I’ve looked forward to writing about the Zoldyck Family arc and more specifically, Killua’s trauma, ever since I first considered creating HxH Detours. He’s one of the most relatable characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and I felt legitimately proud of him when I watched how Killua fights for himself to grow past his family’s weighted expectations.
While the backbone of Hunter x Hunter follows Gon’s journey to find his dad, the real heart of the series is in addressing trauma — like Gon’s loneliness and (well-founded) abandonment issues and Kurapika’s grief — with the most rewarding growth centered on Killua. He was groomed to be a ruthless-assassin-puppet of the Zoldyck family, but thanks to his fateful encounter with Gon, he struggles and fights to create his own path in life while also exploring his queerness.
From Gon and Killua first meeting and opening up to one another, we’ve known about Killua’s deep-rooted trauma and pain that’s completely warped his sense of the world, with the source of that trauma being *drumrolls* Killua’s terrible family. Every (older) member of the Zoldyck clan actively works to manipulate, abuse, isolate, and give false pretenses of love in order to control Killua’s life. They continuously label him as an “unprecedented genius,” stressing his potential to be the greatest Zoldyck assassin ever, which puts immeasurable pressure on Killua while ignoring the fact that he does not want any of it. In the vein of “you don’t know any better,” Killua has to physically fight his way out of the family mountain to literally try anything else to find a new direction for his life.
As I mentioned in my post about Killua’s vulnerability when confiding in Gon, we get clues leading up to episode 20 how traumatized Killua is because of his family. He even mentions it offhandedly as an ingrained defense mechanism that only people who have suffered consistent trauma and abuse tend to do:
And, if you think it seems odd that the Zoldyck clan would simply let Killua go after stabbing his mom and second oldest brother, well, reader, you would be right. Turns out the Zoldyck matriarch sent Illumi, disguised as Gittarackur, to monitor Killua and wait for an opportunity to drag Killua home.
Illumi, Projection, and a Needle
Illumi is unequivocally a fucking awful brother. His Nen specialization is literally a Manipulator, and he uses both his innate cunning and propensity for control to manipulate, coerce, and gaslight his victims. Illumi’s destructive, violent love for Killua has made best use of Illumi’s “talents” by subjecting Killua to incessant abuse his entire life. It’s clear that Killua has little love for his older siblings, and seems to only respect Silva and Zeno (Killua’s grandfather) as assassins; but even then, he doesn’t want to follow the path his family paved for him since birth.
Killua has a complicated relationship when it comes to assasination and murder — he’s clearly highly skilled at it and in the early stages of the Hunter’s Examination arc, we see that he often defaults to killing when he is agitated or wanting to solve a problem quickly:
We also know that he is deeply intelligent and understands how to use people’s misconceptions and underestimation with his battle awareness to resolve problems easily. This all becomes murky for Killua when he meets Gon, because up until this point, he’s been told that he is a prodigy and his skills are best used for the family business of professional murder, and to not let anything, especially love for others, come in the way of that.
As Illumi forcibly manipulates and attempts to brainwash Killua in “Baffling X Turn of X Events,” Illumi makes Killua believe that he loves to kill and will one day try to test his skills against Gon by murdering him. His friendship with Gon is a farce predicated on his “innate desire” to kill those he “loves.”
Yes, I also yelled, “what the actual fuck?!” at my TV the first time I watched that scene.
Silva and Zeno firmly iterate in the Phantom Troupe arc (and Chimera Ant arc) that killing is the Zoldyck family trade — it is not something they actively enjoy doing or pursue for warped pleasure. They’re just good at it because it’s the family business, baby!
This, however, sharply deviates when it comes to Illumi, and possibly even Milluki, who both take after their mother. Illumi legitimately enjoys murdering and gets off on it with his boyfriend, Hisoka. Even when situations don’t call for committing mass murder, like in the much later Election arc, Illumi dives straight in and relishes killing everyone in sight to achieve a goal.
And he in turn projects this desire onto Killua in an effort to coerce and control him.
Killua does not derive pleasure or excitement from killing others. Illumi seeks to conflate Killua’s inherent skill with assasination with an actual desire to murder others, in an effort to gaslight and warp Killua’s mental state so he remains dependent on the Zoldyck family and confine him to their mountain estate.
We see Bisky, Killua and Gon’s future teacher who we meet in the Greed Island arc, comment on how Killua’s overwhelming ability and talent is something no twelve year old should have experienced. It’s because of “warped love” and severe over-protectiveness that Killua is able to have the sharpened skills that he possesses.
When Illumi is about to succeed in using his posturing monologue to manipulate Killua back into submission, Leorio’s yelling breaks through the fog and Killua seems to snap out of Illumi’s tainted, honeyed voice. We don’t see Killua’s expression but we do see Illumi noticing a look on Killua’s face he doesn’t like, which is likely a combination of hope, independence, fragile willpower, and relief.
During the earlier sections of the Hunter’s Exam, Killua is already beginning to look inwardly on how he wants to face his future. His abstract goal of finding a path he truly wants to follow will take some time to realize, but by interacting with Gon, he is gradually letting his walls down. There is a real, viable chance of Killua healing without interference from his family — true independence is right at his fingertips.
But this look, this fleeting moment of Killua gathering his wits to actively fight back against Illumi is immediately dashed when Illumi doubles down on his manipulation. When his plan to kill Gon backfires, he actively uses his Nen ability — not just projecting aura, but actually brainwashing — and while doing this (at least from my interpretation of the scene/series), implants a needle into Killua’s brain, which we don’t actually discover until the much later Chimera Ant arc.
The brief moment Killua defies the boxes the Zoldyck family have attempted to confine him in when Illumi fights him is one of the reasons Illumi doubles down so hard in forcing Killua to submit to his manipulation. He goes so far as to implant the needle because Illumi realizes that Killua isn’t simply entering his rebellious teen years — Killua is moving on and healing, which terrifies the Zoldyck family. If Killua were to actually gain an independent will and break out of the Zoldyck chains, then he would never return to them. Illumi has little in his life that he loves — namely Killua, murder, and his occasional dalliances with Hisoka — and is hyper possessive of those few things. He remains unaware and confused as to why he wouldn’t be allowed to use any means necessary to continue to clutch onto and strangle what he loves.
Despite clues about the script of Nen hieroglyphics appearing in later arcs (showing us that Illumi’s eye swirls had lasting side effects), Killua is left to believe — and forced to dismantle — this notion of wanting to eventually kill Gon as something he legitimately desires. It builds and piles so badly that he later considers leaving Gon so as to not betray him in the future, which Silva even manipulates Killua into thinking that betrayal is imminent. While all of that occurs much later in the series, in the moment where Illumi is about to touch Killua and begin the battle, Killua can no longer hear Leorio protesting from the sidelines which leads to the heartbreaking moment where Mariya Ise KILLS her delivery of “maitta… ore no… make da.”
Killua is broken, a shell of who he once was, and in a final act of succumbing to Illumi’s manipulation and what he was trained to be, he murders Bodoro in a show of believing he is an instrument of death.
Thankfully, Gon initiates a gay rescue mission and once Gon, Kurapika, and Leorio arrive to the Zoldyck mountain estate, we meet two key characters — Zebro, the Door to Hades’ security guard, and Canary — who serve as windows into the complex inner dynamics of the Zoldyck clan.
Gay Rescue Mission: Kukuroo Mountain
The Zoldyck family estate is a lonely place. The guards have never seen past the border leading to the butler headquarters; the butlers and apprentices each have their own loyalty to various members; there’s a giant pet wolf dog who will calmly kill anyone deemed a trespasser; and the Zoldyck family members never have visitors.
What a fun mountain to live on!
Killua’s family tries to put him back into a box they understand. As those of us who have had to actively untangle family trauma and break out of the destructive foundations we were brought up in, Killua’s return to Kukuroo Mountain reflects this familial attempt to make him conform again. This is particularly apparent when Silva menacingly and with chilling confidence exclaims that Killua is his son and he will come back to him:
Killua is an object to most of the members of the Zoldyck family — he exists, in each of their eyes, for their own needs and gains. Being a Zoldyck means your humanity is snuffed out of you.
Canary, Zebro, Seaquant (the other groundskeeper) and, to an extent, the rest of the Zoldyck butlers, are our window into the human side of the Zoldyck estate. Zebro is the one who defies order by helping Kurapika, Gon, and Leorio train to enter the estate and rescue Killua; Canary shows vulnerability regarding Killua; Seaquant shows us the ruthless side of the Zoldycks; and the butlers show their individual Zoldyck clan member loyalty.
Over the table in Zebro and Seaquant’s house, Gon talks about how he failed to protect Killua during the Hunter’s Exam from Illumi, and we hear his resolve regarding his friendship with Killua when he calls him his “taisetsu na tomodachi”. Before this, Killua was referred to as a “tomodachi” or “nakama” by Gon and other people. Kurapika even says that he wants to help save Killua because Gon is Kurapika’s “nakama” and that “nakama” wants to save his “taisetsu na tomodachi,” indicating how important Killua is to Gon (aww).
Here, we have a more clearly defined evolution (from Gon’s mouth no less!) of what Killua means to Gon, and we’re now past the first stage of a fledgling friendship into something more decidedly concrete and real. Zebro recognizes that Gon runs at full throttle and suffers from tunnel vision when it comes to what he views as an internal failure, but most importantly, he clearly sees this as a problem Gon will succumb to in the future. It’s one of the rare times an adult figure in Gon’s periphery sees the self-destructive path Gon is on, and he tries to steer him back on course, pointing out the repercussions of Gon’s actions on others should he barrel forward.
Zebro and the butlers shine a light on the gaps in Killua and Gons’ lives that have the potential to either heal or cause them to further descend into their trauma. Spoiler alert: One of them really takes strides towards healing and the other uh… descends pretty badly.
In the face-off between Canary and Gon, Gon can see Canary’s vulnerability and loyalty to Killua as she becomes increasingly distressed when Gon refuses to fight back or leave. Through flashbacks of Canary and Killua meeting, we see how bb Killua, starving to create a real friendship that wasn’t governed by power dynamics, initially gravitated towards Canary when she began as an apprentice butler.
From this flashback to Gon and Killua eventually leaving the mountain together, we can infer that Canary may have also wanted to strike up a friendship with Killua, but given Kikyo’s Cyclops eye keeping constant watch over her, Canary knew this could never happen. We see her at peace with where Killua is in his life (at the moment, at least) when she smiles to herself as Gon and Killua hurry off the mountain to begin the next stage of their journey together. Canary’s loyalty to Killua remains cemented and strong from their first meeting, and she even assists him during the Election arc to help him save Gon.
Thank god at least one person on Kukuroo Mountain actually sees and understands Killua.
Canary remained hyper aware of Killua’s pervasive loneliness since this meeting, and since she was forced to remain on the sidelines, she saw how Gon, Kurapika, and Leorio had loyalty to Killua first and foremost, and that Gon would do anything to get his man back.
Meanwhile in the dungeons of the Zoldyck home, Killua continues to undergo torture by his older brother, Milluki, for the petty reason of being stabbed by Killua some months ago. In this dark dungeon, being hung by chains and covered in bruises, clear resignation drips from Killua — he’s being tampered back into a Zoldyck assassin, but he’s changed. He continues to hold onto the faintest hope and warmth of the brief freedom he experienced from meeting Gon — not only freedom from his family, but the freedom of being with a peer who is his equal in nearly every way.
The only reason he reacts beyond apathy and sarcasm to Milluki’s torture is when Milluki informs him of Gon & Company’s progress up the mountain and foolishly tries to threaten Killua with murdering Gon.
Wrong move, buddy!
Killua’s expression changes, and though we as viewers aren’t privy to it, it’s clear that it’s a callback to the same look he made in front of Illumi. Milluki doesn’t seem to understand the implications of that expression like Illumi does, because Killua literally breaks the chains of his oppressive family at any mention of Gon, their friendship, and their unwavering loyalty to one another.
Illumi isn’t on the mountain to keep Killua in order which means there’s only one other person who can manipulate Killua back into submission: Silva, the patriarch of the Zoldyck family.
Silva, Hunter x Hunter’s Worst Father
In a show where bad dads are not in short supply, it’s baffling to see a dad who could possibly be worse than Ging, but Hunter x Hunter raises the bar by introducing Killua’s absolutely diabolical father.
Under the guise of wanting to have a rare, loving father-son talk, Silva invites Killua to open up to him and shoot the shit. Killua is initially (and rightfully) cagey with his feelings about Gon and wanting to see the outside world: Silva manages to get Killua to nudge open the tightly concealed lid and be honest about his budding friendship. Killua visibly brightens and we finally see him behave as a sweet, curious twelve year old boy who is excited about this new friend he made, proudly talking about Gon’s wildness and desire to see more of the world.
It’s hard to fully trust where this conversation is going against the juxtaposition of the coldest lighting we’ve seen in the show: The entire scene is covered in an icy blue, interspersed with harsh whites and sharp angles with Silva’s character design. Something is decidedly off about the entire meeting, because until this point, the coldest moment we’ve experienced is the purple void from Illumi’s manipulation.
Suddenly, we’re put in a place that is absent of any warmth — in the already cruel, emotionless Zoldyck estate — which signals that whatever “kind” and “genuine” fatherly love Silva is posturing to Killua is not to be trusted.
The culmination of this bizarre conversation between them leads to Silva dropping a sentiment that echoes the manipulation needle Illumi implanted into Killua: Never betray your friends.
Yeah… I can’t argue with that, except wait a minute, I absolutely can!
On the surface, it reads as though Silva is telling Killua to remain strong to his convictions and choices he makes moving forward. This friendship with Gon is laying the groundwork for Killua to come into his own, well and truly, and a parent who cares about the well-being of their child would obviously encourage this. Stand by your friend’s side, don’t betray them, live with integrity.
But the more I’ve thought about this scene the more I’m increasingly baffled by it. What exactly does “betrayal” mean in the eyes of Silva? Is it abandoning your friends in times of duress? Is it prioritizing your own well-being over others? Does betrayal include sacrificing or setting aside your own emotional needs for your friends? As we know from the Hunter’s Exam, Killua and Gon are not rivals or rooted in binary notions of good and evil, wrong and right, love and war. They both have strong ideals of loyalty, and Killua is unequivocally loyal to Gon: He would not easily abandon or give Gon up to the enemy to preserve himself.
So here, betrayal means something different, a grey zone of what that term can come to mean. This internal struggle of what betrayal means to Killua doesn’t come to a head until the Chimera Ant arc where he has to contend with the needle that was implanted just before the Zoldyck arc. Laying down that foreshadowing and groundwork which will deeply affect the characters from that moment on.
Togashi truly is a man who plays the long game.
But taking a step back from philosophical tangents of “what does it mean to betray those you love,” this is now the second moment of vulnerability Killua releases to someone he wants to entrust his feelings to and we see his eyes shine. There’s a softness we rarely get to see from one of the most level-headed, coolest characters in Hunter x Hunter. He’s a kid, plain and simple, and we get to now see him act like a kid in front of his father, whom he deeply respects.
Except! This is the fucking Zoldyck patriarch! There’s no way this dude is going to just let Killua go with his blessing after all the torture and giving the runaround to Gon. And guess what?
When Killua sets off to meet Gon at the butler mansion, Kikyo emerges from the shadows to reprimand Silva for letting him go. Before she sets her totally grounded, motherly wrath upon her piece-of-shit husband, she abruptly stops after seeing Silva’s face. His expression turns narcissistic and maniacal when he chillingly claims that Killua will return because Killua is his son. Full stop.
There’s an invisible leash wrapped around Killua’s neck, from the physical needle implanted in his mind to the blood promise he exchanged with Silva, and until Killua is able to break apart this final chain in the Chimera Ant arc, he will remain under its influence in every choice he makes.
But that’s later. For now, he’s on his way back to Gon’s side so that they can go on a journey together to find Gon’s father, and hopefully lead Killua closer to the answer of what he wants for his future.
NEXT TIME ON HxH DETOURS: It’s finally time to start a brand new arc with Heaven’s Arena! And a new arc means another character introduction.