I grew up reading Harry Potter. The first of the series’s seven books was released when I was two years old, and by the time the final film adaptation premiered in 2011, I’d had fourteen more birthdays, some of them Harry Potter themed.
I reread the core book series this past winter, and against a bummer of a zeitgeist imposed by their author, I think they hold up. The universe is well-planned and orchestrated. It’s easy for a children’s book about magic to fall back on silly plot devices and deus ex machinas, but Potter doesn’t. For the most part, the rules the books set up are followed through the end.
The same cannot be said about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play released five years after Deathly Hallows Part Two and written by a three-person team including original author J.K. Rowling but led by playwright Jack Thorne.
The play’s writing is clunky and feels like sanctioned fan fiction written for hardcore fans of Harry Potter who don’t know anything about Harry Potter. The feeling the writers seem to be aiming for is “oh, shit! It’s Harry Potter!”. If they can nail that, does anything else really matter?
Cursed Child, of course, isn’t the only fraught Potter followup project. Four months after the play’s West End debut, Warner Brothers Studios premiered Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, another successor to the Potter film franchise depicting events around the extended wizarding world some seventy years before the Battle of Hogwarts.
Both Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts suffer at the hands of Potter‘s success. Despite inflated budgets and an abundance of available talent, neither seem to capture the magic of the original series. Maybe it’s that the originals had to squeeze their way through the competition, had to spend years on editors’ desks and in publishing houses before being discovered and propelled to fame. By contrast, since the massive success of the films, it’s hard to believe a description of the workings of the small intestine wouldn’t find a publisher immediately given Rowling’s signature.
I have my complaints about Fantastic Beasts, but that isn’t the focus of this piece. It’s probably the focus of a later, equally long one.
This is about Cursed Child, a play that is, by hella accounts, excellent and widely successful. And for all I know, those accounts are representative of how theatergoers perceive the performance. I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never seen it. But I have read the book. And the book is bad.
Some Cursed Child apologists brush the book (the play’s script bound in paperback) aside and aver that the play is the definitive way to experience this story. Again, maybe they’re right. But in that case, against their best judgment, the authors published a book. I did not like it. And now, with your permission, I’d like to take you on an insanely detailed excursion to explain why.
Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ahead. Somehow I don’t think you’ll mind. It should be noted, though, that I’ll also be indiscriminately spoiling the original seven books and movies, so if you’ve made it this far without reading or watching Harry Potter but still intend to, maybe stop lying to yourself and keep reading anyway.
The Cursed Child
The Cursed Child picks up where Harry Potter left off, in an epilogue set at King’s Cross Station where Harry Potter’s two eldest children board the Hogwarts Express and Harry assuages the fears of his younger son, Albus Severus (we have to zoom past this), who’s anxious about the possibility of being sorted into Slytherin. Names aside, it’s a decent and relatively heartfelt sendoff to the characters and world readers had known for years. We have to believe Al (yeah) gets on the train feeling reinvigorated and reassured: even if he is in Slytherin, he’ll be okay.
Raise curtain on Cursed Child: Albus Severus is not okay. Why? He hates his fuckin’ dad. It’s hard growing up with the Chosen One for a father. Say goodbye to that heartwarming feeling the last book left us with. He clearly has. Al (you’re just gonna have to get used to that) doesn’t have to stew for long before a kindred spirit comes his way: Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry’s school years nemesis Draco Malfoy, joins him in his compartment. The two form an unlikely bond from the start. Al is far from a replica of his father, and he shares that with Scorpius, a timid, self-conscious character more comfortable in the robes of Ron Weasley than those of Daddy Malfoy.
The parental woes of both fast friends go deep. While Al resents his father for the burden of his success and renown, Scorpius’s struggle is buried more in the public’s perception of his father, or rather who his father is. We’ve barely heard Scorpius’s name whispered before the rumors start flying at us. Well, the rumor: Scorpius is the son of Voldemort.
If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. And stop scratching, or you’ll draw blood by Act Two. By the character description given, both in this book and in Harry Potter‘s epilogue, Scorpius Malfoy is the spitting image of his father, complete with shrewd face and white-blond hair. Voldemort, you’ll remember, looked like a fucking snake. And even before he looked like a snake, he didn’t look like Malfoy. So the only way this story makes sense is if sextagenarian lizard man Voldemort and teenager Draco Malfoy conceived a child with each other. In this world of magic, I can’t say it’s impossible, but I think you’ll agree it’s the sort of plot line that belongs in no fewer than seven thousand fan fiction stories and not in a canonical West End performance.
If you’re wondering, the official explanation given is that people believe Draco was so distraught about not having an heir that he did what we all would have done: sent his wife back in time on an interdimensional booty call to reproduce instead with a now-dead genocidal maniac. I guess we’re to believe there are no wizard orphans, no opportunities for magical family planning. The only option is to grab a Time Turner, visit the Heir of Slytherin Sperm Bank, and hope you’re fluent in the foulest dialect of parseltongue.
It’s a silly rumor, and some of the characters even regard it as such. But it’s taken seriously by others, like Scorpius’s father, who takes it upon himself to appeal to Harry Potter to remedy it. He suggests Harry use his capacity as head of the wizard FBI to get the Minister of Magic (in fairness, his deputy best friend Hermione Granger) to issue a statement reaffirming that all of the time turners (the magic lockets used to travel back in time) were destroyed in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries in 1995. The rumor is spread and primarily believed by children, and if there’s any flavor of reason kids will listen to, it’s a carefully-worded memorandum from the government. Harry refuses his rival’s request and the two part ways.
In an unintentional allusion to the story to come, we’re swept swiftly through time, blitzing through Albus’s first two years at Hogwarts. He’s sorted into Slytherin, predictably, and most of the story beats we receive form a montage of our unwilling protagonist turning into a little bit of a jaded fuck at the tender age of twelve.
Scorpius’s mom dies of a magical degenerative disease (remember when the magic in this series was repairing glasses and making shit float?) and Albus’s sister is sorted into Gryffindor. By this point, he’s so dour and edgy he could easily pass for a “My Immortal” character.
At work, Harry recovers an illegal time turner from a former Death Eater and hands it over to Hermione, who berates him for not taking care of issues far outside the scope of his job.
Some time later, back at the Potter house, Albus overhears a conversation between his father and a visitor, Amos Diggory (of “That’s my son! That’s my boooy!!!” fame). As if Harry’s not swamped enough by the responsibility of solving all of the world’s magical crimes, Diggory asserts he has one more responsibility: just bring his son back to life a little bit.
Amos is, of course, calling to memory Cedric Diggory’s death at the hand of Voldemort’s unpaid intern, Peter Pettigrew, at the end of the Triwizard Tournament in Goblet of Fire. I need you to read over this next quote because I think it’s some of the most bonkers writing in the play:
How did that conversation go down? “Did he fight valiantly, Harry? Was he a match for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?”
“I’mma be real with you, Amos, Voldemort could not give less of a shit about your kid. I think he said ‘kill the spare’, but honestly it could’ve been a really long mouth fart. My parseltongue’s been rusty since Book 2.”
Amos posits that it’s Harry’s duty to bring Cedric back to life because he (Amos) is dying (he’s in a wheelchair, which seems a little out of place in a universe where bones can be regrown, but we love the representation) and because a lot of other people died in Harry’s name and so he should do the right thing and bring exactly one of them back to life. Just Cedric. Every other parent will understand.
Shit-tier argument aside, we have to understand something real quick, something critical to my overall criticism of The Cursed Child: the time travel makes no sense.
Time travel in fiction is inherently sticky. Once you delve into it, you open yourself up to a ton of questions and challenges. If going back in time and killing the bad guy as a baby (or, at least at his college graduation ceremony if infanticide falls on the wanting end of your moral barometer) is always an option, why not just do that and get it over with?
Since the reptilian sewer princes haven’t yet entrusted us in the Muggle world with the power of time travel, it exists now purely within the realm of fiction, and as a result, there’s no conclusively “right” way to do it. In Back to the Future, going back in time and altering events changes the course of history. In some science fiction stories, going back in time establishes a brand new, separate timeline; you can change what happens in this timeline, but the other one still exists. When you’re writing a time travel story, you get to establish your own rules. But if you want the story you’re telling to be good, you have to follow the rules you’ve established.
Time travel in Harry Potter is actually really well-thought-out and straightforward. In the canon established in Prisoner of Azkaban, there is only one timeline, and going back in time simply places you earlier in that timeline. Unlike Marty in Back to the Future, Harry and Hermione cannot change what has happened when they go back in time. It’s true that they use their visit to the past to save Buckbeak and Sirius, but it’s also true that both of these things always happened. When we read or watch Prisoner of Azkaban, we assume Buckbeak’s execution is hidden from view because it’s sad and too icky for that PG rating. But in reality, the characters and camera turning away only obscures from our view that the execution never took place, because future Harry and Hermione had arrived to save him. Later on, Harry thinks he sees his dad casting a Patronus at him from across the lake. He eventually realizes it was him he was seeing. The present Harry hadn’t traveled back in time yet. He didn’t even know about time travel. But because he would, the timeline had been set.
I realize this is an insane info-dump for what is meant to be a twelve-course shit feast, but I promise it all matters because everything that comes after this is a massive, colossal dump on all of that established lore. Even if you glazed over that last paragraph, the main takeaway is this: time in Harry Potter cannot be altered. If someone goes back in time to steal your sandwich, they always went back in time to steal your sandwich and your sandwich was always stolen. There is no timeline in which you eat and digest honey ham on rye.
So what Amos Diggory is asking Harry to do is not just irresponsible, not just unrealistic, not just disrespectful, but fucking impossible. Harry lies and tells Amos that the ministry doesn’t have the illegal time turner he thinks they do, but this lie isn’t necessary. In a lore-consistent world, Harry should be able to calmly inform Amos that he’s misunderstanding the function of Time Turners and usher him on with his day.
You know as well as I do by now that this isn’t a remotely lore-consistent world. The nearest one of those is miles away. I hope you know how to apparate.
The Creepy Niece
By now, you may have forgotten that this exchange between Harry and Amos is being overheard by Albus Potter, who’s loitering on the stairs. Honestly, you’d be in good company. We’re brought back to our senses when his eavesdropping is interrupted by a woman, described as determined-looking twenty-something who introduces herself as Amos’s niece and caretaker.
I’m about to rip off a gigantic plot bandage and let a massive spoiler out to aerate. If you haven’t read The Cursed Child and, for some reason, you still intend to, leave now and come back when you’re all done. This is your final warning.
Alright. Are you ready? Here it is; Delphini is Voldemort’s daughter. In the timeline of the play, this is a final act revelation meant to shock the viewer. But to understand my criticism, it’s important you know that now. And nothing is more critical to understand than how this quote looks, knowing that the speaker is Voldemort Junior:
Delphi extends an invitation to Albus to see her at the wizarding nursing home she works at just before departing with her father. The next scene is an angsty pubescent fight in which Harry and Albus agree that they wish they weren’t related and Albus desecrates an heirloom blanket Harry received from his mother with a love potion Ron gave to his sister.
Then, we’re back in time (in a literary sense — no one’s fucking with our timeline yet) to 1991, watching Hagrid break down the front door of the Dursley family’s island cottage. We’ve seen this before. It’s a straight-up beat-by-beat remake. It doesn’t really count as exposition either, since we’re several scenes into the story. If you came in knowing shit all about Harry Potter, you’ve long since drowned. The only difference, at the end of it all, we get Voldemort moaning Harry’s name, ostensibly to make Draco and/or his wife jealous.
When he wakes up, Harry’s scar hurts for the first time in twenty-two years. This was another one of my red highlights. Before I finished my reread, I was certain that the epilogue ended with “Harry’s scar never hurt again”. I guess it doesn’t. But the writers aren’t any less on the hook for this one: Harry’s scar hurts him as a child because he’s a horcrux. Part of Voldemort’s soul is lodged inside him. In the final book, that connection is severed. It’s just a scar now. So there’s no reason it should be hurting again. Harry’s experiencing a headache.
The Great Escape
On the Hogwarts Express, Albus learns about the whole Time Turner fiasco from Rose Granger-Weasley as Scorpius attempts to mack on her big style. Lamenting his failure, he explains to Albus that he gets on the train early, in part to “stop people from writing ‘Son of Voldemort on my trunk'”. Remembering that students in this universe use feather quills as their primary method of physically rendering text, it seems insane that ne’er-do-well children would make it their prerogative to engage in real-time graffiti, but it’s important to the authors that we remember that public opinion is that Voldemort shared a sordid love affair with either Draco or his wife (but certainly Draco).
The train starts moving and Albus tells Scorpius they have to disembark. They recall the details of the Triwizard Tournament together and leave their train compartment as the curtain falls. When it rises again, they’re on top of the train. Albus determines they’ll be able to jump soon, but Scorpius notices a snag.
The trolley witch — you remember her, right? The small part played by an old woman who sells treats to students on the train? “Anything from the trolley?” That one — has also climbed her way onto the roof and is rapidly approaching them. This is her moment, clearly, as she reveals to the two that she does not remember her own name and that she’s been doing this job (and, as far as we know, only this job, on a train that departs four times a year) for 190 years. Behold, mouths appropriately agape, the scene that follows.
The two jump off the viaduct and, unfortunately, die. Jk lol. Can you imagine? That’d be a real curse.
No, they live, but that’s where we leave them.
We go now to the Ministry of Magic, where Hermione calls a council to talk about movement among Voldemort’s supporters. Harry asks for contributions and Professor McGonagall says this:
Okay, so someone’s brewing polyjuice potion. We, the readers, know that, but Professor McGonagall and Hermione Granger are dumb and stupid, so they don’t quite latch on.
Hermione mentions Harry’s scar, and Draco Malfoy speaks up, leading us to ask “why the fuck is Malfoy here?”
Hermione calls him by first name at a government meeting, which is probably something that bothers me and only me, but then one of the most insane exchanges of the play happens. Harry brings up Malfoy’s Dark Mark tattoo, which is hella fair given that the Death Eaters used them as pagers and that they started appropriately buzzing the first time Voldemort came back. Malfoy responds with this absolute chicanery:
Maybe it’s easy for some fans to look past this detail given his somewhat tragic past and cute face, but Malfoy has a swastika tattoo. “You’re discriminating against me just because I have a tattoo that says I want to shoot you in the head!”
Harry and Hermione offer stammered responses, but Malfoy’s on the offensive. He suggests that the perennial rumors of Voldemort’s return written about in the Daily Prophet are the work of Harry’s wife. If you’re expecting Harry or Hermione to step forward in her defense, you’re wrong: Ginny herself speaks up to correct Malfoy.
In the immortal words of George Lopez’s television father-in-law: what is Ginny doing here?
Malfoy continues to antagonize Harry and goes on to suggest that Hermione was only elected Minister for Magic due to her association with him, a comment that enrages Ron, who, oh yeah, is also here??? In the, again, immortal words of George Lopez’s father-in-law: what is Ron doing here?
Malfoy, on fire over here, keeps talking mad shit and gets real pissed about what rumors of Voldemort 2: The Squeakuel could do to bolster the already-strong rumor that he and Voldemort 1 kissed.
At the apogee of his indignation, Malfoy pulls a “let’s get out of here, gang” move, and… it fucking works? Just so we’re clear, this is a cabinet meeting called by the President of Magic to come up with a contingency plan for the event of a magical terrorist attack. Everyone is game until a known terrorist calls the President names and takes it upon himself to cancel the meeting.
Hermione, who spends no small chunk of the original seven books annoying everyone around her with her sense of justice and steadfastness to rules and regulations, gives her government a weak “no, please, u can’t 😿” before giving up entirely.
St. Oswald’s Fuck Palace for Decrepit Magi
Albus and Scorpius, meanwhile, have made their way to St. Oswald’s Home for Old Witches and Wizards, a place described as an orgy paradise for the Dumbledore generation where staff are beholden to the whims and desires of their centenarian residents.
Our delinquents are spotted by Delphini, who leads them to Amos’s room. Immediately, before they can even get their intentions across, he’s not into it. That’s understandable, his ask is a big undertaking for two shitstain kids; no explanation needed. But then he brings up the “son of Voldemort” thing. I think this is probably meant to invoke a feeling of after-the-fact dramatic irony, but really it just serves to remind me that this rumor is allowed to walk all over the play without any legs. Why does everyone believe this???? Why is Voldemort the only source of wizard sperm?????
If you’re tired of me revisiting the “son of Voldemort” shit: me fucking too, dude. This is me trending conservative.
Amos tells Voldemort Malfoy and Al to get off his lawn, but Delphi intercedes, giving them a second chance. Albus uses this chance to explain that he, too, knows what it’s like to be the spare.
If you’re tearing up at this, I need you to stop. We need to work together if we’re going to get through three more fucking acts of this. Albus absolutely can not relate to Cedric. Albus feels overshadowed because his Dad is famous. Cedric got merked by a demon snake man’s rat-boy secretary. This comparison is straight-up disrespectful.
Amos doesn’t give a shit, though. He warns the boys that their quest will be dangerous. He asks his nurse to accompany them, which seems like a bad deal for both the nurse and the guy in need of a nurse, but, again, neither really gives a shit.
Just fuck my shit up
Harry, Hermione and the gang learn Al and Scorp never made it to school and engage in a group panic session. Who cares about that? Back to the intrigue.
The first phase of the boys’ plan commences as they and Delphi prepare to imbibe polyjuice potion. In Chamber of Secrets, this potion, the one used to take the form of someone else, takes a full month to brew. Luckily, these three just stumble upon some. Delphi drinks first and turns into Hermione. The turbo nerds still reading this will for sure be aware that the critical ingredient in a dose of polyjuice potion is a fragment of the target’s DNA. If you want to become Hermione Granger, you’ve got to have a piece of her. It’s not an impossible task. Al’s been in the same room as her. Recently, even. But it seems pretty fuckin’ lucky that he’d happen to be in possession of a Hermione hair, given that ten minutes prior he had no clue that polyjuice potion was going to make an appearance.
Fuck it, the show must go on. Albus, covered head to toe in his aunt’s hair, looks on at her spitting image standing in front of him. The three react.
Albus turns into Ron, Scorpius into Harry. You might be tempted to argue that Albus should be the one to turn into Harry, given that he would be infinitely more familiar with his father’s mannerisms than his homie Scorpius. You’d be forgetting, though, that Albus fucking hates his dad.
Back at the ministry, just to keep the set change team on their toes, we see that Harry and Draco are beside themselves with concern. Obviously. Who gives a shit about them, though? We’ve all been wondering how the trolley witch is coping. The answer? Not fucking well. She’s never lost a charge before. She doesn’t understand where she went wrong. She tried everything. I mean, given that she’s an old and ostensibly experienced witch, one might expect that she’d try to summon the boys to her or to conjure barriers to prevent them from leaving. If you think too hard, you might start to wonder if getting into your demon cosplay is a waste of energy and if throwing grenades at children stood atop a moving train might be counterproductive.
I should be clear that the trolley witch isn’t in the room. She’s not in the rest of the play. This is just Harry recounting his experience with her in half a sentence. I turned it into a paragraph, but can you fucking blame me? Y’all. The trolley witch.
Hermione lets us know that she’s informed the Muggle Prime Minister about the missing children, which seems excessive. No indication on whether or not Malfoy tagged along to try to enlist the Muggle government in scrubbing the internet of Voldemort Junior jokes.
Back with our misfit gang of ne’er-do-wells, they’ve made it into the Ministry and are approaching the hiding place of the forbidden time turner (they know where it is because Delphini and her uncle drugged a government employee to get it out of him. You know. Real good guy shit.)
They use “Alohamora” to get into the Prime Minister’s office, something I find slightly problematic given that Hermione mastered that spell at eleven. But there’s no time to get into that because Hermione and Harry, the real Hermione and Harry, are quickly approaching outside the room and our three scoundrels need a defense. They charge Albus with the task, reasoning that he’s the only one who can interact with the approaching adults. It’s the rare sort of logic that actually checks out, given that his two compatriots are disguised as the people they’re hiding from. So, Albus leaves the room and distracts them the only way he knows how, by planting a big fat kiss on his aunt.
He segues from that into an awkward conversation about Harry telling him that he wishes he wasn’t his son.
Then, he separates from the two, as though he’s forgotten his mission entirely, and resigns himself to simply hoping that the Minister of Magic walking toward her office will decide not to go inside. When she tries, he runs back and blocks her physically. When that tactic’s efficacy begins to wane, he drops this one:
He says some weird shit like this and then kisses her again. We’re moments away from this book leaping from the Best Seller shelves to the incest porn section on Amazon when Hermione relents, reasoning that someone probably sabotaged her office with a stink pellet “again”.
Back in the safety of his hot aunt’s office, Albus and Scorpius commiserate over their shitty Dad as they try to search for the Time Turner. Scorpius takes note of some dark magic texts, which are definitively notable in this world, and Al responds with:
I admit, the play (maybe unintentionally) pulled a laugh out of me with this next line:
“Magick most evile” is a book that describes how to rip one’s soul apart with murder in order to make a horcrux, the physical soul containers used by Voldemort on his quest for immortality. This book was available at Hogwarts. So the idea that that’s allowed and this poetry book is banned is fun.
Scorpius also picks up a copy of a divination textbook and comments “Hermione Granger hates divination”, outing himself as a Harry Potter fan. Unless she ran on a “I fuckin’ hate divination” platform, there’s no reason for Scorpius to know that. But his omniscience comes in handy; the book is a front. On being opened, it speaks to the trio.
It’s a riddle. Why is it a riddle??? She’s hiding the wizard nukes behind Snapple trivia.
Hermione is a bad riddle writer.
The gang eventually works out that the clues lead to the word “Dementor”, so they grab a book on dementors. That one gives them another riddle, this one as corny as it is easily-cracked.
Are you serious? Everyone knows this is emo boi Voldemort.
Anyway, here’s my password hint. Good luck solving it, it’s pretty tough! (I’m a Ravenclaw).
A leader so vile and so cruel
Piss’t he was exiled from art school
He wrote and he lied,
Did a big genocide
This Führer was not very cool
They open a book about Voldemort. By this point, the other books are attacking them and pulling them into the bookcases, but only for long enough to kinda punctuate their thoughts. You wouldn’t want to stop them from getting the WMD, it’d be enough to test their resolve, make sure they really want it.
This book’s got another riddle in it, and for a split second I spot a twinkle of redemption for this play, thinking it’s possible that this series of riddles keeps going on and on until it completely fills out the remaining three acts á la Nathan for You.
Alas, we could hardly be so lucky. The next book has the time turner in it, and our trio leaves triumphant.
And that’s Act One.