Soggy, scared and running low on second chances, Cable stumbles out of the scenery and into a new relationship with a young sidekick who, in my opinion, might secretly be a ghost.
I mean, explain Jude, if you can. He’s an extremely unwatched minor who runs America’s grungiest gas station. He appears to be puzzled by Cable and the energetic shooting war that erupts around him, but he keeps his cool and helps Cable as much as he can, appearing in the quiet moments when she needs him, and receding into the background when there are other people around. There is no evidence in the text that he is a human child, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.
To start with, this is clearly not a functioning business. Cable refers to it as a “gas station”, but I’m not sure that it has any working gas pumps. The entire place is constructed out of plaster, rust, weeds, old tires and miscellaneous. It looks a little better on the inside, but only if you’re grading on a sliding scale. They mostly sell soda, and even for that, you need to physically assault the Coke machine to get any kind of action out of it.
Everything is slowly falling to pieces, and returning to the earth from whence it came. It’s possible that this is just how things look in the American South, and you’re expected to put up with it.
The kid is played by Reggie Batts, a young actor from Charleston who I believe is perfect in every way. Jude has a flat, cynical affect that makes him seem both reassuring and otherworldly. He is that rare hothouse flower, a comic relief character in a not-very-good action film who has both funny lines and funny delivery. Everything that he says and does is interesting and surprising, up to and including the moment when Cable walks into the store, and Jude slowly turns to look at the camera, consulting with the audience on his next move. If there wasn’t such a person as Caramel Kane, then Jude would be my favorite character in Swamp Thing.
Jude appears at a particularly stressful moment in Cable’s hectic career, when she’s being hunted by wizards and monsters and make-believe G-men, recently drowned and low on resources. The last time she saw a friendly face, it was running towards the lagoon, engulfed in flames. She could use a moment’s respite, and Jude is here to help.
She puts a quarter in the Coke machine — how she still has access to currency after the night she’s had, I don’t know — but the machine resists her advances. “Doesn’t anything work around here?” she crabs, and Jude shrugs, “Just me.”
Frustrated, she gives the soda dispenser a sharp kick, but Jude understands the procedure. “Kickin’ it don’t help nothin’,” he says. “You gotta punch it!” And then he balls up a fist and smacks the machine exactly where it does the most good.
Cable picks up her cold soda, and looks at Jude as if he’s something new in the world, which he is.
They shake hands and introduce themselves, and she takes a sip of her Coke, trying to figure out what’s happened to the universe. She takes a few steps, then turns to look back at the boy, who gives her an encouraging smile. It doesn’t do a lot for her, but this isn’t much of a smiling type situation, on her end.
Still, she tries to make conversation. “Nice station,” she lies. “Your dad own it?” This is the first of Jude’s truly cryptic moments. “Look like your ride’s got here,” he says, and gestures toward the window, where they can see Arcane’s goons arrive.
He doesn’t answer her question, because the answer is no, his dad doesn’t own the station. Jude doesn’t have a dad. Jude is folklore.
A few minutes from now, after all the shooting and the running and the monster attacks have subsided, Jude’s going to appear at Cable’s side, apparating noiselessly to her immediate left. He’ll say some funny lines, and then he’ll perform the mythologically appropriate service.
“There’s a trapper’s cabin nearby,” he’ll say. “We can get you a fresh change of clothes. Swamp’s no place to be at night.” She hesitates. “Come on,” he urges, and leads her away, into the next stage of her dream.
Naturally, it’s a trapper’s cabin, whatever that is. A human child might offer to take Cable home, so that she could tell his living parents her story, and they could phone for the police. But Jude exists outside of the workaday world of parents and telephones; he’s a swamp sprite, who offers rest and comfort, on his own terms.
He is, in fact, what Spike Lee called “the Magical Negro,” a familiar character type of the late 20th century. The Magical Negro doesn’t really have a character arc of his own; his role is to selflessly support the white lead character, providing wisdom and soft drinks.
You’ve seen Jude-like figures in The Shawshank Redemption and The Hudsucker Proxy, The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance. He calls himself Morpheus and Lucius Fox and Oda Mae Brown, and he exists in order to conduct clueless white people through whatever scrape they’re currently enduring. A lot of the time he’s Morgan Freeman. For a while, he had a regular gig showing up during the end credits of Marvel movies, to guide all the white heroes in the direction of The Avengers.
So I’d say don’t expect to learn much about Jude’s backstory, or how he knows to turn up exactly when Cable needs someone to confer with. This is his job, and he’s very good at it. A lot of the time they don’t even have Coke machines; Cable really lucked out in that regard.
3.23: A Time of Running
— Danny Horn