Borderlands 3 is Moving On From Handsome Jack, And That’s a Good Thing
In 2012, Gearbox introduced Handsome Jack, the smarmy, well-coiffed Hyperion President and chief antagonist of Borderlands 2. Jack was a constant, taunting presence as players fought wave after wave of EXP Loaders and Bullymongs, and at this point, the Borderlands faithful have witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of the psychotic CEO.
Admittedly, it’s hard to keep a good villain down. Jack has resurfaced in every game since his demise in Borderlands 2 – and it’s easy to understand the draw. A character as funny and self-referential as Handsome Jack is surely a welcome mouthpiece for writers who likewise want to appear funny and self-referential.
But with this fall’s Borderlands 3 promising a new pair of baddies the cult leaders Tyreen and Troy Calypso Gearbox, at last, has a chance to make a clean break from their longtime antagonist and his psycho-cynical antics. The question is: will they take it? And, maybe, more importantly, should they?
“Handsome Jack is Dead”
According to Borderlands 3’s Managing Story Producer Randy Varnell, the answer to both of those questions appears to be: yes.
“Handsome Jack was unusually successful as a villain,” He said in an interview with Bloody Disgusting. “Good villains are hard. And I think your heroes always feel more heroic when they have a good villain to oppose them. I think Handsome Jack did that so well for Borderlands,”
“We also listen to our fans a lot, and after the three games you cited it was ‘So much Jack’ that we actually heard from a number of fans, ‘You know what? We’re good for now if you want to take a little breath and show us someone else who could be bad for a second.’ So, canonically, yes, Handsome Jack is dead.
That means that, with Borderlands 3, Gearbox has the opportunity to explore truly uncharted territory for the first time since 2009. And, based on what we’ve seen so far, there are a few interesting ways that they could fill the gap left by Jack’s demise.
A Worthy Successor
The Borderlands 3’s announcement trailer and subsequent gameplay demo reacquainted us with dozens of familiar faces from throughout the franchise. Claptrap danced! Lilith smiled at the camera! Brick (now with added mustache) played a wacky sax solo!
But for story-hungry Borderlands fans, one particular inclusion may have stoked more excitement than the rest. Rhys, the Hyperion Assistant-Janitor-Turned-Vault-Hunter from Tales from the Borderlands made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the trailer (also with an added mustache).
Even among the Handsome Jack-obsessed denizens of Helios, Rhys had a reputation for being particularly enamored with his larger-than-life boss. During an ill-fated trip to the surface of Pandora, Rhys was injected with an AI version of Jack that set up shop in the hardwiring of Rhys’ cybernetic implants. For the rest of the game, our hero argued with a blue, holographic version of Jack, wrestling for control of his body and ultimately purging Jack from his system.
After this week’s Borderlands 3 gameplay reveal, we now know that Rhys has a bigger part to play in the new game than we may have initially suspected. As the CEO of the Atlus megacorporation, Rhys makes frequent appearances, asking the player for help as he fends off a hostile takeover from the Maliwan corporation. Rhys even has an admirer in Katagawa, the Maliwan CEO who obsesses over Rhys like Rhys once obsessed over Jack. And, coincidence or not, like Jack in Tales, Rhys primarily appears (at least in what’s been revealed so far) as a blue hologram. Heavy-handed visual symbolism or not, Borderlands 3 appears to be setting Rhys up to, at the very least, fill a Jack-esque role.
Like Rhys, Jack was once, for all intents and purposes, a good guy. In Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Athena even calls him a “hero.” Even though his primary goal in the game is to find a vault, he still tries to save the people of the Pandoran moon of Elpis from being obliterated by Helios’s giant space weapons. But, as he pursues this goal he becomes more and more ruthless, unconcerned with the welfare of people that he has to step on to accomplish his ends. He inserts the AI Felicity into a constructor bot against her wishes, ejects an airlock-full of innocent people into space, and even strangles the CEO of Hyperion, taking control of the mega-corporation for himself.
Rhys allegedly walked away from the corporate life at the end of Tales from the Borderlands, so to see him comfortably sitting in the role of Atlus’s CEO feels like something of a step backward for his character. That said, Gearbox may be setting Rhys up to mirror Jack’s character arc. We saw in Jack’s story how power (and the lust for more of it) corrupts, and seeing Rhys fall victim to that corruption could be just as interesting as watching him try to resist its lure.
The Children of the Vault
The primary antagonists of Borderlands 3 are the Calypso Twins, Pandora’s equivalent of Twitch streamers from hell; influencers who have transformed a cult of personality into, well, an actual cult. Much has changed in the media landscape since Borderlands 2 (both in terms of production and consumption), and the Calpysos are clearly Gearbox’s avenue to comment on that. During Gearbox’s gameplay reveal event on May 1st, Pitchford described the Calypso twins as “the kind of streamers everybody hates. These are like the douchiest kind of streamers of the impossible future that you can possibly imagine.”
The series has never really been known for its nuance — remember Buttstallion? — but Borderlands 3 is playing with something interesting here. With Handsome Jack, Gearbox explored the classic, well-trod themes of corporate greed and megalomania. But with the Calypsos, the team is attempting to prod at the modern zeitgeist. What is the relationship between influencers and their followers? How responsible are public figures for the actions of their fanbase, and what happens when a “cult of personality” take on the characteristics of a literal cult? Jack inspired hero worship; the Calypsos command worship worship.
While Handsome Jack was perpetually quipping, the Calypso Twins are decidedly more earnest. Not serious, really, but not glib one-liner machines either. Where Jack espoused a cheerful nihilism, these baddies like Far Cry’s Joseph Seed or Pagan Min seem to actually believe in something, Which is an intriguing new direction for the series. What if the subversive shooter’s ultimate subversion is, in fact, sincerity?
Of course, there’s always the distinct possibility that Gearbox’s “Jack is dead” line is a not-so-clever ruse. It wouldn’t be unheard of to bring him back for a fourth round – this is sci-fi, after all, where death is a very malleable concept. Maybe the Children have figured our resurrection, or Rhys isn’t really Rhys and AI-Jack didn’t get deleted as we thought – but that all seems unlikely. If Hyperion had the ability to simply raise Jack from the dead with its existing technology, they wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of creating an AI version of Jack in the first place, and we’d all have much bigger problems than a “new Jack” if the Twins cracked the resurrection code.
So, realistically, we’re back where we started. Jack is dead. And, given the interesting things that Borderlands 3 is doing, that seems like a wonderful, liberating thing for the franchise.