Warning: discussions of child abuse, rambling, melodramatic over-extrapolation of the text as per usual
I want to take a closer look at Isaac after 2x11, because I think his character, juxtaposed beside Jackson and Allison, plays an important thematic role on this show that is sometimes overlooked. (Stiles is the clear emotional core, but there is so much awesome Stiles meta out there right now that I don’t want to reinvent the wheel). This elaborates a little more on what I noted about him in a previous meta:
Isaac chooses to stay and fight beside Scott because there is something so amazing and beautiful in him that chooses to see good in people. At first glance he looks the most disposable because he has no ties, like he says, so why not run? But maybe all those years of loneliness have made him a kid who makes choices less out of bonds, and more out of a personal reflection of right and wrong. Maybe he’s so used to life on the losing side that the beatings don’t hurt him so much anymore and he’d like, just once, to win. What made him linger all those years at his dad’s house long after the man had gone? Was it fear, or resignation?
Or was it hope?
Jackson has been highlighted so much as The Orphan throughout this season that sometimes we forget that there are actually two orphans in Beacon Hills - Jackson Whittemore and Isaac Lahey.
In one sense, the death of Mr. Lahey serves to introduce this season’s motif of losing one’s parents, whether literally in the case of Isaac’s dad and Allison’s mother, or more figuratively in the way that Scott and Stiles nearly lose theirs through death and then emotional distancing. In keeping with the theme of the Omega, this season strips our heroes of their most fundamental of bonds.
But I would argue that Isaac has been orphaned for much longer than the start of this season, because his real father died a long time ago; the monster who replaced him cannot be called Isaac’s father. Being an orphan pulls Isaac into the frame of this season’s central image - drowning alone in the waters - and it suggests that we should pay more attention to his character. If he’s an orphan, why is he so different from Jackson? Why does the bite show him for a wolf, and not a lizard?
Few characters have been so deeply acquainted with the sense of drowning that Stiles spoke of in 2x11 than Isaac. Like Jackson inside the kanima, Isaac goes through hell, both metaphorically and literally, in the confines of a basement freezer. It is a hell that is not only personal, but invisible: few people notice, and no one cares. Like Stiles and Jackson, Isaac endures on his own while the world of classes and tests and lacrosse games marches on around him. As with Allison, it is a hell created by the loss and betrayal of a parent - or maybe it’s even worse than with Allison, because he has to feel it over and over again with every blow of his father’s fist.
So why isn’t he angry? Why isn’t he vengeful?
Why does he stay?
I’m not asking why he doesn’t fight back against his dad, esp considering abuse victims in real life rarely do so; what I mean is to ask why Isaac isn’t bitter and angry at the world, why he hasn’t turned that hurt within him inside out the way Allison has, given a similar chance. In asking why he stays, first for his father and then for Scott, I don’t want to analyze the psychology of abuse because I can’t treat the subject with the sensitivity it deserves - I only want to try to examine it in the context of a show that asks each character what keeps them going, what makes them choose pain and not peace. Because it’s the overarching question as the season draws to a close, and there are at least two ways to perceive Isaac’s answer.
One of them is that he simply couldn’t leave. Paralysis is the instinct of any human being when drowning; as Stiles says, “no matter how much you’re freaking out, the instinct is to not let any water in is so strong that you won’t open your mouth until you feel like your head’s exploding.” If you look at Isaac’s bond to his father this way, Isaac’s a helpless victim who’s been controlled and abused into submission, and his answer is casebook Stockholm - something tragic and pitiable.
The other is that he had a choice - and his answer is one that makes him an honorable character, not a pitiable one. And that answer is the antidote to vengeance.
Let me be clear - I think both these interpretations are legitimate, particularly as I’m going to have to reach here and speculate since there’s so little source material for Isaac. But I want to focus more on the second way of looking at Isaac’s character, because I think gives more meaning to the journeys of others on this show. I don’t want to paint Isaac as some sort of saint, because the show certainly doesn’t. But this little meta will look closely at a ‘good’ point, so if you hate Isaac, this won’t be convincing at all.
Our introduction to Isaac starts from a sympathetic viewpoint looking down - we see him cowering at the bottom of a grave, before being rescued by Derek, then cowering in the kitchen as his father interrogates and throws plates at him, before being ‘rescued’ by the Kanima. Isaac is an abuse victim, so our natural/cliched assumption is that he will accept Derek’s offer for the power to defend himself; and the dark side will be the siren song that comes with the feeling of having power for the first time.
Isaac starts out as a character that’s pitiable, but that doesn’t mean he’s good. In fact, right after his transformation he’s no longer even pitiable. He starts acting like fullmoon!Scott early on last season - basically, a complete and utter dick. The unfamiliar rush of power makes him cocky, gives him a (hilariously campy) saunter; gives him the weak form of strength. He bullies Jackson with pleasure. He talks about killing Lydia with relish. He beats up a few freshmen for tickets to a rave, a remarkably tone-deaf callback by the show to Isaac’s own history.
Glimpses of something else begin to re-emerge in “Raving”. A rather sulky Isaac gets dragged to the vet clinic by Derek, and promptly catfights with Scott (Scott - “I don’t trust him”; Isaac - “Yeah, well, he doesn’t trust you either”). But note that Isaac hears this in the same scene: when Dr. Deaton asks what their plan for Jackson is, Derek responds with “kill him” - and Scott with “save him”.
Maybe this matters, maybe it doesn’t. But in the same episode, Isaac will see this side this side of Scott again. When Scott entrusts Isaac with the ketamine, this is what he says:
Scott: Be careful.
Isaac: [snort of disbelief] Huh…doubt that’ll even slightly hurt him.
Scott: No, I mean you.
And Isaac’s head whips around and he just stares at Scott. Stares and stares. Even after Scott leaves, the shot lingers on Isaac just staring after him, an unreadable emotion on his face.
(Note that Isaac is literally the one with the ‘antidote’.)
Why is this scene so revealing? Because some time later, on the night of the full moon, Isaac’s getting chained up and he’s asking how he can control it. Derek tells him about anchors, and with further prodding Derek admits that his own anchor is anger…but it doesn’t have to be that for everyone. Whereupon Isaac’s mind jumps immediately to Scott.
Then with the moonrise that same night, we discover that Isaac no longer needs his chains. He’s the first of the betas to find his anchor.
Derek: Looks like you found an anchor.
Isaac: Yeah … my father.
Derek: …Your father locked you in a freezer in the basement to punish you.
Isaac: … He didn’t use to.
Isaac’s anchor isn’t a person, or a fury.
It’s a memory.
Isaac never forgets people’s goodness. There is something inside him that chooses to hold onto it, long after it is gone. Even though his father was a monster, he chooses to remember when he wasn’t. Even though he barely knows Scott (except as that dude who doesn’t like him very much and vice versa), when Scott shows him that brief glimpse of compassion Isaac can’t help but grasp it, and cling to it, and use it to light the darkness.
Maybe this quality is tragic, because it helped him stay in the house of an abuser. Helped him endure pain, and hold it within him; manipulated him straight into Stockholm. But I think there’s something beautiful about it too, because it’s the same thing that makes him stay in 2x11, even when he has no real reason to. Isaac has no particular bond to anyone - not to Scott (they barely know each other) and not, apparently, to Derek. But dawdling there in the vet clinic, he keeps searching for a reason to stay and fight.
Because he may not believe in himself, but he can’t let go of his belief in people.
This is why Isaac is a badass:
when love could have made him weak, pitiable, manipulated, and a victim, he picked love anyways.
He picked caring. He picked Scott’s compassion, over Derek’s promise of strength.
This isn’t an easy choice. Peter talked to Derek about the power of human love, but he didn’t talk about the pain. And there can be so, so much pain. When Isaac’s dad beat him for all those years, wouldn’t it have been easier to just - let in the water? Give up the feeling, forget the memory?
Give up the hope?
After all there’s no cause for hope when the only possible savior is a man who died a long time ago. After all it hurts holding on to things that can’t save you, just make you stay.
When you choose to care for someone, when you choose to trust someone, you choose to become vulnerable to the hell of pain and despair and loss and memory. Isaac could have chosen Stiles’s “peace”, the ending where nothing hurts. But for Isaac, the pain was worth more.
Like Jackson, and to an increasing extent Allison, Isaac really is an orphan without a pack to his name. This is something he admits out loud in 2x11, when he tries to convince himself to leave. But Isaac doesn’t become tortured by his loss the way Jackson does, and he doesn’t drown in the despair and hurt the way Allison does, because he’s found a way to live with it. I don’t know if he’s really ‘saved’ from his hell, but I know he’s chosen to keep going.
This season is all about the enormous potential of bonds, but it doesn’t skirt the hard issues just to ooh-and-aah over how wonderful love is. Throughout this season we’ve seen bonds make people puppets, drag them into the water, expose their worst fears; and give them something to hold onto. Is having pack worth that vulnerability? Is having pack worth that to Derek?
I think the answer of the show, if not Derek, is a resounding yes; and I think that’s why it’s Isaac who’s beside Scott’s side now in the show’s darkest hour, not Allison (or even Stiles, to an extent). In juxtaposing the two, in placing Isaac where Allison was supposed to be, the show explicitly contrasts these two characters - the former’s mercy to a dying animal, the latter’s cruelty to two people in all their humanity.
Because even though Scott will be Allison’s savior (of course), it’s Isaac who holds the antidote to the Argent poison.
Because in choosing an anchor in the memory of love, Isaac has chosen both to remember - and to let go.
As we approach the season finale Isaac looks almost serene next to Jackson and Allison and even Scott, but that’s not because he’s chosen Stiles’s “peace”. He’s never chosen peace. He’s chosen to hold on to love and the sorrow that comes with it.
He’s chosen hope.