SPOILER WARNING: Details about Freya, her family, and God of War (2018)‘s ending
I probably shouldn’t be surprised whenever hatedoms pop up around certain fictional characters – it’s why I avoid reading the comment sections under anything about Jim and Pam from The Office. Yet the staggering amount of people who hate Freya from SIE Santa Monica’s God of War (2018) really had me confused. In a narrative about dysfunctional families, introspection, and emotional instability, I found Freya to be one of the most consistently empathetic characters in the game. Judging by some rather impassioned YouTube comments, however, a remarkable number of people would disagree with me.
Notice how I didn’t call her likable. That’s because every adult character in God of War (2018) (i.e. not Atreus) has a lifetime of poor judgements and mistakes coloring their past. The entire point of the game is to watch Kratos move on from the monster he was back in Greece. When sizing up the damage caused by his bad decisions alone, Freya just doesn’t compare to some of the worst stuff we hear about in the God of War franchise. Haters of Freya will disagree with my assessment, but I can’t bring myself to hold such preoccupying anger toward her.
I speculate why such hatred exists at the end of my argument, because I want my main focus to be on how she doesn’t really deserve it. There are important details in the game’s narrative, source material, and “literary” themes that provide key insight into Freya’s thoughts and actions, particularly her decision to bless/curse Baldur with invulnerability (which in this game manifests as an inability to feel). Contrary to what commenters might say, there was more to her actions than a selfish desire to impose upon others (a quality she acknowledges), even if her methods were still careless and the outcomes were still bad.
Of course, it kind of feels like cheating to bring up how Baldur’s death kick starts Fimbulvinter and foretells the coming of Ragnarök, but that’s how the story goes. Preventing Baldur from dying is also preventing the end of the world, so as shortsighted and cruel as it may have been to rob Baldur of his tactile senses, it was in service of keeping the world from turning to ash ‘neath Surtur’s fiery blade. Freya’s decision to cast a spell over her son, while callous, was at least rational, in stark contrast to the subject of her magical protection.
Make no mistake, Baldur needed protection. Even before losing his senses, he was likely still a reckless brute who charged into fights for the fun of it. Though Baldur claims that he can see reason, unlike his brother, he still kicked Kratos up and down the forest, all because the god of war wouldn’t give up information he probably didn’t have. This was before he decided to start attacking Jörmungandr, the world serpent, on the off chance he could get some information as a result. That’s not the kind of temperament I want in the person acting as a barrier between safety and the apocalypse. Baldur is too good at making enemies for me to trust him to stay alive.
Even without the pratfalls of his personality clashing against the dangers of the world, Baldur still had to make sure his own family didn’t kill him too. In the stories from Norse mythology, Loki made arrows out of mistletoe (the only thing that didn’t take an oath not to harm Freya’s son) and tricked an archer into killing Baldur. Yes, Loki had his own brother murdered for a joke (It’s just a prank, bro, indeed). On top of that, seeing what Thor did to Modi after he failed to stop Kratos gives players a good indication of how Odin raised his sons. It must have been anguish for Freya to know that her son could face violence and death at the hands of the same god who betrayed her.
This is important to remember, because Freya isn’t able to defend Baldur in the way that most nurturing parents would. When Freya finally let her guard down and trusted her husband enough to teach him powerful Vanir magic, he immediately used it against her, placing powerful curses on her. According to Mimir, Odin took away Freya’s “warrior spirit,” meaning that she couldn’t fight, even to defend herself. Additionally, Odin banished her to Midgard, preventing her from every travelling to any of the nine realms. Players watched this magic force her out of Alfheim in the early hours of the game.
The curses effectively prevent Freya from fighting alongside her son, and unless Baldur happens to be in Midgard (which appears to be a rarity for the gods), she can’t even be around him. Giving Baldur invulnerability doesn’t feel like the calculated decision of a parent with full autonomy in the family dynamic; it sounds like the desperate act of a jilted mother with no other options for protecting her child in a normal way. Again, I’m not questioning Baldur’s right to be angry at his mother. Losing the ability to feel must be maddening; however, I can’t ignore the context in which Freya made that decision and the guilt she would have lived with had she done nothing.
That context is especially important, because her actions don’t occur in a narrative vacuum; rather they fall in line with many of the central themes in God of War (2018). Through her struggles with Baldur, Odin, and the Aesir as a whole, the players see how abusive family systems precipitate in the characters’ behaviors later in their lives. Freya directly parallels the lessons Kratos had to learn about his own family, and how his violent past was egged on by a sadistic father in Zeus. Except she didn’t need to spend 3-7 games murdering everything and everyone in her way just to come to that revelation.
In fact, Freya’s invulnerability spell reminds me of Kratos’s parenting style. For most of Atreus’s life, his father was an aloof, stoic figure who rarely offered any kind of affection. Faye did most of the child-rearing, which is probably why her son grew up to be intelligent, resourceful, and congenial. On those few instances when Kratos did pass wisdom onto his son, it was always about discipline. He took on the role of a master, instructing his son on how to focus, stifle his reckless altruism, and suppress his emotions, particularly anger. Like the Vanir queen herself, Kratos wants his son not to feel. Without powerful magic, he resorts to authoritarian parenting as a way to guard from the danger Atreus stands to inherit from his father: bloodthirst and vengeance.
Of course, most players aren’t compelled to hate Kratos, looking past his years of violence and present inability to connect with his son, the only good thing in his life. This is because we learn to recognize the core lesson of the game: correcting for generational trauma is hard, and even the best parents can only heal the damage in increments. Worst of all, the most well-intentioned parents can make terrible mistakes. Freya chose to shield Baldur from the world that conspired against her; Kratos chose to shield Atreus from his true nature (son of a raging god). The child’s lesson is to not let their parent’s cruelty elicit their own hatred, but instead take their opportunity to build a new and better lineage.
We can argue about that sentiment’s viability as a life lesson; trauma is not something that can be overcome by beating the tar out of a god with your father, and pain we experience at the hands of a parent lingers in ways that haunt us to our deaths. No child ever has to put themselves in physical or psychological danger just to make someone else happy, and no one has to forgive the people who wrong them. But we’re not talking about real people. We’re talking about fictional characters in a story, one that lauds Kratos for his ability to grow beyond the provider and recipient of terrible parenting. God of War (2018) was praised for initiating this exact redemption arc!
I understand that a good amount of people won’t be impressed by another story about a dad who learns to act like a compassionate being, but those commentators tend not to overlap with the people who hate Freya. Being disappointed that abuse is only ever rectified in increments is not the same as hating some lady for not being perfect. This resentment reminds me of people who don’t like Diane Nguyen from Bojack Horseman, or Pam Beesly from The Offic, or Lily Aldrin from How I Met Your Mothe, or Skylar White from Breaking Ba (oooh… a pattern). In these stories about flawed men capable of supposedly remarkable growth, the same benefit of the doubt is not given to women.
I’m not saying that any of the women I’ve listed are perfect people; they’ve done some pretty questionable things, but they inhabit stories about the beauty of humanity’s flaws. The Office is about how there is always something special in every seemingly mundane person, not matter how grating they are. How I Met Your Mother is about Ted’s (and though him, Gen X as a whole) struggle to attain his parents’ expectations of romance and love. Bojack Horseman is literally named for the character it elaborates on, revealing the deeper issues plaguing a fading Hollywood star.
In stories about morally questionable male characters (Michael Scott, Barney Stinson, Walter White, etc.), the women alongside them become lightning rods for antagonism. I feel like Freya has unfortunately stumbled upon a regrettable cultural reality: as many of us eagerly devour the profiles of complicated men, we do not give women the same opportunity to countenance their imperfections. We set an unattainably high bar for women, while praising every inch men rise above the lowest of the low. Consequently, some players suffer an empathetic amnesia, seemingly unaware that Kratos and Freya are two sides of the same thematic coin.
I imagine those standards are inspired by a sociocultural expectation that women perform the emotional labor, and failing to heal broken men is a dereliction of their “duties,” but that’s a think piece for later. I don’t have to agree with every decision Freya made to know that she is not worthy of hatred. It’s like Mimir said, “The world is a better place with Freya in it,” and Baldur was the best part of her awful marriage to Odin. It makes sense that her love for her son (and the hopelessness of her position) would overwhelm her logic and foresight. After all, the overbearing protectiveness has served her well.
In addition to keeping her alive all these years, the presumably undesirable parts of her personality proved indispensable to Kratos and Atreus. She helped them circumvent the first major obstacle along their journey, saved Atreus’s life, and provided reassurance to Kratos when he doubted himself. Despite Freya’s hasty actions coming to a violent end, her level of self-awareness and desire for atonement laid out the path for Kratos’s growth, giving him the vicarious wisdom necessary to make his own incremental improvement. It’s through her actions that he comes to the point of God of War (2018): parents need to be better, or the cycle of violence will continue.
Overall, I think the audience should be a little more compassionate toward Freya. Coming to terms with our parents’ flaws is almost the entire point to God of War (2018), and missing that message by spitefully cursing Freya feels like fundamentally misunderstanding the game. Even so, I still empathize too much with Freya to hate her for how she acted. She wanted to prevent the end of the world and preserve the only good thing she had left. Making a terrible decision does not make her a terrible person, especially when the goal was to show how even the most vicious monster can still be better in the end.