From its first episode, Darling in the Franxx uses flower language and plant genetics to frame the entire series. It’s not subtle about any of these trappings, which continue to appear in each passing episode week after week not only in commonly-used titles (like pistil, stamen, etc.) but also in flowers found in the on-site greenhouses, in various rooms, and the series’ most recent ending sequence.
Mistilteinn was introduced as the title of the robot pilots’ home and means mistletoe, which is a parasitic plant. The pilots themselves are called parasites. Mistletoe was the parasitic plant used by Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species to frame the struggle for existence. In one of his opening chapters, Darwin states that mistletoes are more at odds with each other than the tree from which they draw nourishment. If just one mistletoe is feeding from a tree, both the mistletoe and the tree will survive. Yet, if multiple mistletoe plants are close together, they fight each other for survival.
This is particularly creepy within the context of Darling in the Franxx, where it has become increasingly apparent that parasites are developed by adults in service of fighting klaxosaurs while also — in the specific case of Plantation 13 — fighting amongst themselves as part of a grand experiment completely out of their control. They are given next to no context, even as Doctor Franxx and others offer them breadcrumbs — like the beach conveniently located next to an abandoned town through which the children could wander, or the appearance of agency in choosing their partners for a day (which leads to a series of messes and uncharitable framing of several characters, to say the least). Doctor Franxx himself seems a bit at odds with the adults and ruling council of APE in even forming Plantation 13 where individuality is more celebrated, which means that there easily could be two factions of adults influencing and manipulating this group of children: through their training experiences at The Garden, and through their experiences at the plantation itself.
As an experimental group of parasites who are allowed slightly more individuality than the average plantation but are given less information — if Plantation 26 is any indication — about the world and their roles within it, the members of Plantation 13 are put in the awkward position of having their adolescence as an experiment in and of itself without the same awareness that other parasites have about everything from their role in piloting franxx to their own mortality. Instead, the truth trickles out based on their experiences, some of which are orchestrated by adults in charge in cruel ways.
Mistletoes appear again in Episode 12, “The Garden Where It All Began” thanks to Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which is shown in a flashback as part of The Garden’s curriculum. Both Ichigo and Hiro said that they didn’t understand it, but Hiro does tell Ichigo that “The Holy Tree” in the book is mistletoe, which is similar to the tree at The Garden. It also becomes clear in this episode that at this tree at The Garden, presumably underneath the mistletoe, is where Hiro and Zero-two first met as children, despite the fact that Hiro has obviously forgotten this (and much of his childhood).
The Golden Bough was first published with the tagline A Study in Comparative Religion, but this was later revised to A Study in Magic and Religion. It provides a comprehensive look at various religious practices from different cultures around the world, beginning with priests of the Roman goddess Diana on Italy’s Lake Nemi. The priesthood was continued when the current priest, named King of the Wood, was murdered with a golden bough (mistletoe) which was ascribed magical properties in their society. The belief that the soul of the King in the Wood was in the mistletoe begat the idea that only a golden bough could kill him. From this — following many comparisons between religions and magical practices of various societies — Frazer concludes that a belief in magic leads to religion which then ultimately leads to science.
Like On the Origin of Species, The Golden Bough now more commonly used as a starter text at the beginning of a class or curriculum to establish a base framework from which myriad studies and vast amounts of scientific research have come. Inspiration from On the Origin of Species can also be found throughout Fraser’s text. The Golden Bough has inspired and influenced many authors and texts, but now draws criticism for ignoring the context given by the various cultures themselves of their own rituals in favor of a looser narrative that is applied over all of them. It’s a good place to start, but not the end all be all of cultural religious practices just as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (influenced by The Golden Bough) is not the end all be all of storytelling.
As a text that was available to Hiro and Ichigo at very young ages, certainly younger than the age that one would typically be assigned this in a modern-day classroom, The Golden Bough does little but make the connection between the tree present at The Garden, mistletoe, and later for Hiro, Zero-two. (As an aside, it also is a testament to their education that they could read it, given the Victorian-era prose.) The fact that it was at the very least in their library, if not assigned, frames their childhood development. In the society of Darling in the Franxx, there are the adults (the “normal” humans who live in a sterilized environment like the woman that Zorome met in the city), APE (the ruling council), and the parasites (of which Plantation 13 is an anomalous group).
We see that important knowledge of how their society works and the state of their own bodies has been purposefully withheld from the Plantation 13 parasites, but that they’re also given bits and pieces of things seemingly outside of what children in their social stratum would receive. Even within this episode, the fact that they were so easily able to walk into and tour The Garden in search of Naomi is a bit suspect.
Darling in the Franxx had put me off of its story in the past few weeks, particularly with the sitcom-y antics of “Boys x Girls” and the tone-deafness “Partner Shuffle,” but “The Garden Where It All Began” is a last glimmer of hope that the series may yet push back against its own sterilized heteronormative world. Despite the series’ gaffes, the struggles of Plantation 13 automatically make them outsiders more naturally disposed towards rebelling. Since basic pieces of information like the nature of their bodies as parasites, their mortality, and their own memories have been withheld, they will come out at a time during or after the Plantation 13 parasites’ adolescence, which they’ve been fumbling through on their own (with a bit of manipulation from Hachi, Nana, and Doctor Franxx).