How Aeon Flux Deconstructed the Mystery Box TV Show (Before It Existed)

How Aeon Flux Deconstructed the Mystery Box TV Show (Before It Existed)

By Will Greatwich

In 1991, long before adult animation became an established genre on our TV screens, MTV produced a compilation series titled Liquid Television. It served as both a showcase of film festival shorts and an incubator for young animators. Nestled amidst a lineup of surreal humor and pop culture parody was a strange, atmospheric sci-fi serial named Aeon Flux. These two-minute segments eventually added up to a complete episode, which in turn was spun off into a standalone series.

With its moody, dystopian backdrops and ugly-sexy character designs, Aeon Flux looked like nothing else on TV. Its unique art style blended together influences from anime, French sci-fi comics, and the Expressionist portraiture of Egon Schiele. Little wonder it became a cult classic among animation fans, handed down through generations of recopied VHS tapes.

But viewed in hindsight, Aeon Flux is notable for more than just its visuals. What’s striking about the show today is how closely it mirrors, and even parodies, the “mystery box” TV format, which it predates by at least a decade.

Even if you haven’t heard the term “mystery box show” before, you’ve probably watched one. Typically but not exclusively science fiction, these series reel the viewer in with obtuse clues and unsolved mysteries that build towards an overarching mythology. Lost is the quintessential mystery box show. (The term is derived from an actual, physical box owned by Lost co-creator J. J. Abrams). Other high-profile examples include Heroes, Westworld, Manifest and From.

The fundamental appeal of this genre is, as Kellie Herson wrote for The Outline in 2019, that “it makes us responsible for it, gives us the opportunity to feel like co-creators… it’s an interactive, often social experience”. Whether chatting about the show with friends or watching theory videos on YouTube, the viewer is made to feel that they are participating in the construction of meaning.

Aeon Flux shares many foundational elements with these shows. There are byzantine conspiracies, mysterious characters, and arcane symbolism. All of it is seemingly pointing toward some grand reveal.

The difference is that in Aeon Flux, the trail doesn’t actually lead anywhere—nor was it ever intended to.

Any attempt to summarize Aeon Flux’s plot will immediately run into difficulty; just about anything you can say will be contradicted elsewhere in the show. The title character Aeon is a rebel superspy, fighting to overthrow the dystopian state of Bregna—except when she’s a double agent, doing the exact opposite. Trevor Goodchild, the all-seeing dictator, is her nemesis—except when he’s her lover instead. Relationships between characters are constantly shifting. Alliances change without warning, and even the most inconsequential event may be part of someone’s hidden plan.

Chaos and the absurd are never far away in the world of Aeon Flux. The high-minded symbolism and philosophical themes are always leavened with a healthy dose of cartoon slapstick. One of the show’s favorite moves is to have a super-cool character trip and fall on their ass at a crucial moment. These touches add a lightness to the series, a self-awareness that never sinks into self-parody.

Still, on a first viewing it takes some time to realize just how deeply nonsensical the show really is. Watch any 5-minute sequence picked at random, and you’d probably get the impression that you’d seen a fairly normal action cartoon, with a plot that’s complicated but ultimately resolvable. It’s only after a few episodes that you realize how deeply the pieces fail to cohere. The clues scattered throughout the series are arrows pointing to nowhere.

One of the show’s more flagrant violations of narrative structure is that Aeon—like her 90s contemporary, Kenny McCormick of South Park—frequently dies and then returns unharmed in the following episode. In the first and second seasons, these deaths may represent a simple disregard for continuity. But the third season puts forward two different explanations for Aeon’s cyclical mortality. At different times it’s implied that she may be one in a series of clones (“A Last Time for Everything”), or that she is drifting between parallel timelines (“Chronophasia”). By presenting multiple, mutually contradictory answers, the show closes off the idea that the question will ever be resolved.

If shows like Lost and Westworld invite us into their project of meaning-making, then Aeon Flux lures us to the threshold and then slams our fingers in the door. Every time a revelation seems near, the show gleefully snatches it away. In one episode, Trevor Goodchild cries out portentously: “Wait, I remember now!” His next words are blotted out by an explosion in the background. Another character responds “Sorry, sir, I can’t quite hear you,” before being shot dead moments later, leaving the secret unrevealed.

The mystery box show promises a satisfying revelation: “All will make sense in the end.” Aeon Flux actively mocks the viewer’s quest for that satisfaction. In doing so, it deconstructs a genre that didn’t even exist when it was first broadcast.

This mockery feels particularly pointed in the current era, when the genre of “culture article complaining about mystery box shows” has become almost as common as mystery box shows themselves. These series notoriously struggle to stick the landing and deliver a fulfilling conclusion. 

Lost is, again, the ur-example of this. After dragging its audience through six seasons of time travel storylines, flashbacks and flash-forwards, it is now remembered chiefly as “the show in which they were dead the whole time” (even though this isn’t strictly true).

Even a flubbed ending is preferable, though, to the fate of series like Raised By Wolves, The Event and 1899, all of which were cancelled in the middle of their story arcs. Of course, fans are always disappointed when a beloved show is put to sleep. But there’s something particularly galling about a cancellation that leaves dozens of unanswered questions dangling forever, loose plot threads twisting in the wind.

Of 1899, Paul Tassi at Forbes writes: “I feel like Netflix is almost actively stealing my time from me.” This sentiment is far from uncommon. But it’s actually a pretty odd thing to say about a piece of entertainment media. One surely wouldn’t feel the same way about the abrupt end of a sitcom or a reality show. Tassi’s indignation points to the way in which viewers regard these series as work: something you invest effort into and then reap the rewards later on. When a series invites viewers to participate in the construction of meaning, they come to see themselves as stakeholders in the creative process.

It’s no coincidence that nearly all these shows lean heavily on religious and mystical symbolism. Lost has its messiah John Locke, enjoining his followers to “have faith in the island”; Manifest draws explicitly on Christian apocalypticism; and Raised By Wolves is practically slathered in biblical imagery and Gnostic themes. Aeon Flux was here first as well. The two main characters’ relationship reflects the Gnostic concept of syzygy, and one episode revolves around Aeon quite literally trying to assassinate God.

There is indeed something mystical about the quest for esoteric knowledge that these shows invite us on. Religious teachers throughout history have understood the value of concealment, of progressive revelation. Think of the sacred architecture of the cathedral, the gnomic challenge of the Zen koan, the secret rites of pre-Christian mystery cults. In every case, it is the act of uncovering that charges the whole experience with meaning.

Meaning never resides within a single object. It emerges from the connections between things. Mystery box shows offer us a sandbox in which to construct meaning, literally to “make sense”, or as Herson puts it, to “assign order to a chaotic world”. But Aeon Flux is about what happens when that process of sense-making breaks down.

The show’s most direct satire of the truth-seeker comes in the character of Gildemere: an idealistic government agent who always believes he’s on the cusp of blowing Goodchild’s conspiracy wide open. His big moment arrives when he rescues the kidnapped President Clavius of Bregna. Believing Clavius has all the answers, Gildemere asks for his help with a sheet of coded messages, in terms that sound strikingly similar to modern-day fan theories. “I’ve spent many hours trying to crack the codes. I think I have a handle on some of it. For example, the Mile High Jellyfish, that’s the upper house of Parliament, am I right? … and the Flying Saucer Men, that’s the Ministry of Justice?”

The President responds irately: “No! The Flying Saucer Men are the Flying Saucer Men! What level are you?” He then breaks down into a torrent of paranoid non-sequiturs. Precisely the moment Gildemere thinks he’s figured everything out is when he realizes it’s all a pile of nonsense.

Ultimately, it’s the viewers themselves who are the butt of Aeon Flux’s final joke, searching for connections in a maze with no center. As Aeon herself says over the show’s opening titles: “You can’t give it, can’t even buy it, and you just don’t get it.”

Will Greatwich is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. He writes about strange old sci-fi and fantasy novels at, and his short fiction can be found at

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