There are spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here.
I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on the day it came out, devouring the entire enormous book in about 36 hours. It was pre-social media, and that means spoilers were easier to avoid back then, and when I got to the end, to the death of Cedric Diggory, I wept. It wasn’t so much that I loved Diggory as a character (although I did quite like him) but rather that I had been taken by surprise by the direction in which JK Rowling had taken her series. I had gotten into Potter in the months leading up to Goblet of Fire, when Potter fever itself was truly beginning to rage. I thought of these books as wonderful, diversionary children’s tales, stories full of beautiful and innocent imagination with just enough darkness to leaven the sweetness. But with the death of Diggory everything changed; it became clear that Rowling was aging up her books with her readers, and that she was willing to tackle the hardest, the cruelest and the darkest aspects of the human experience. The real world came rushing into the Harry Potter world, and it was heartbreaking and amazing to experience it in real time.
It’s fitting then that the death of Cedric Diggory should be at the center of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the eighth and (we are told) final story of Harry Potter. It’s a play this time, with the story itself by Rowling and the play written by Jack Thorne. It is set in the modern day, where Harry is approaching 40 (the books, believe it or not, are all set in the past. Harry was born in 1980) and his son, Albus Severus Potter, is alienated from the father. When Albus goes to Hogwarts he ends up sorted into Slytherin and becoming best friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, not following anyone’s vision for the future of the Potter family. While Albus’ siblings, James and Lily, are bright and cheerful children, this young misfit finds the world a confusing and alienating place, his father a distant figure and Hogwarts to be a prison of bullies and cruelty. Scorpius, meanwhile, is smart and cheerful, but rumors that he’s Voldemort’s son through time travel make him unpopular at best.
These two boys - outcasts and losers haunted by their own ancestry - end up involved in a plot to change that significant event from Goblet of Fire. Using a purloined Time Turner they travel back to the TriWizard Tournament with the intention of saving Cedric’s life and making the world a better place. But they discover the repercussions of meddling with the past are severe, and that there are certainly worse timelines than the one they inhabit.
That’s the plot, but Cursed Child is perhaps the most thematically rich of all the Harry Potter stories. While the Time Turner era-hopping makes for some nice fantasy/scifi fun (and also answers all those who wondered why they didn’t just use Time Turners constantly in the books), the time travel element ends up functioning as a metaphor for the way our histories haunt us, and they way they can even haunt our children and loved ones. But at the same time those pasts, and the pain that lives forever in them, make us who we are. To take them away, to smooth those edges, would render us unrecognizable.
And so the central conceit is perfect - the desire to remove that moment in Goblet of Fire that darkened the whole series, that recontextualized just what a Harry Potter story is, is a meta version of our own wishes to escape the past, to want a way to forget or to erase the things that hurt us. In the end, Cursed Child argues, that doesn’t help us - it takes away what makes us us. The Cursed Child makes this point forcefully and emotionally by having Harry Potter witness the deaths of his own parents, fully and immediately confronting the foundational trauma that forever skewed his life.
What makes Harry Potter a great character is that he is stubbornly imperfect. Over the course of the series he alternated from unsure of himself to probably too sure of himself (I’ve always felt that snotty, angry teen Harry in Order of the Phoenix is one of the bravest directions Rowling took the character), and that continues here in The Cursed Child. Harry is not as good a dad as he had hoped, echoing the imperfect parenting skills of his surrogate father, Dumbledore. It’s easy for him to be a dad to Lily and James, who seem to naturally have their shit together, but he’s terrible with Albus, and at one point early in the play he snaps at the boy, telling him he sometimes wishes Albus wasn’t his son. It’s horrifically human, that mistake, a sign of a character who, even as he approaches 40, doesn’t have it all figured out.
In fact Harry has so little figured out that he is a real dick to his kid. At one point he demands that Professor McGonagall use the Marauder’s Map to keep an eye on the boy at all times; one of the strengths of the Harry Potter series is that it’s an elaborate and smart generational tale, and this one scene means so much. It shows how, as we grow up, we betray our own youthful ideals - to use the map whose closing incantation is “Mischief managed!” to surveil your child is a complete corruption. It shows how Harry has changed from the rebellious youth to the authoritarian adult, it elegantly sketches out just how far he has come from the old days… and just how unfortunate that might be.
The other main characters from the original books appear - Ginny and Ron and Hermione and even Dumbledore, showing up in paintings when needed - but this is truly a story about Albus and Scorpius. Albus is a truly troubled character, one who finds no solace in the Wizarding World that changed his dad’s life. Where the original Potter novels were classic escapist fantasy - what if I were a princess/chosen one left on the wrong doorstep, and that my destiny was actually so much brighter than this dreary world? - The Cursed Child sees the world as we sometimes experience it, a place into which we never asked to be born. If Harry sometimes wishes Albus weren’t his son, Albus - saddled with the names of two complicated and doomed heroes - definitely wishes he weren’t trapped in the Harry Potter legacy.
Albus’ emotional journey in The Cursed Child reminds me of Harry’s, at least when it comes to their parents. One of the great reveals in the original books, to me, was that James Potter was kind of a dick, imperious and cruel to young Snape. Harry’s journey to understanding that - and his journey to realizing he has more of the kind Lily in him than the haughty James - was a very realistic reflection of the way we grow up and come to understand our parents as human beings. Albus is forced to come to that same understanding over the course of the play, learning that his dad isn’t the Harry Potter of legend but rather just a man without a road map, a guy trying to do his best and, often as not, fucking it up.
Albus is great, but Scorpius Malfoy is perhaps the best Harry Potter character since Hermione Granger herself. Scorpius is nothing like his nasty father (who, by the way, has grown and changed himself over the past 19 years). He is kind and good humored, he’s a nerd and he’s unsure of himself. Like Albus, Scorpius finds himself trapped inside a legacy that he doesn’t want, but unlike Albus, Scorpius is always able to find a way to smile and retain his optimism. A dark Potter befriending a sunny Malfoy makes for the best kind of reversal. JK Rowling has said that The Cursed Child marks the end of Harry Potter’s story, but does that also mean the end of Scorpius’? I do hope not, as I fell entirely in love with the irrepressible heir to a Death Eater lineage.
Last month spoilers for The Cursed Child hit the internet, and I read some of them and immediately dismissed what I read. Everything sounded too fan-ficcy, and I just couldn’t believe that a stage play would attempt elaborate set pieces that included the recreations of the three trials of the TriWizard Tournament. All the time travel, all the revisiting of previous moments in the series, felt too phony. But the spoilers were true, and all of that truly does happen in the play (I’ve only read it so I can’t speak to how it’s staged, but I have to guess it’s staged with massive ambition and incredible ingenuity)... and yet the actual play doesn’t read as fan-ficcy. All of that stuff works, because it’s all based in theme.
In fact, without all the revisiting of the past, The Cursed Child wouldn’t work as well. This play serves as the epilogue to the Harry Potter saga, a way of looking at how the events of the books impacted the characters - the epilogue that fans said they wanted after the Deathly Hallows train station scene didn’t feel like enough. Rowling and Thorne go deep, letting us see the reverberations of all that happened, to see how characters were deeply impacted by even the littlest moments.
On a meta level all of that revisiting of the past makes Albus and Scorpius’ struggle into text - they are literally caught in their parent’s histories at certain points in the play. The literalism of the past catching up with characters adds a richness that can only be found in genre storytelling, where this stuff escapes the prison of subtext and gets to be fully engaged in a fun way. It also lets us slip quickly into a reality where Voldemort won the war, which is interesting in and of itself, especially for fans of alt realities and 'darkest timelines.'
JK Rowling paced her novels so that her original readers grew up with them. It’s possible that with this play she allowed the story to jump past the original readers. As a 42 year old man I found The Cursed Child to be the first Potter story that spoke to me in the moment, that reflected my current state of being in a powerful and immediate way. I don’t have children, but the past is a monster that refuses to let go, and sometimes it feels like the only constant in this life is struggle, regret and pain. The Cursed Child, which splits itself between Harry and Albus, acknowledges this, at one point having a painting of Dumbledore say:
“In every shining moment of happiness is that drop of poison: the knowledge that pain will come again. Be honest to those you love, show your pain. To suffer is as human as to breathe.”
It’s the bittersweet, unsentimental philosophy that Rowling brought to the Potter books that made them great, and here the acceptance of the bad parts of the human experience - that we fuck up, that we don’t tell others how much we love them, that we protect ourselves at the expense of others, that even the best of us are capable of the worst things - is once again tempered by the simple truths of what makes life worth living. At the climax of the story, with the villain finally revealed, Harry seems trapped and cut off from his friends. But he isn’t, and they come to help because, as Harry explains:
“I’ve never fought alone, you see. And I never will.”
In that moment it’s about struggle and physical conflict, but in the very next scene all of those friends and allies - including Draco - stand by Harry’s side as he watches his mother and father die. It’s a beautiful and crushing moment, one that sums up everything that I have loved about the Harry Potter saga.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a complex, strange and wonderful capper to the Harry Potter story. A generational saga unmatched - except perhaps by that of the Corleones - the Harry Potter stories are thrilling adventures filled with lovable characters, whimsical and exciting imaginative elements and deep, heartbreaking and life-affirming truths about the human condition. The Cursed Child is no exception, and it’s a conclusion to this particular arc that is worthy of the name Harry Potter.