in killing the father, but not, like Oedipus, unknowingly and tragically. Rather, by remaking his childhood and cleverly empowering his wife/mother to do the job for him—and thus recognizing her as the powerful, central figure that she is—he escapes the unhealthy, self-destructive consequences. There’s no need to blind himself. His therapy session has succeeded.