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Is Locke & Key Tongue in Cheek?

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The Locke & Key series has a lot to say about marginalization and privilege…

I finished reading the Locke & Key (2008-2013) graphic novels series a few months ago, and I loved every moment. They had me laughing, crying, and even jumping in fear—the layout of the scares on the page is stellar! If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend doing so before reading this article (there will be lots of spoilers!). Nonetheless, I’ll give a brief overview of the Locke & Key series here. 

Essentially, the story follows the Locke children—Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode—as they move into their father Rendell’s old family estate. It turns out that the house is full of hidden magic keys that allow people to shapeshift, travel through time and space, and even see inside the minds of others. As the children begin finding and collecting the keys, they learn that several decades ago, Rendell used the most powerful and mysterious key of all, accidentally summoning an otherworldly demon that goes by the name of Dodge. Back then, Dodge killed two of Rendell’s friends and permanently damaged the lives of several others before disappearing. Now, the demon is back, hoping to use the keys to take over the world. With the help of the magic keys in Locke & Key, and an interesting cast of friends from all kinds of backgrounds, the Locke children have to learn how to use the keys to their advantage and kill the demon once and for all.

Awesome, right? Maybe not. Of course, in the end, the Locke family lives happily ever after. They finally succeed in their quest to defeat Dodge, and the story paints them as the heroes who fought long and hard to rid the world of the demon and save humankind. Except that the more I think about it, the more I realize that the Lockes aren’t really always heroes. In fact, upon closer evaluation, the validation of their behavior throughout the story, along with the happy ending, is actually quite unsettling.

That’s because Locke & Key is ultimately a story about identity. The entire background of the series, set in Massachusetts, is one of settler-colonial violence—the books trace the presence of the magic keys all the way back to the Revolutionary War and set up the creation of the keys as an act of settler-colonial extraction of precious metals. Later, in Rendell’s time, the story very obviously illustrates a world in which people’s power and safety are determined by strict hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, neurotypicality, and physical ability, with the straight, rich, white man—Rendell—at the top. 

As other writers have noted, the Locke & Key series uses these intersecting backstories in conjunction with the magic keys that can change people’s appearances in order to ask questions about how much of a person’s identity is inherent and how much is fluid or mutable, ultimately pointing out the real-world horror of violence against those with marginalized identities. Throughout the story, many side characters who are Black, poor, neurodivergent, feminine, and/or queer are harmed by the demon and the use of the magic keys, but also by regular people in the real world around them. In my mind, it makes sense that this setup would pave the way for the creators of the story to shed light on some possible answers to the very real problems of discrimination and systemic oppression that they illustrate throughout the series. However, what really frightens me is that, in the end, the series seems to simply return to the status quo and write off the pain of marginalized communities as inevitable and even necessary for the white landowning community of the story.

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It seems to me that the horror of this story might not really lie in the acts of violence and harm done to marginalized people, but in the way that the narrative itself deals with these problems. In this complicated world of privilege and pain, the Lockes are always on top. They are white landowning heirs who have the added privilege of access to the magic keys. As a result, they can change their physical presentation whenever they see fit… but they pretty much only use this power to help themselves. While they could use the keys to help those with less autonomy, the Lockes are most focused on stopping the demon who is terrorizing them and trespassing on their land. In the end, the Lockes are understood as heroes for using the keys to get rid of Dodge, but this ending almost seems like a narrative sleight of hand that aligns the interests of the Lockes with the people that they oppress. As a result, the very real struggles of marginalized people are continually minimized or simply understood as necessary casualties in the greater fight for the Lockes to get rid of Dodge. This narrative structure of Locke & Key distracts from the ways in which the Lockes harm others and are actually very similar to the demon.

In fact, a closer look at the series shows that the Lockes and Dodge use the keys in the same way. On one hand, Dodge often uses a key to change its gender and transform into a woman, playing into the harmful oversexualization of women in order to get information and then promptly changing back into a man before the demon is actually forced to deal with the repercussions of its actions. Similarly, during one particularly disturbing moment, the Locke children use a key to change their race and become Black, breaking into a Black woman’s room and using one of the other magic keys to violate her by looking inside her mind. When caught, the Lockes escape and quickly turn back into white people, leaving the police looking for two Black children as the perpetrators of the crime. In this way, in the series Locke & Key both the demon and the Lockes use keys to take advantage of marginalized bodies—Dodge uses the oppression of women for its own personal gain, leaving other female characters in the story who cannot change gender on a whim to be harassed and assaulted as a result of the harmful culture of objectification that Dodge perpetuates while in a female body. 

Likewise, the Lockes commit a crime while presenting as Black; when they become white again, Kinsey laments that the police will be looking for Black children already at greater risk of being incarcerated, but her older brother assures her that it’s actually a good thing that she saved her own skin and that other innocent people will be taking the blame for the Lockes’ actions. In many smaller ways, this pattern of ignoring marginalized peoples’ trauma repeats itself throughout the series; other characters in Locke & Key have their own oppression illuminated at small moments in the story, but their arcs seem to end without real healing as the story pivots back to the Lockes, ultimately implying that other characters’ problems are unimportant in the face of the Lockes’ struggle with the demon.

In the end, the villain tells the reader what the series has been showing us all along—the white landowning family at the center of the story is not so different from the demon at all. During its villain speech, Dodge says, “the Locke family were my teachers,” claiming that they taught the demon that “in this world, family is the final, most elemental unit of power,” useful for “subjugating others.” In essence, the demon in Locke & Key understands the hierarchies of privilege at play in the world and models its own attempt to take over the world off of the Lockes—their inheritance of the keys, their family legacy of privilege, and their laser-focus on maintaining the sanctity of their household against the assaults of the demon continue a legacy of harm as they use the keys for their own benefit without paying attention to the oppression of others. The demon acknowledges this fact and the series seems to be crystal clear about accepting the Lockes’ problems… But somehow, at the end, the Lockes are still the good guys.

In the end, the Lockes don’t even really save the day—in fact, the two characters who team up to help the Locke children kill the demon are actually the ones most outcast by the rest of the world in terms of their social status. Still, the very end of the story shows the Lockes planning to rebuild the house, which burnt down in the final battle against the demon. The true heroes either disappear or get subsumed into the Lockes’ family structure as the youngest child, Bode, expounds upon how the Lockes are going to welcome them into their family and teach them how to use the keys. This family who brought a demon into the world, accidentally helped teach that demon to oppress others, and did their fair share of harm to others themselves, is pictured smiling and arranging for the future generations of privileged keyholders. And that’s somehow a “great” thing, in Bode’s words.

When I finally processed this whole thing, it felt very weird to me that Locke & Key obviously acknowledged real-world problems like systemic oppression, but still ended by making the white landowning family the heroes. I started telling my friends about it and asking what they thought, and many of them wondered if perhaps the ending is ironic—maybe it’s purposefully constructed to uphold the rich, white, landowning family as a sort of joke that shows how obviously problematic the story’s real world hierarchies of privilege really are. After months of thinking about it, I still don’t know. The ending made me cry tears of joy and feel a deep sense of closure for the Lockes—did I completely miss the joke as a reader? Or was I meant to sympathize with Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode after all, even after the villain just called them out? I guess an easy answer could be that the ending is supposed to be tongue in cheek and it just went completely over my head.

But, the way that the narrative of Locke & Key brings up societal problems only to swiftly remove them in favor of focusing on the central conflict of the Lockes versus the demon makes me think that the books could be ultimately supporting the Lockes and the system of privileged white land ownership that the family represents. Maybe the creators don’t mean to totally endorse this model of world hierarchy, since they obviously point out its problems through the many altercations over race, sexuality, gender, neurodivergence, class, and more throughout the story and ultimately associate ideas of privileged hegemony with the villain. Nonetheless, I don’t think the story does enough to rethink and remake the world with the tools that it has. In fact, bringing up real world issues just to brush them aside and leave their arcs incomplete the second the demon appears feels like it almost does more harm than good, as it subtly implies that these problems don’t matter—or even that they’re unfixable and simply have to be met as facts of life.

In the end, I guess I’m not sure what Locke & Key is trying to get across. I can’t pin it down, but I know that I’m not the only person to express concern over the way the story deals with certain marginalized characters. So, I suppose the ultimate question stands. Is Locke & Key tongue in cheek—are we meant to realize that the ending doesn’t make sense as a solution to the problems of the story? Or is the finale some kind of sad resignation to the hierarchies of privilege and power in the U.S.? Maybe, after all, Locke & Key is simply a story that thinks it’s enough to bring up these glaring issues without offering any solutions, even on a small scale. Nonetheless, I suppose that in any case, it at least alerts the reader to problems in their own world, even if it may not do enough to begin to solve them.

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