By Calum Cooper
Note: This essay contains spoilers for RWBY
CW: This essay discusses distressing topics such as suicide and mental health struggle
Trauma has been the most consistent theme of Monty Oum’s “RWBY” (2013-present). It has underpinned its story, united its titular characters, and brought out the worst in many of its villains. Volume 9 explored this theme particularly closely, most notably with its central character, Ruby Rose (Lindsay Jones). Lost, grieving, and struggling with the intense weight of imposter syndrome, Volume 9 sees Ruby at her most vulnerable. Yet her arc is not of strictly overcoming her burdens, but of realising that, even with all of her doubt, she is enough to bear them. Her journey is of self-acceptance, a concept that can seem out of reach to those struggling with their mental health.
It is the show’s most compelling character arc since General Ironwood’s tragic descent into villainy. So, for this mental health awareness week, this essay will examine Ruby’s arc in Volume 9, with particular reference to K. M. Weiland’s book “Creating Character Arcs” (2016). By examining how her arc is constructed, this essay will investigate how it empowers its heroine and enhances the show’s themes, which ultimately offers poignant reassurance to its audience.
“RWBY” is a fantasy anime-inspired web-series that is heavily influenced by fairy tales. Set in the world of Remnant, it concerns the adventures of huntresses in training, Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee (Kara Eberle), Blake Belladonna (Arryn Zech) and Yang Xiao Long (Barbara Dunkelman). They are Team RWBY and together they take on monsters, authoritarianism, and an immortal witch named Salem (Jen Taylor), who desires to obtain mystical relics for her own nefarious purposes.
At the end of Volume 8, Team RWBY conjured up a risky plan to save the Kingdom of Atlas and stop Salem from obtaining two of the relics she seeks. They were able to save the vast majority of Atlas’s citizens, but, due to a clever move from one of Salem’s underlings, this victory was pyrrhic. The two relics are lost, one of Ruby’s closest friends, Penny (Taylor McNee), is killed, and all four girls, plus their ally Jaune (Miles Luna), fall into an unknown void.
In Volume 9, they discover that they have fallen into a dimension called the Ever After, a place that they realise is the setting for one of their favourite fairy tales, “The Girl Who Fell Through the World” – a nod to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. The group vows to escape the Ever After and return to Remnant by means of a large tree at the heart of the Ever After. Initially, they try to replicate the journey that the fairy tale’s heroine supposedly went on. But they soon discover that their obstacles are as much mental as they are physical.
To evaluate the power of Ruby’s arc, it is important to understand who Ruby is at the start of the show. She is a quirky teenager who grew up admiring the heroes of her favourite fairy tales. That admiration grew into desire to become a huntress, and thus a hero in her own right. This is the backbone to her resolute beliefs. Yet trauma fuels these convictions as much as her love of fantasy. Her mother, Summer Rose (Morgan Laure), was a huntress who disappeared during a mission and is presumed dead. This grief has been with Ruby ever since the show’s beginning, buried underneath her happy-go-lucky persona. If we label the first promotional ad for “RWBY”, the “Red Trailer”, as the start of the story, then the first image we see of Ruby is not of an overager child playing hero but of a girl standing emotionless over her mother’s grave.
This is what K. M. Weiland calls a character’s “ghost”. It’s a wound from the past that continues to drive characters during the main story. Oftentimes it even fuels a lie that the protagonist believes in at the start of the story. The lie Ruby believes is that life is like a fairy tale in which heroes always conquer monsters and save the day. Ruby has conflated her love of fairy tale heroes with her idolisation of her mother – which cannot be challenged because Summer herself is not here to do so.
Yet this lie is gradually disproven with each volume. The world is much messier than the binary ethics of fairy tales. Goodness is not a black and white concept, and nobody is born evil. Rather, as reviewers such as YouTuber Xel Writer have convincingly argued, evil emerges from characters’ inability to find or accept healthy outlets for their trauma – as seen in the cases of antagonists like Adam Taurus, Cinder Fall and even Salem herself. Ruby has carried these realisations with her throughout each new conflict and each new trauma, her most recent of which being her conflict with Ironwood who, similar to Ruby, also had unhealthy lionisations on heroism, just to a much more extreme extent. Now, in Volume 9, lost in a literal fairy tale, and reeling from what she perceives to be her worst defeat yet, Ruby is at her breaking point, forced to face the full weight of this lie.
In the last thinkpiece I wrote concerning “RWBY” I discussed how Team RWBY embodies the feminist ideal of unity through how they co-operate and share their trauma rather than bottle it up and let it fester, as Ironwood did. I stand by what I wrote, yet you could argue that Ruby is the odd one out. Where Weiss, Blake and Yang have conquered some of their greatest demons through unity and honesty, Ruby has not been as open. This is not without reason though. After being assigned team leader back in Volume 1, her headmaster, Ozpin (Shannon McCormick), gave this advice: “Being a team leader isn’t just a title you carry into battle, but a badge you wear constantly. If you’re not always performing at your absolute best, then what reason do you give others to follow you?”
Ruby has taken this to heart, doing everything to prove herself worthy of this badge. She has always been a supportive figure to her friends and family, and constantly frets over the needs of the many. In her mind, if she can keep others’ safety and happiness above her own then she’ll earn the leadership mantle she has been given. But this is suffocating her on the inside. In attempting to be like the fairy tale hero – like how she sees her mother – Ruby is ignoring the serious toll this is taking on her mental health. By the start of Volume 9, the back half of Volume 7 and all of Volume 8 have just happened with little to no room to process any of it. Now, with Team RWBY stuck in the Ever After, Ruby’s conflict is no longer physical in the form of Salem, but purely emotional. The volume’s opening credits, with its metaphorical visuals and riveting song, “Inside”, paints a pretty grim picture of Ruby’s mindset.
Volume 9 makes the wise decision of setting itself in a separate dimension away from the main story on Remnant. With no distractions in the form of the show’s loaded plot and character ensembles, the story can focus specifically on Team RWBY and where they go from here. The first three episodes do a solid job of setting up the conflict, stakes and mood. But it is from episode four onwards that the themes of the volume truly come to light. Trapped in a herbal hallucination, each member of Team RWBY is confronted with a past version of themselves who offers them a choice to avoid the strife of their respective “ghosts”. Yang, Blake and Weiss each reject them, articulating that their experiences have made them stronger. But for Ruby it is not so simple. She has never properly confronted her “ghost” and, after everything that has happened, Ruby no longer knows if she is the person her friends need her to be. Thus she cannot answer her past self’s question: “what are you going to be?”
To make matters worse, during the midpoint of the show, Team RWBY are reunited with their friend Jaune, a fellow Huntsman who has more than a few character parallels with Ruby – namely his romanticisation of fairy tale heroes. He too has been facing a mental crisis, primarily because he had to mercy kill Penny during Volume 8’s climax. Having been sent back in time by the Ever After’s nonsensical workings, Jaune has had years, possibly decades, with nothing to do but dwell on his failures. Where Ruby bottles up trauma, Jaune struggles to move on from it, making them harrowing foils to each other. When Ruby finally snaps in anger in episode seven, Jaune, haunted by his own trauma, goes from Ruby’s most staunch supporter to her most vocal critic. In a moment of hurt, he throws Ruby’s failures back in her face. Unable to face her “ghost”, but now dwelling deeper than ever in her hopelessness, Ruby flees.
It’s important to note that Ruby’s friends don’t neglect her poor mental state. In fact, they exchange many worried looks and attempt to ask her if she’s alright. However, the speed at which the narrative moves means that their priorities are constantly reassigned by what the most immediate conflict is. Even if this wasn’t the case, it’s unlikely Ruby would have opened up anyway given her nature. Yet, no matter how well-meaning or concerned, Ruby’s allies cannot force her to confront her demons. That is a job for the antagonist.
After the confrontation with Jaune, Ruby comes across the two main antagonists of this volume – Neo, a mute character who also fell into the Ever After with a personal vendetta against Ruby, and the Curious Cat (Robbie Daymond), an allusion to the Cheshire Cat. The Curious Cat initially guides Team RWBY through the Ever After, but it is eventually revealed that they desire to escape their dimension, which attracts them to Ruby’s despair. They have been weighing Ruby down throughout the volume, so that they may use her as a host body when she is at her most tormented. Using her enhanced semblance, Neo forces Ruby to look upon the faces of those who have died throughout the story – including Penny – essentially holding her responsible for their deaths. She offers Ruby a chance to drink a tea infused with leaves from the Ever After’s tree – which would begin a process known as Ascension. This is a spiritual cycle those within the Ever After undergo in which they leave behind their past lives and can go on to choose a new, better one for when they are born again. Ruby, in her state of anguish, drinks the tea, and thus ascends into the tree.
Although this is not strictly a suicide scene, as the volume makes it clear that the tree represents change, not death, the allegory is not necessarily misplaced. Ruby, in her distress, is fundamentally deciding that she is unworthy of the burden she is carrying, and thus seeks a radical change. This is what story analysts such as Weiland would brand the lowest point of the character arc, as Ruby, in her melancholia, makes a choice to abandon herself. The parallels to suicide are uncomfortable, but not entirely false. Thankfully, the show does not glorify this, but rather conveys just how horrific it is. Not only does Ruby’s choice inflict despair onto Ruby’s friends, who are now understanding the full extent of Ruby’s mental health, but it ultimately does not solve anything as, when Ruby reawakens in the heart of the tree, she still feels lost.
“Whether you struggle with mistakes you’ve made, or find yourself lost, we turn to stories for comfort and guidance. Stories like this tell us, as Ruby comes to learn, that even with all of our strife, we are enough just being ourselves.”
Here, Ruby meets a mysterious Blacksmith character (Kimlinh Tran). Metaphor for repair aside, the Blacksmith offers therapeutic, non-judgmental comfort, but also gives her the option of choosing a new weapon and thus a new identity. Weapons serve as extensions of the characters of “RWBY”, so the fact that Ruby’s weapon, Crescent Rose, is absent for most of the volume is as evocative as the imagery here. Upon seeing a replica of her mother’s weapon, Ruby considers taking it. After all, her mother was her idea of the perfect hero. Why wouldn’t she take her weapon, leave her old self behind, and thus become the romanticized concept she has always wanted to be?
But this is where the truth emerges. Summer Rose was not infallible. For all of Ruby’s idolization, Summer was just another person. She lied, she struggled, and she likely failed, both on her final mission and numerous times before. But this does not undo the good she embodied. She was imperfect, but she was still able to be who her daughter needed her to be. And she loved Ruby for who she was too. Finally understanding, Ruby realizes that she has all she needs. Upon seeing Crescent Rose again, she asks the Blacksmith, “what if I choose me?” The Blacksmith kindly responds, “Then maybe that girl is enough”.
This is the lesson that Ruby needed to learn throughout this volume and, in a way, the show as a whole. She is not the perfect fairy tale hero she has always wanted to be. She is not her mother. But she does not need to be, nor should she be. All she needs to be is Ruby Rose.
Upon reaching this conclusion, Ruby reclaims her weapon, and re-emerges from the tree in a moment that recalls the trope of heroic figures returning stronger than before – think Gandalf in “The Two Towers” (2002). She is, in a sense, reborn. But Ruby has not unlocked some super saiyan ability. She has simply chosen to believe in herself, even with all the pressure and trauma that precedes it. If character arcs can be cut down into what a character wants versus what a character needs, as Weiland does, then Ruby’s desire to escape the Ever After is what she wants, while self-acceptance is what she needs. In doing this, and thus achieving both, she is able to come together with her team once more and finally overcome the antagonists. If Ruby did not previously reject the lie she once believed in, then this is her finally letting it go in favour of herself.
To an extent, most of the characters in this volume had to learn the lesson of acceptance, but Ruby’s journey is the most richly potent. There is a reason why acceptance is seen as a key stage of psychological processes such as change or grief – because it is often the hardest to commit to. Ruby, and the rest of her allies for that matter, go through a lot to learn this lesson of acceptance. Yet in the end, they already have all they need to face and ultimately rise above their trauma, both as individuals and as a collective unit. They have the courage and the resolve – all they needed was faith. When the protagonists escape the Ever After and arrive back in Remnant, they may not be physically stronger. But they are more hopeful, and more certain of their convictions than ever. In spite of their doubts and the weight of their trauma, they are enough to face whatever comes next.
Curiously, Ruby’s character arc can be seen as an effective metaphor for the show itself. Like virtually all other forms of media, the show is imperfect. It’s had its fair share of rough patches, and even elements of this very arc are arguably a tad underwritten in places. However, just because something is imperfect doesn’t mean it’s valueless. Perfection is not the pinnacle that so many think it is. It is not really something we can achieve, but that is okay. It is what we are in spite of our imperfections where true value, be it emotional, humanistic or artistic, emerges.
“RWBY” is a strong example of this. When it flies it soars. As those behind the show have also seemingly found their own self-acceptance, it has only grown in confidence and quality, particularly from Volume 6 onwards when it seemed to at last embrace its full potential. That self-acceptance in the face of trauma is Volume 9’s key theme lends a certain sincerity to its otherwise heavy narrative. Whether you struggle with mistakes you’ve made, or find yourself lost, we turn to stories for comfort and guidance. Stories like this tell us, just as Ruby comes to learn, that even with all of our strife, we are enough just being ourselves. We are enough, and, to everyone who needs to hear this, you are enough.
RWBY: Volume 9 is available on Crunchyroll