Note: Spoilers for Ergo Proxy.
An echo, a heartbeat pounding in the eye of the storm, Centzontotochtin sails over the earth, and the pulse of the awakening signals the beginning of the end.
Ergo Proxy aired over ten years ago and to this day remains an enigma to many. Its creative thought experiments and questions about our purpose in life have been just as mesmerizing as they have been easily dismissed. But whether it’s thoughtfully ambiguous or frustratingly obtuse, what’s consistent is Ergo Proxy’s mystique beneath its decrepit and artificial landscape, a captivating blend of the real and the surreal that reveals how easy it has become for us to mistake the double for the authentic.
Throughout, we are presented with illusions, smoke and mirrors, dream worlds, and nightmares, where reality and truth has been distorted by the agents of a lost civilization. Think of supple fingers curved in Shakespearean fashion or a bookstore of forgotten memories. As the Proxies roam their respective domed cities, searching endlessly to satisfy their raison d’etre, what tethers us to reality are Vincent and Re-L. They are equally confounded by the mysteries they confront in their quest for answers about the Proxies.
We are led to believe that outside the dilapidated dome cities and noxious caves, aboard Centzontotochtin in a vast swath of desert and frozen seas is the real world in the aftermath of some environmental catastrophe. Here is where Re-L spends her time logging her experiences, taking dutiful care of personal hygiene, and complaining about an upright toilet seat. It’s where Vincent and the AutoReiv companion Pino play in the snow and act unsuspectingly of the dangers ahead. Here, in the supposed real world, with nothing but dead landscape and a chilling wind on the horizon, is where our characters can introspect and consider the world as it is.
Yet, for all their artificial and mundane characteristics, the domes appear much closer to a tangible description of human reality. Be it Romdeau and its aristocratic bureaucracy, the empty residential fields populated by outdated AutoReivs still performing their quotidian responsibilities, or a commercial shopping mall home to a mad doppelganger, many of these domes symbolize and, more importantly, simulate some element of human culture. It is necessary to note that these are all images of what Earth used to look like, which systemically break apart without order. Still, these last vestiges of a biologically engineered society engender that moment in time; it precedes the reality of the outside world. The artificial, in other words, has become the real, and to the good citizens of Ergo Proxy, indistinguishable from reality. The outside world has become in, Jean Baudrillard’s words, “the desert of the real itself.”
In The Precession of a Simulacra, Baudrillard also references Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science.” An empire, so attuned with the art of cartography, produces a map of exact size and scale of itself. Succeeding generations, less enthusiastic of the map, discard it to the west, where it now lays in tatters. In similar fashion, the Proxy Project begins with a mass engineering of a worldwide experiment, which recreates pockets of human civilization in its old image. Inevitably, however, the very creators of the domes, many of them unsatisfied or driven by madness and self-loathing, discard their own works, where they now decay against the harsh winds of the wasteland. And thus, much like Borges ingrains in our memory not the empire, but rather the bizarre and ruined map of its territory, the domes of Ergo Proxy in all their systemic imperfections occupy our understanding of the end of civilization. They are, quite literally, proxies for reality.
There are two things to draw from this interaction of the real and the double. The first is to see how Ergo Proxy merges conceptions of dreams and reality to one meaningful abstraction. The second is to see how this relationship drives the show’s search for purpose and existence.
There is a pervasive motif about dreams or dreamlike sequences, where characters are ensnared by a Proxy’s powers. Many of the dreams feel real, and their contents often translate to the real world, as seen by the books in Anamnesis aboard the Centzontotochtin and the dome holding the animated characters from Pino’s dream. On one hand, Ergo Proxy uses these dreams to elucidate the consciousness of the characters. For Vincent, it’s his ontological question of who he is and if he exists in the world. For Pino, it’s whether she possesses a soul and a capacity for morality. For Re-L, it’s her timidity to approach the truth, in fear that it will upset the balance of her orderly existence.
On the other hand, these sequences attempt to break down the characters’ tenuous relationship with reality. The experiences of their dreams can overcome the experiences of the real. Vincent’s admission of his identity as a Proxy is only cemented after his ethereal travels through the misty City Lights Bookstore. Pino’s intuition from her dream overrides her companions’ needs to stop for supplies. In both cases, these dreams, initiated by Proxies, have merged the surreal with the real to become a new sort of reality. Many within the world of the Ergo Proxy do not see any meaningful distinction between reality and a simulation of it precisely because the two have become one.
An exception to this is Re-L, who identifies her own dream as such. Further, in Ophelia, Vincent is in a seemingly never ending cycle with a Proxy taking on every appearance but its own. Vincent is grateful that in the end, Re-L is capable of telling apart the impostor from himself, only to find that Re-L identifies that the impostor did not have a shadow. For Vincent, however, this lack of distinction highlights his inability to come to terms with his identity. This is returned to in the final dream, where Vincent is able to identify a fake world from the real, thus confirming his existence and place on Earth.
This dynamic between the bizarre and the normal, the dream and the real, and how they merge and separate is what gives Ergo Proxy’s search for a raison d’etre such a powerful poignancy. The reason is because inevitably we discover each of our main characters are themselves doubles of an original. Vincent and Re-L are copies of Proxy One and Monad, respectively. Pino is an alternative for a child. In addition, all three are failures of their original intention. Vincent never lives up to his potential as a model citizen, Re-L rejects the boring order of her grandfather’s city and is cast aside for another clone of herself, while Pino is replaced by a newborn child.
Even so, each character transcends his or her original place and assumes an agency over their own destinies, which allows them to overcome the destruction of Romdeau. They reject the artificiality of the order, and in doing so, also reject the simulated reality forced upon them thousands of years ago, when the desert of the real first came into being.
It is therefore fitting that those who survive to face the progenitors of Old Earth are dysfunctional copies, never meant to survive in the original system of waste and good citizenry. In a world completely artificial, here we have three souls: an amnesiac, a clone of a goddess, and an orphaned child, all of whom abandon their original duties to discover their reason for existence.
The word ergo is Latin for “therefore,” while proxy refers to one who may stand to represent something. As the dark clouds recede from the heavens, and the light of a never before seen sun scorches Daedaelus’s crafted wings, Vincent Law looks up and remarks that “this is the world that faces us, a world called ‘reality.'” He declares himself Ergo Proxy, an Agent of Death, and therefore, a representative for a new humanity.