The closer I look at things, the less I know.
While Third Generation Emily told Emily Prime (Winona Mae) that they wouldn’t see each other again due to the impending doom of her world, she said nothing about whether other subsequent versions of herself would. The assumption is that she’d have remembered when Emily 6 (Julia Pott) visited since the event would have been stored in her memory due to everything that happens to Emily Prime already having happened before Third Generation Emily was cloned. The occurrence wouldn’t have been consequential to her, though. In fact, it’s probably not consequential to Emily Prime either. To this child drawing flowers on the floor, Emily 6 is merely one more steward taking her on an adventure. Whether real or imagined, the impact is the same to Emily Prime.
As filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt explains throughout the course of World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, however, this brief interaction means everything to Emily 6. Why? Because it’s quite literally all she has. The world being destroyed has given her existence as a backup nowhere to go but backwards. She and her fellow facsimiles travel through time to remember—never experiencing anything for themselves. So they live in the past interchangeably. The only difference between them is the number on their foreheads and the bracelets upon their wrists. Because nothing exists there doesn’t mean gazing forward is rendered impossible, though. No one is completely driven by the choices they’ve made as long as they continue to possess choices they’ve yet to make.
But how could Emily 6 know this fact? Who’s around to tell her? Besides the clones that travel backwards with her, there’s only one outlier in her sister Felicia. But she is gone. Lost. The fact that she has another name, however, allows for new memories precisely because she’s been made anew by the label. Rather than a clone with a number, she has broken free from the constraints placed upon her to become something else. More than just a backup, she has chosen autonomy like Second Generation and Third Generation Emily were afforded. The life might not have the potential to be as fulfilling as theirs, but at least she wouldn’t be a shadow shifting through time to piggyback on reruns she already knows. Hope’s made real.
So you can’t blame Emily 6 for attempting to do the same. Rather than just watch, she leaves the group and travels alone to find Emily Prime and ask for a reboot. If she can erase the memories of countless Emilys trapped within her brain and replace it with this original, maybe the voices would stop. There would be one layer that ends with their meeting. Everything that happens next would disappear. Everything Emily 6 did would delete. She would be reborn with one voice and one voice only: her own. If only it were that easy, right? If only the consequences weren’t so immense that doing so would also erase Felicia from existence in the process. Rather than a rewrite, cleans slates demand a refocus.
Hertzfeldt connects Emily 6 and Emily Prime by their memories to merge them together and in turn layer copies upon their source. We see the glimmers of hope Emily 6 buried as a result of the futility of her existence at the end of the world. We see the cycling repeats breaking through to loop conversations and interject interpretations while her emotions go crazy from the degradation of time and biology. But with the noise comes quiet. With the imperatives come the unknowns. Felicia becomes a grounding source of individuality with a profundity Emily 6 can’t comprehend against the rest. Only when she enters Emily Prime’s head to find serenity can she pull apart the necessary from the dispensable. This is where Emily 6 is born.
That we can travel through this sensory soundscape of voices with stick figures, geometric shapes, and 3D-rendered blobs of color proves the magic that is Hertzfeldt’s bold handle on animation as an expressionistic tool above a medium striving for “realness.” The authenticity here is in Mae’s earnest wonder and meandering train of thought recorded and repurposed into an existential story about identity and independence and love. We aren’t created to be something our creators have dictated through their act of creation. We’re created to be alive. We can escape our past and learn from it. We can sever the ties that bind us to suffering and live despite it. Emily 6 has as much free will as Emily Prime. She needs only the confidence to bravely wield it.