Just like I had to talk about Iris and Diantha because I’ve done all the other Champions before, I have to talk about Team Flare and Lysandre because I’ve done all the other bad guys before. If you followed my playthrough journal of X version, you may have picked up that I have some rather strong opinions about Lysandre and his underlings, and the way the games portray them, so I think it makes sense now to take a deeper retrospective look at their involvement in the whole of the plot. What do Team Flare really want, what makes them tick, and does Lysandre deserve our forgiveness?
Our first encounters with Lysandre are in Lumiose City, first in Professor Sycamore’s lab and then with Diantha in the Café Soleil. Here we see the face Lysandre presents to the world: utterly dedicated to the preservation of beauty and the betterment of the world. He speaks admiringly of Professor Sycamore’s brilliance as a scientist and Diantha’s ability as an actress to bring joy to millions, associating them and their careers with his own quest to build a beautiful world. Even here, though, there are strong hints that he’s up to more than he lets on – on X, he declares that he wishes to “make this world unchanging and eternal so all beauty will last forever.” In another game, I would not take such a clearly poetic sentiment seriously, but this is Pokémon, and Pokémon is not especially known for its subtlety. On Y, he is far less circumspect about it: “I would end the world in an instant so that beauty never fades.” Again, it’s probably meant to sound hyperbolic, but since ending the world is something that people have tried to do before in this series, that probably escaped many players; I played X, of course, but I find myself wondering how anyone could doubt that Lysandre was an enemy after hearing a line like the one he delivers on Y. Ultimately, what he’s actually trying to do (on both versions) falls somewhere between the two – end the world of human civilisation in order to preserve what remains of the beauty of nature. In addition to his potentially apocalyptic foreshadowing, I also noted in my entry on Diantha that this scene hints at some degree of superficiality (even sexism?) in Lysandre’s character – he focuses on Diantha’s physical beauty as the thing that makes her a good person and contributes to building a better world, considering that the loss of her own beauty with age would diminish her ability to make the world more beautiful too. Much as he admires her devotion to making people happy, he downplays her ability to take action towards that goal and looks to her passive qualities – this represents an important flaw in his character that is going to recur later in the story.
Lysandre’s minions, in their first appearances in the Glittering Cave and outside Geosenge Town, display none of his semblance of nobility. Their stated aim is to help and advance members of their own organisation, regardless of the cost to others (and to pursue the heights of fashion…). The idea of “a more beautiful world” never comes up, even in the later dialogue of the five scientists who run the group’s more pedestrian activities while Lysandre is busy: Aliana, Bryony, Celosia, Mable and Xerosic. It annoys me a little that there are so many of them, because it means that each of the four girls doesn’t get to do much, but they do have distinct personalities, which is nice. Aliana, who supervises the attack on the Kalos Power Plant to gather electricity to power the Ultimate Weapon, seems to enjoy battling the most, and may be slightly unhinged. Celosia and Bryony (who are together in both of their appearances – I unashamedly ship these two) are responsible for raiding the Pokéball factory in Laverre City to gain the Pokéballs necessary to catch many powerful Pokémon whose life energy will fuel the weapon; they seem detached, nerdy, and a little philosophical. Finally, Mable, who goes after one such Pokémon, the Abomasnow in the Frost Cavern… well, frankly, Mable is a callous b!tch. “Allow me to spell it out for you! It’s so Team Flare – and only Team Flare – can survive!” she declares as she torments the gentle Ice Pokémon. “After all, why should we care about saving people who aren’t on our side?” Xerosic’s appearance in the story’s climax in Geosenge Town establishes him as a man utterly without conscience or remorse, willing to activate the Ultimate Weapon and slaughter billions even against Lysandre’s orders (if the player wins Lysandre’s bet about the two buttons in Xerosic’s lab) simply for the joy of what he considers scientific achievement. He also features, of course, in the little post-Elite Four Looker vignette as Emma’s employer and tutor, a position which he exploits heinously. The message of his involvement in that story seems to be that even thoroughly evil people are capable of love and affection and that, even though those things cannot and should not absolve Xerosic of his actions as part of Team Flare, they still deserve recognition. Also appearing in the Looker sequence is Malva of the Elite Four, apparently a member of Team Flare, who makes no secret of the fact that she despises you, but seems to hate Xerosic more for abandoning Team Flare’s grand mission in favour of petty crime. Her dialogue in Elite Four rematches thereafter suggests that Malva has developed something of a grudging respect for the player’s strength, despite her intense hatred, and believes that the strength to force one’s beliefs upon the world is all that really matters in life.
Interspersed with your actual encounters with Team Flare, a few more interviews with Lysandre himself take place, one in person with Professor Sycamore and a couple by Holo-Caster. His speech and ideas remain grandiose throughout, and he encourages us to give thought to how we will use our power, but only when you see him in Lysandre Café do we receive more ominous hints about his plans – as with many Pokémon villains, the problem is in his absolutism, his willingness to divide all people in the world into “those who give and those who take” and declare all of the latter, most emphatically, “filth.” This is the conversation that first suggests the existence of the Ultimate Weapon, and hints at Lysandre’s willingness to use it. When he finally reveals his Team Flare allegiance to the world and explains his plans to wipe out the rest of humanity… well, it surprised me that he was willing to go so far for his “beautiful world,” but it’s not a total shock, put it that way. His criteria for who gets to survive the imminent devastation are disheartening – “anyone who is a member of Team Flare, and no-one else,” which makes me question how well he really knows his members. Would all of them really satisfy his idea of a person who will give and sacrifice to create a beautiful world? Most are selfish, short-sighted and callous – exactly the kind of person you’d think Lysandre would normally deride as ‘filth’ – and they are able to enter his select group of followers not by proving that they will help to build and preserve a beautiful world, but by paying a truly mind-boggling membership fee. The interesting thing is that, when we battle him for the first time in his lab beneath Lumiose City, Lysandre seems open to the possibility of letting the player join him and live in the new world. More so than any other Pokémon villain, Lysandre is interested in our passion and the way we express our beliefs through battle – he’s a little like N that way. Like N, he also seems almost like he might want a way out, like he might want to be stopped, on some level; he encourages us to fight him and his underlings, and is even willing to let us decide (after a fashion) whether the Ultimate Weapon will be activated. In the end, though, Xerosic intervenes and we are forced to pursue Lysandre to Geosenge Town to confront him once more.
This is when we learn the dirty little secret, the part of his plan that disturbs even Lysandre: that there will be no place for Pokémon in his new world, not even those who belong to Team Flare. Lysandre loves his Pokémon; his ability to harness Mega Evolution proves that, as Shauna observes. In some ways his willingness to sacrifice them speaks to the strength of his convictions, but his reasoning is concerning. As long as Pokémon exist, Lysandre believes, and as long as some people have Pokémon while others do not, people will use them to take more than their share and seize more power than they deserve. Some of his research notes back in Lysandre Labs take the form of a broad sketch in anthropological terms of the genesis of inequality in civilisation (a problem that, in the real world, is one of the major areas of study in prehistoric archaeology), and place the impetus squarely with Pokémon – people who commanded Pokémon were able to amass wealth and influence, becoming great leaders. He makes essentially the same point to us, far more briefly, in person. The problem is that, despite all his love for his own Pokémon, he never considers that they might have a choice, or that their decisions might impact the way things turned out. He thinks about the way their powers can be used, for good or ill, but not about how they will allow people to use them. Remember what I said about the way Lysandre views Diantha as essentially passive? He’s doing the same thing here. He’s denying agency to Pokémon, who are clearly intelligent beings, and thinking about them as though they were little more than the extensions of their trainers’ will. In short, by taking such a deterministic view of the effect Pokémon have on human society, he is committing one of the franchise’s cardinal sins: viewing Pokémon as tools.
Lysandre reminds me – and many other people, I’m sure – very strongly of Cyrus (even sharing two Pokémon, Gyarados and Honchkrow, with his predecessor). Both are acknowledged as intellectually brilliant, and their goals and beliefs are quite similar. Both felt driven to crime by despair at the human condition and a belief that an ideal world could only be brought about by drastic and destructive means; Cyrus’s goal was to create a world without suffering – the problem was that he believed the ‘incomplete’ nature of the soul made suffering inevitable – while Lysandre wanted to create a utopia where the world’s resources were shared fairly and sustainably, but came to believe that the greed and laziness inherent in human nature made his vision impossible. Both are charismatic leaders who command blind obedience, both have keen engineering skills, and both meet mysterious ends. My trouble with Team Flare and Lysandre though, is that I think we’re supposed to have much more sympathy for them than I can muster. No one ever asked us to like Cyrus. The more generous amongst us might have appreciated a certain nobility in his desire to end all suffering, but there was never any question that he was Evil with a capital E. People regularly ask us to like Lysandre, from Professors to rivals to random townspeople – largely because, unlike the cold and emotionless Cyrus, Lysandre actually cares, and seems to feel genuine remorse even as he continues to work towards his goals. He seems like he’s meant to be a tragic figure, but having seen so little of his famed philanthropy, I find it difficult to empathise. In some ways, I think, Lysandre is even worse than Cyrus, because Cyrus’ decisions and actions were very impersonal. Cyrus felt that life itself was fundamentally broken; killing everyone wasn’t exactly part of his goals, but he felt it was a reasonable sacrifice to make for the chance to create a perfect universe. Lysandre, on the other hand, just unilaterally decided that most of the people in the world deserved to die for wasting the planet’s limited resources. As for Team Flare – well, they may not have been pleasant people, but at least Team Galactic and Team Plasma were genuinely in the dark about the true extent of their leaders’ motives (even one of the Galactic admins, Saturn, had no idea Cyrus was trying to destroy the universe and become a god). Team Flare seem to have known all along what havoc their master was planning – they regularly speak of their desire to create a beautiful word, just for them, and as far as we see no-one abandons Lysandre in shock when he announces his plan to all of Kalos – yet even at the end, Malva is able to claim with a straight face that she did what she thought was right.
I keep coming back to Serena’s words in the battle with her on Victory Road, because I think they encapsulate what the writers intended us to take from this story, and how far that is from what I actually took from it: “Lysandre chose only Team Flare. You and I chose everyone but Team Flare. But since our positions forced our hands, you can’t really say any of us were right. So maybe if both sides have something to say, it’s best to meet halfway.” Well, okay; that would have been fair enough if we had met Lysandre ten years ago and he had been saying “we need to move Kalos in a more socialist direction and commit ourselves to sustainability.” Unfortunately, it seems pretty clear that even by the time we first meet him he has already gone off the deep end and is merely hiding it, so that his position is actually “I have no choice but to kill all of you, and your pets.” How exactly does one “meet halfway” with that? As far as I can make out, the writers were trying really hard to make Lysandre a tragic and morally ambiguous villain, and even thought they had succeeded, but we get little opportunity to see his positive traits for ourselves, are given the chance to understand his descent into evil only in retrospect, and are eventually asked to sympathise with a man who tried to destroy everyone we have ever loved for the ‘greater good’… of himself and his band of thugs.
Honestly, I think there’s only one way now to achieve the aims the writers actually had in mind for Team Flare and Lysandre: the next sixth generation game has to be a prequel.