Today we’re going to be looking at another pivotal character of Pokémon: Sword and Shield: Chairman Rose, the… [SPOILERS… obviously???] main antagonist of the game’s climax. Even more so than Lusamine, Rose spends a lot of the game being obviously suspicious but never actually doing anything untoward that we can see, until suddenly he flips out and does something completely ludicrous that I am probably going to spend the entire duration of generation VIII trying to puzzle out. Exactly what he does is swathed in some weird deep-lore $#!t that I don’t think we have the full picture of, even from our vantage point at the end of the game, and anyway I’m going to talk more about it when I cover Sonia’s storyline, and eventually when I review the relevant legendary Pokémon. For Rose, I think it’s more important that we look at who he is and what his motivations are.
So what’s Rose’s deal?
Rose is the very first character introduced to us in Sword and Shield, taking the traditional place of the regional Professor Tree in the very first scenes of the game, and the very first Pokémon we see is his Cufant. He is the voice of the Galar region, its spokesman and personality. He later addresses the assembled crowd at the opening ceremony of the Gym Challenge, and briefly speaks to the player and Hop in private afterwards to express his excitement at seeing trainers endorsed by Champion Leon in action. It’s quickly established that he is a respected and influential figure in Galar, who has played a significant role in shaping the region’s culture over many years (as well as a personal friend of Leon, who received his original Gym Challenge endorsement from Rose). His company created the Dynamax Bands that allow trainers in Galar to harness the region’s mysterious energy to empower their Pokémon; he was also responsible for using the Power Spot Detectors invented by Professor Magnolia to map out the special locations across the region where Dynamaxing is possible and establish the network of stadiums used in the modern Galar Gym Challenge. There are NPCs in Galar who refer to Dynamax battles as part of Galarian “tradition” and a symbol of the region’s unique culture, and I think it’s… interesting, to put it mildly, to look at that perception in light of the fact that it’s a tradition Rose basically invented and now profits from. It reminds me of, say, the role of Coca Cola in popularising the modern image of Santa Claus, or the way we all buy diamond rings to signify marriage and think of it as “traditional” because De Beers was just that good at marketing. Rose’s company and its achievements have become synonymous with the regional identity of Galar itself. That is some primo brand awareness $#!t right there.
Background dialogue makes it clear that Rose is not just Chairman of the Galar League, but actually owns something like half of the companies in the region, under the umbrella of the Macro Cosmos corporation. This includes a fairly significant fraction of the businesses in the Poké Job system, involved in everything from media to construction to finance, as well as most of Galar’s energy production facilities. Rose is also supposed to have designed the entire city of Wyndon and financed its construction from the ground up. Wyndon is analogous to the real city of London, the capital of the United Kingdom, and its most distinctive buildings are based on real buildings in London. The most conspicuous of these is Rose Tower, the headquarters of Macro Cosmos, whose futuristic spiral design and smooth curves are probably a reference to “the Gerkhin,” not the tallest of London’s skyscrapers but certainly the most distinctive. The “bulb” at the top could also be looking to “the Tulip,” another tower designed by the same architects and proposed in 2018, while Sword and Shield were in development (the Tulip was refused planning permission, but would have been London’s second tallest building). Rose Tower is at the centre of what seems to be an entire quarter of the city given over to the operations of Macro Cosmos. Even the city’s public monorail network has private lines that can only be accessed using a Macro Cosmos pass (as we find out when we have to reach the tower to crash a private meeting between Rose and Leon), and it doesn’t seem to be possible to reach Rose Tower by foot. You could compare it to the historic City of London (not the same thing as “London”), which today is also dominated by corporate and financial interests, but anyone can just walk into the City; the isolation of Macro Cosmos’ headquarters is… well, kind of creepy, in a huge and lively city like Wyndon.
Meanwhile, Wyndon also has a building based on the Palace of Westminster, the grand 19th century complex where the Parliament of the United Kingdom meets. Wyndon’s version is not a government building. It is a hotel, the Rose of the Rondelands, named for Chairman Rose and owned by his company. And, well, yes, it’s generally true that the Pokémon games are not interested in politics or how regional government works, so it’s not like I’d expect Galar to have a full-fledged bicameral legislature that we can visit and watch in action. All that stuff has always just been assumed in the background, not shown to us explicitly. Whether they meant it or not, though, Game Freak have recklessly gone and done a symbolism with this one, and I am bloody well not going to let them get away with it. There are no Houses of Parliament, and in the place where they should be, there is a fancy hotel whose income is driven by tourism to the colossal Pokémon League stadium (loosely based on Wembley Stadium, but also designed to look like a red rose), which in turn was built by another of Rose’s companies and is run by a Pokémon League that he leads. Hell, even his name is significant; roses are England’s national flower and a symbol of the English monarchy. In the absence of a Parliament, the one with all the power in Galar is Chairman Rose. I mean, I don’t want to use the phrase “corporate dystopia”… but frankly I just did!
(This would also be a good time, if you haven’t already, to read my article on Team Yell, which touches on some other consequences of Rose’s actions)
As if that wasn’t enough, Rose also owns multiple power plants in Galar – in Sonia’s words, “the Chairman is responsible for providing the Galar region with its energy, too.” The largest of these is beneath Hammerlocke stadium, and is eventually the site of the final confrontation with Rose. Based on a diagram he shows us during our first visit, the huge tower above the stadium seems to be some kind of collection array for the “Galar particles” that make Dynamaxing work; their energy is then used to generate electricity in the plant beneath in a fairly conventional way, by boiling water to turn turbines just like in a real fossil fuel or nuclear power plant. Harnessing this mysterious source of clean energy to generate power for the Galar region is Rose’s life’s work and one of his signature achievements. Pokémon likes villains whose actions come from a fundamentally good impulse or ambition, taken to a dangerous extreme – Cyrus’ desire to end all suffering, Lysandre’s wish for “a beautiful world,” Lusamine’s maternal instincts and mission to protect Pokémon. For Rose, it’s his work harnessing the energy of the Dynamax phenomenon for the good of Galar. His companies have undeniably done the region good – but he just had to go too far.
So let’s talk about what he did.
Throughout the game, we get hints – mostly through our interactions with Bede, one of our rivals and Rose’s endorsee for the Gym Challenge – that Rose and his secretary Oleana are working on something big and ominous. Exactly what that might be is kept vague until the very end, except that it involves collecting Wishing Stars, the meteorite fragments that Rose’s company uses to create Dynamax Bands. As we eventually learn, Rose is using these to awaken “the ultimate Pokémon,” which has been slumbering beneath Galar for millennia: Eternatus. Eternatus is… well, Eternatus is another whole thing we’re going to have to deal with sooner or later, and hopefully we’ll have learned more about it, whether from the next game or from the anime, by the time I get that far. For the moment though, Eternatus is an ancient Pokémon whose power, according to Oleana, is what causes Pokémon to Dynamax – although the Pokédex claims that its power comes from Galar itself, so… like I said, there’s unanswered questions here. What matters is that Rose believed awakening Eternatus would allow him to exploit its power to provide Galar with unlimited clean energy forever, or at least for the next thousand years, ensuring the prosperity of the entire region far into the future. It’s an appealing sales pitch, but Eternatus is, to put it mildly, extremely dangerous. Rose believes that it was responsible for the ancient cataclysm known as the Darkest Day, when wild Dynamax Pokémon rampaged uncontrollably across the Galar region, and his early experiments into awakening Eternatus confirm that similar chaos is a very real possibility if his plan continues. When he actually does push the big red button, interrupting the end of the Champion Cup to force Leon’s hand, this is exactly what we see: random Dynamaxing, coupled with a terrible storm generated by Eternatus itself, reminiscent of the storms created by wild Dynamax Pokémon during raid battles, which threatens to destroy Hammerlocke.
None of that matters, though. Rose views the importance of his plan and the consequences of its failure in very absolute, all-or-nothing terms, such that nothing could possibly be worth even delaying it a single day. That’s not even hyperbole; that’s exactly the conversation he has with Leon at Rose Tower. Rose is ready to awaken Eternatus, and Leon is happy to be there as a safeguard… after the Champion Cup is over. He doesn’t see what difference one day makes, when Rose is motivated by a projection that Galar’s energy reserves will fail one thousand years from now. To Rose, on the other hand, this is just evidence that Leon still hasn’t understood the gravity of what they’ve been discussing. His thinking sort of reminds me of the way some AI theorists talk about creating a friendly superintelligence: if there’s any chance it could ever happen, then its benefits to humanity would be so vast that it’s rational to devote your entire life and all your resources to bringing it about (conversely, the creation of a hostile superintelligence is an existential threat that is worth devoting your life to preventing). To Rose, an energy shortage that threatens all of Galar and its people is obviously worth dropping everything to stop it, rescinding all other priorities and accepting any conceivable risk. The fact that it’s a thousand years in the future is immaterial; any hesitation is an unacceptable flirtation with disaster. In any case, Rose is confident that Leon will be able to contain and control Eternatus if things get out of hand, just as he contained the results of Rose’s earlier indiscretions. This confidence proves to be misplaced.
On one level, Rose’s “plot” can obviously be read as a climate change allegory – there is a looming threat, far enough in the future that it seems unimportant (or outright fantastical) to many people, but that can only be addressed by radical action in the present, and this threat is closely tied to unsustainable human consumption of natural resources. If you try to look for a bunch of one-to-one correspondences, though… it gets weird, fast. For one thing, although the game never actually says Rose is wrong about long-term energy sustainability in Galar, it clearly doesn’t approve of his solution or present an alternative. If we listen to Leon… well, the whole thing is just a problem we can deal with later. For another, the one guy who sees a clear and pressing need for action on the putative climate change allegory is… the billionaire who owns most of the region’s existing energy companies? That doesn’t even make sense as a denialist narrative (if that were the intent, the villain could have been a scientist like Lusamine or an environmental activist like Archie). So I don’t think the point is as simple as “Rose is trying to stop global warming and goes too far.” If there is a message to this plot, I think it’s a less specific one about how we deal with long-term regional or global problems in modern society.
To me, Rose evokes the figure of the “tech bro” CEO – the Jeff Bezos, the Elon Musk, the Mark Zuckerberg – who figured out how to make someone else’s technology (in Rose’s case, the Power Spot Detector and Dynamax Bands) ludicrously profitable, was rewarded for it with more wealth than a mortal human could ever spend, is lauded by millions as a revolutionary genius, and then starts to believe his own hype, to the point of developing a messiah complex he is ill-equipped to see through. The problems of the world are probably really simple; it’s just that no one smart enough has ever seriously looked at them before. Chairman Rose believes that he, and only he, possesses the vision to save Galar’s future and secure its prosperity for the next thousand years or more. He buys into the premise that the course of history is determined by “great men” and sees himself as the next one – unfortunately for him, one of the themes of Sword and Shield is that history is more complicated than it often seems at first glance, and the real heroes may have been unsung all along. Moreover, his strategy for solving a problem on a thousand year scale is a grand gesture that changes the course of history in an instant. He doesn’t try to lay the groundwork for new technologies to be developed in the future or set in motion a long-term restructuring of Galarian society; he tries to find a magic bullet that just fixes the problem now, preferably without anything else needing to change. Perhaps more importantly, he gets to be the one who fixes it. “We… No, I am going to change the course of history!” he says to himself as we leave Rose Tower after his meeting with Leon, and during our final confrontation he describes his plan as “my purpose, my duty, my destiny!” His desire to save the world is real, but his ego and his sense of his own place in history are also on the line here, and I think that’s the real commentary that this storyline is trying to give: saving the world is not about one person’s work, achievements or legacy, and your contributions may not be fully recognised in your own lifetime (indeed, as in the case of Zacian and Zamazenta, they may be forgotten altogether).
So far, I’m on board with that message, but as long as I’m also reading Rose’s story as a critique of capitalist leadership and saviour CEOs, I don’t think Sword and Shield really drive the point home, or at least not the way I would have liked to. I say this because it’s not really clear to me what happens to Rose’s companies in the aftermath of the new Darkest Day. Rose himself is in prison, and Oleana fades into the background (if you look for her after the end of the story, she’s doing community service in the western Galar Mine, and no longer appears to have anything to do with running Macro Cosmos). Rose Tower is taken over by Leon, who converts it into Galar’s Battle Tower, but all the Macro Cosmos subsidiaries in the Poké Job system seem to operate as normal, and I can’t imagine Leon running a massive technology and engineering conglomerate. Is Macro Cosmos, like… a worker-owned cooperative now? Did… did we seize the means of production? Or is there just a new CEO who has the sense to keep their head down? Is removing the one bad guy from the top all it takes to fix the system? Macro Cosmos still owns a huge cross-section of Galar’s entire economy, its largest city and its most popular form of mass entertainment. The CEO of a real corporation with that kind of dominance within a country would be a monarch in all but name, and the problem with real monarchies is that they’re great as long as the monarch is fair, socially conscious, intelligent and compassionate, which is impossible to guarantee. The removal of Rose and Oleana doesn’t fundamentally change Galar. Rose’s successor will inherit most of his power and all the same incentives to maximise profit at the expense of communities like Spikemuth that don’t fit into their business model. And that’s not really surprising. Pokémon’s stories like equilibrium and dislike dramatic change; its villains are all people who try to mess with a world that is already in balance, and their greatest vice is often a refusal to compromise. This is a world where individuals are flawed, but systems are just: the problem was Rose himself, not the society that allowed him to unofficially rule Galar and even rewarded him for it.
Listen, I don’t know exactly when this became a radical socialist Pokémon discussion blog, but it’s happening and we’re just going to have to get through that together.
It’s really challenging to tell a good story that is genuinely about societies rather than individuals, because… well, we’re individuals; the struggles, emotions and triumphs of individuals are compelling to us. Sometimes, though, those “sociological” stories are necessary and illustrate themes that are difficult to see from a simple heroes vs. villains perspective (for more on this theme, try this widely-shared article by UNC professor Zeynep Tufekci on the failure of the final season of Game of Thrones). I don’t know that it’s Pokémon’s job to tell those stories, and I’m not unsympathetic to the idea that media for kids should keep to simpler themes, but when the villain is a billionaire with a messiah complex and the setting is replete with examples of how his wealth lets him shape people’s lives… well, yeah, he should be taken down, but letting the system itself off the hook also sends a message. Rose isn’t what most of us would think of as a “bad guy” and he is doing what he thinks is right, believing that it will save Galar. Who will be the next good guy with incredible power and no accountability who does what he thinks is right, believing that it will save Galar? So far I’ve generally been pretty positive (I think maybe more than most people?) about Pokémon’s storytelling in generations VII and VIII in spite of its flaws, but this seems to me like a genuine blindspot – maybe because it’s inherently challenging to tell a story that seriously, wholeheartedly critiques corporate hegemony when you’re working within the most profitable media franchise in history.