Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for early moments in Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, up to the end of Chapter Five, taking place in Mesquite, Texas.
When Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus opens, we're not face to face with Nazis and armed to the teeth with guns. We're face to face with BJ Blazkowicz's own mother, a seemingly tender woman, tucking BJ's kid-self into bed. BJ, close to death after dealing a fatal blow to a major arm of the Nazi regime, is obviously seeing his life flash before his eyes. It's a poetic almost-death. Then he doesn't die, he wades through his memories over the course of a few months. Comatose. Almost dead.
In these memories, we meet his father too, a cruel racist and bigoted man. He treats his wife and his son like shit, to put it almost too simply. The first time BJ ever fires a gun is by force: his dad puts a rifle in his hand, his darling dog in front of him. He tells BJ to shoot; I directed BJ to miss. Off screen, BJ's dad shot the dog instead. As we live through these flashbacks—BJ's mom being ridiculed for being a Jew, BJ himself being insulted for befriending a black neighbor—the months just fly by, until BJ's spun awake by the need to kill Nazis (as with the first game, as I wrote in my review).
Much, much later in the game's quietest chapter, after detonating a nuclear warhead far, far away, BJ makes a detour to the home he grew up in, buried in the outskirt town of Mesquite, Texas. It's a rarity in what we've seen so far of America. It's not a post-apocalyptic hellscape, like the bombed out city of Manhattan, nor is it pristinely uncomfortable (and very, very white) like Roswell (or as Kotaku's Heather Alexandra more fittingly describes the city in her review, "so fucked up."). BJ's family home instead feels just like a place caught in the middle; a plot of land lost to time.
It's a home he carries conflicted feelings with. But he's back anyways to grab a family heirloom as a surprise for his pregnant partner, Anya. We go with him through memories of befriending the adorable Billie, a girl that shares a name with him. When they meet, it's a bittersweet meet cute from what we typically see in movies and the like. BJ reiterates the garbage things his father's fed into him about black people; Billie snaps right back, saying "My momma say white folks is mean as all get out." Bonding over these stories they become fast friends, and skip off to catch tadpoles together. At one point in a future memory, Billie whispers in his ear under the sweet shade of a tree that she thinks he's handsome. BJ flashes back to reality, and finds himself staring at a sketch of "B + B" carved into a tree, with a heart encircled around it. "Are you out there somewhere, Billie? Inclined to this day," BJ solemnly thinks aloud. "To endure amongst the living?"
Deep down, it's hard to consider what's the better outcome. Death, or suffering through life under Nazi rule as a black American in Nazi America. Neither outcome seems ideal.
In Mesquite is also where we learn more about BJ's dad. We learn that like all abusive people, he wasn't a horrible person all of the time. In one flashback, BJ's dad hands his son a BB gun when he wakes up in the middle of the night from nightmares. Together as a family, BJ and his parents slowly walk to the basement, BB guns raised, only to find no monsters there. BJ's confronted his fears, and he feels a little better.
Without the context of the horrific displays of his father otherwise, BJ's dad could be framed in this scene as an okay guy, not as the dad who abuses his family, hurling insults and fists at them always. But he's not. His true colors and darker tendencies emerge in a flash. Outside of this scene, he's painted as a one-dimensional, almost cartoonish villain, a familiar characterization across media—and a widely misrepresented one. Abusers, all too often, are only portrayed as pure evil. But evil hides in plain sight. Evil is a relative with "good" intentions sometimes.
Wolfenstein 2 busts the one-note portrayal of abusers trend, giving us a glimpse of a man who, in his own twisted way, thinks he's being a good father. He's prideful, like a lot of abusers, believing he alone knows what's best for the people in his life. He's stubborn too, where when he's financially not doing well, he's looking to place blame on others (hence, racism and classism). He's proud of his race, even if he's married to a Jewish woman and has a child with her. He's so prideful, in fact, that the idea of his son befriending a neighbor of a different race disgusts him. So prideful, in fact, that when Nazis take over America, he sells his wife out, and gets a decent settlement out of it to boot. When BJ meets his father again, his dad is quick to tell him that life under Nazis isn't bad—if you're complacent.
BJ's dad is not a good man. Yet Wolfenstein 2 doesn't just villainize him, it shows that the scariest beings of all—whether they're Nazis or just enable hate—are human beings too. We see this in the letters we pick up across the game from Nazis, writing home to their loved ones, terrified of Terror-Billy's hatchet-wielding presence. We learn that interlaced with their sincerity is hateful cruelty, always. Nazis are a domestic evil. But Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is careful to show that the roots of Nazism isn't only in Germany. Nazism lies in white superiority. Nazism was in America's DNA all along.
Through the flashbacks we see of BJ's childhood, we get the sense that BJ was primed for a lifetime of wanting vengeance. Vengeance for his mom, vengeance for how others viewed his childhood crush, vengeance against the actions of his abusive father. When he's face to face with his father again, it ends bloodily, with an axe driven into his father's chest. It's a brutal sequence—one that should have been cathartic for BJ—and yet, it almost feels like he felt nothing from it. Like destroying one man doesn't abolish the evil that people inherently feel in this world.
Earlier in the game, BJ meets Grace Walker, a resistance fighter, for the first time. They spit back and forth, she teaches him a thing or two about his rose-colored glasses view of America, similar to how the Jimi Hendrix-like character did in the last game, Wolfenstein: The New Order. As a black woman, she's lived through the ugliness of America her whole life—long before the Nazis took over.
"Monsters did this," BJ says of the destruction of America's largest city in the Nazis' wake.
"No, not monsters," Grace says. "Men."