Posts Tagged ‘TV’

Warning: all the spoilers for Teen Wolf. All of them.

Trigger warning: some discussion of suicide and sexual assault.

Length warning: this is literally a 10,000 word essay about Teen Wolf because I’m a fucking dork. Also it has a table in it. I’m not even sorry. SHUT UP. 

Let’s Talk About Teen Wolf

At a time when fantasy fans are spoiled for choice by the volume and variety of paranormal TV shows on offer, the cult popularity of MTV’s Teen Wolf is no mean thing. Since its debut in 2011, the show has built itself an enviably dedicated fanbase, and with the fourth season just wrapped and a fifth on the horizon, this seems like an ideal point at which to discuss its success. Under the direction of showrunner Jeff Davis, Teen Wolf has become part of the cultural zeitgeist, not just because of the enthusiasm of its audience, but because of the style and content of the narrative. Despite the title, Teen Wolf isn’t just a fantasy-action show about werewolves in high school: it is also an increasingly sophisticated dialogue on gender, masculinity, family, love and the cyclical nature of violence – and if any of that sounds like news to you, then I’d strongly suggest that you haven’t been paying attention.

First Things First

Like many shows, Teen Wolf keeps its first season comparatively simple, taking its narrative cues from a combination of classic tropes. In the first episode, protagonist Scott McCall is bitten and turned by an unknown werewolf while investigating a murder with his hyperactive best friend, Stiles Stilinski. So far, so familiar – as is Stiles’s unrequited infatuation with popular girl Lydia Martin, Scott’s burgeoning relationship with new arrival Allison Argent (the daughter of a werewolf hunter, natch), the snide antagonism of Lydia’s rich jock boyfriend, Jackson Whittemore, and the brooding, mysterious presence of Derek Hale, a born werewolf with a tragic past.

It would be a mistake, however, to take these elements at face value, because right from the outset, it’s also clear that Teen Wolf is bent on subverting them. Unlike Scott Howard, the hero of the 1985 movie, Scott McCall is biracial – as, indeed, is actor Tyler Posey – while Stiles takes Adderall and suffers from panic attacks, his quick intelligence a counterpoint to Scott’s steady empathy. Lydia, despite her bubbleheaded persona, has a genius-level IQ and aspirations of winning a Fields Medal. Jackson, rather than fitting the homophobic jock cliché, has an openly gay best friend, his angry posturing contextualised by deep-seated insecurities over being adopted. In addition to being clever, sweet and a skilled archer, Allison is also canonically older than Scott; a small detail, perhaps, but given our cultural obsession with pairing younger women with older men – an imbalance arguably personified by Bella Swan’s depression at turning eighteen and being physically “older” than her immortal vampire boyfriend – it nonetheless stands out. And then there’s Derek: a character given all the traditional trappings of aggressive male coolness, but whose backstory includes being sexually manipulated by an older woman while in his teens, their relationship expressly presented as toxic despite the deep-seated cultural fallacy that men, even young ones and especially tough ones, cannot be sexually abused or mistreated by women. 

Taken individually, these changes might seem minor, but collectively, they have the effect of transforming an ostensibly traditional setup into something else – and as the show progresses, this subversion becomes steadily more apparent. Not only does the show’s supernatural remit broaden to encompass kanimas, druids and kitsune, among other things, creating a coherent mythology that is equal parts original and borrowed, but the emotional content is solid enough to core a powerful narrative punch. Which isn’t to say that Teen Wolf is a show without flaws, or that the execution always matches the intent; far from it. But unlike so many other shows aimed at a similar audience, Teen Wolf is actively trying to engage on a number of significant issues, and more often than not, the results are fascinating.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

In episode 1.1 – Pilot, an agitated Allison arrives at the veterinary clinic where Scott works, having accidentally hit a dog while driving in the rain. As she starts to calm down, she apologises to Scott for “freaking out like a total girl,” to which Scott, unphased, replies, “You are a girl.” His statement forces Allison to clarify, prompting the following exchange:

Allison: I freaked out like a girly girl. And I’m not a girly girl.

Scott: What kind of girl are you?

Allison: Tougher than that. At least I thought I was.

Scott: I’d be freaked out too. In fact, I’d probably cry. And not like a man. I’d cry like the girliest girl. It would be pathetic.

There’s so much to unpack in this snippet of conversation, it’s hard to know where to start. Though both Scott and Allison are distinguishing between “girly girls” and the other kind, with the former holding a negative connotation – a bias common enough to constitute realistic dialogue on both their parts – it’s significant that their interaction doesn’t actually reinforce the stereotype. Instead, we have Scott first reassuring Allison that there’s nothing wrong in behaving in a stereotypically feminine way – that she is a girl, and doesn’t need to apologise for it – and then, when she continues in that vein, admitting that his reaction in the same situation would be even girlier than her own. Allison’s own acceptance of her femininity – or rather, of the idea that it doesn’t negate her strength – comes later; that her struggle to reconcile these two aspects of her personality constitutes a significant part of her character development, rather than being treated as a throwaway line, is equally significant. Thus, in 2.06 – Frenemy, when her mother, Victoria, states that keeping away from Scott will make Allison strong, unlike all those “other girls” pining for a boy to take them to senior prom, her reply – “Can’t I be strong and go to prom?” – is not just a callback to this conversation with Scott, where she worries that being girly negates her toughness, but a sign of her increased confidence in the idea that it doesn’t.  

Returning to Scott’s actions at the clinic, however, at this point in the story, he’s already been turned into a werewolf, but doesn’t yet realise what he is: all he knows is that he’s stronger, fitter and more confident than before. While we have any number of paranormal narratives that focus on the physical aspects of such a transformation, especially in the case of previously nerdy or unpopular boys suddenly having the strength to stand up to bullies (Spiderman, anyone?), it’s noteworthy that Scott’s new confidence extends to being comfortable enough in his masculinity to code himself as feminine in front of the girl he likes

Which, all by itself, is rare enough to be damn near revolutionary; but even more telling about the show’s intentions is the fact that, during their very first encounter, Scott uses his inexplicable new powers to get Allison’s attention, not by being physically impressive, but by listening to her. From inside his classroom, Scott overhears Allison say that she’s managed to forget to bring a pen; when she finally comes in and sits behind him, he turns and offers her one. True, Scott still gets his chance to shine on the lacrosse field, impressing Allison and Lydia – and thwarting Jackson – with his sudden prowess, but what gets him the girl is the fact that he listens to her, is considerate of her needs, and doesn’t mock her for being stereotypically feminine, even when her own anxieties present him with a conversational opportunity to do so. 

Because Scott McCall, as a character, is fundamentally respectful of women. His relationship with his mother, Melissa, is not only loving, but considerate: Scott brings her dinner at the hospital when she’s working long shifts, is unembarrassed to kiss her and tell her he loves her, and doesn’t hesitate to seek or accept her romantic advice, which is a far cry from the usual depiction of teenage boys, and especially men of colour, as being either casually sexist or so hyper-concerned with their performance of traditional masculinity, even in private, as to constitute a form of emotional repression. But when Melissa gets dressed up to go on a date, Scott unhesitatingly tells her she looks beautiful, just as he’s unfailingly supportive of Allison and, later, Kira – because in Teen Wolf, being secure in your masculinity doesn’t mean disrespecting or devaluing women. Rather, it means being confident enough to care for and support them without worrying that the effort somehow diminishes you. 

This dynamic is also evident in Stiles’s relationship with Lydia. As I’ve recently said elsewhere, one of the most satisfying of Teen Wolf’s trope subversions is the steadily developed friendship between Lydia and Stiles. Under normal circumstances, the everyman character with a crush on the beautiful popular girl is inevitably rewarded with her affections, especially once her boyfriend is finally out of the picture. Instead, and while Stiles’s infatuation is still evident in his behaviour, he never shames Lydia for her rejection of him, nor does he try to police her sexuality or push her boundaries. Unlike so many of his predecessors, Stiles isn’t prone to ranting about what Lydia’s boyfriends have that he doesn’t, or indulging in bitterness at her treatment of him: though they do go on a couple of dates, neither Stiles nor the narrative encourages us to think that Lydia is leading him on, and when her preference for Jackson is reaffirmed, though Stiles is clearly disappointed, he respects Lydia enough to neither criticise her choices nor invalidate her feelings.

As such, rather than being narratively pressured into romance for the sake of form, Lydia and Stiles are allowed to develop a caring, platonic affection for one another: Stiles doesn’t compete with Lydia’s subsequent boyfriend, Aiden, Lydia becomes a friend to Stiles’s eventual girlfriend, Malia, and nobody exhibits any jealousy of anyone else. I honestly can’t think of another narrative where the everyman and the popular girl end up friends in a context that hasn’t explicitly situated the girl as choosing between two specific suitors, rather than simply exercising her romantic right not to be interested in him, let alone where the everyman never gets in a bitter, jealous snit about his rejection – and given that Stiles’s behaviour is the baseline for human decency, that really says more about our acceptance of romantic male entitlement, both narratively and within wider culture, than any of us should find comfortable. 

The men of Teen Wolf also demonstrate their respect for women in other ways. The fact that Kira’s father, Ken Yukimura, took Noshiko’s last name in order to preserve her heritage, struck me as a particularly realistic and respectful thing for the narrative to incorporate, especially given that one of my high school teachers did the same thing for his wife. Similarly, the fact that Kira is accepted onto the lacrosse team without any suggestion that her gender might be an obstacle, not only by Coach Finstock, but by Scott and her fellow teammates, is something which, despite how reasonable it is, I’ve never seen done before. Though there’s a touch of benevolent sexism to the logic underlying the Argent family’s decision to train its women as leaders – and while hunter culture is hardly a healthy environment – it’s nonetheless narratively satisfying to see a teenage girl be treated as a peer by her father, especially as Chris Argent doesn’t demand that Allison sacrifice her femininity in exchange for his approval. In small ways and large, Teen Wolfconsistently constructs its ideas of gender in a respectful, intelligent fashion, and in a context where writers so often plead “realism” as an excuse for uncritically supporting antiquated biases, that’s something I’m always going to appreciate.

Queer Representation and Unthreatened Masculinity

The overwhelming heteronormativity of TV shows, and especially shows with predominantly male casts, is a cultural default we’re sadly yet to alter. Even worse than the lack of LGBTQ representation in popular narratives, however, is the frequency with which queerbaitingqueer coding and outright homophobia takes its place. The latter problem isn’t even exclusively expressed through slurs (though of course, it often is), but is also evident in the use of a single, rigid presentation of heterosexual masculinity, straight characters with a no homo complex, and the casual use of feminine-as-derogatory-for-men. But in Teen Wolf, not only are there multiple openly queer characters in the form of Danny, Ethan, Caitlin and Mason, but we’re given straight men whose acceptance of homosexuality extends to their adoption of a totally unthreatened masculinity: that is, of straight boys who not only don’t use gay as an insult and who openly support their gay friends, but who are never shown to worry that their heterosexuality has been somehow compromised in the process.

Given his ostensible status as the stereotypical rich, white, bullying jock, it’s Jackson’s close friendship with Danny – an openly gay man of colour who’s also a lacrosse player – that arguably best personifies this fact. In any other narrative, Jackson would be cast in the role of an ultra-masculine homophobe; instead, when Danny jokingly asks Jackson, “You remember all the times I told you you’re not my type?” in 2.4 – Abomination,  Jackson easily replies, “I’m everyone’s type.” Jackson isn’t the least bit disquieted by the idea of other men finding him attractive – in fact, he’s vain enough to be insulted by the idea that anyone might not want him, regardless of whether he wants them. Similarly, when Stiles worries about whether he’s attractive to gay guys – even going so far as to ask the question of Danny – his worry isn’t that he is, but that he isn’t. While Stiles isn’t explicitly bisexual in canon, the fact that his first response to Danny’s joking offer to take his virginity in 3.4 – Unleashed is “That’s so sweet of you,” coupled with the fact that he doesn’t respond in the negative when Caitlin, who is canonically bisexual, asks if he’s attracted to guys in 3.16 – Illuminated, hints at the possibility of an eventual reveal (though in a purported director’s cut of the same conversation, he nods yes to liking boys). 

In either case, the (apparently) straight men of Teen Wolf aren’t remotely threatened by the idea of being attractive to gay guys – are rather, in the case of Jackson’s friendship with Danny and Liam’s friendship with Mason, happy to act as supportive wingmen, teasing about potential crushes as naturally as they would if the crushes in question were women. The importance of such relationships cannot be overstated, not only from the representational standpoint of having more openly gay characters on TV, but in terms of showcasing a positive iteration of masculinity and male friendships that isn’t belligerently heteronormative. Look at just about any other portrayal of teenage boys on TV, and you’ll encounter homophobic language as default – but in Teen Wolf, Stiles can suggest making out with Scott and just get a friendly eyeroll, Danny and Ethan can have an on-screen relationship that’s healthy, sweet and sexy, a manic lacrosse coach can be openly supportive of his gay players, and even Jackson Whittemore can take time out from being a jerk to suggest that Danny hook up with the cute guy in the library.

Stiles as the Anti-Xander

Given its impact on the genre, it’s somewhat inevitable that, sooner or later, every supernatural TV show be compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the case of Teen Wolf, this can yield some interesting results: there are strong parallels between, for instance, Scott and Buffy, Lydia and Cordelia, Melissa and Joyce, and Malia and Anya, and given the revelation in Season 4 that the Hale vault is located under the Beacon Hills high school, there are definite comparisons to the Hellmouth. But what interests me most is the comparison of Stiles with Xander, both of whom are snarky, non-superpowered, socially awkward best friends with a Chosen One – but where Xander is, in far too many respects, a stereotypical Nice Guy, Stiles is more enlightened. As the first season of Buffy is now nearly twenty years old, there’s a compelling argument to be made that Stiles is Xander for a new generation – so much so, in fact, that he’s almost an anti-Xander; which is to say, Xander minus the sexism, nerd entitlement, inferiority complex and homophobia.    

Like Stiles Stilinski, Xander Harris is an everyman with a romantic connection to a richer, more popular girl, Cordelia Chase; unlike Stiles, Xander routinely slutshames Cordelia, is jealous of her other partners, is dismissive of her intelligence, and only achieves a kind of parting equilibrium with her by buying her a dress she can’t afford.  Xander is also deeply insecure in his masculinity: despite the fact that his two closest friends are women, one of whom eventually comes out as a lesbian, Xander never quite loses the fear of being perceived as either feminine or gay, and when jock Larry comes out to him under the mistaken impression that Xander is also closeted, his reaction is one of appalled terror. There’s also a certain pettiness to Xander – and even, I’d argue, a cruelty – that tends to come out in stressful situations. This is exhibited, for instance, in his decision not to tell Buffy that Willow was trying to restore Angel’s soul, his threatening Buffy over Willow’s disappearance, his complete disregard for Buffy’s feelings after she returns to Sunnydale at the start of Season 3, the fact that he tries to magically roofie Cordelia into wanting him, his frequently dismissive treatment of Anya, and the proprietary interest he takes in Buffy’s romantic life.

Stiles, by contrast, is not only aware of Lydia’s intelligence, but in awe of it; as mentioned, he neither shames her for her sex life nor complains about how undeserving her partners are by virtue of not being him. In sharp contrast to Xander, Stiles is secure in his masculinity, neither intimidated nor scared by the prospect of men finding him sexually attractive, but actively – and even enthusiastically – curious as to whether or not they do. Where Xander casts a spell to try and make Cordelia love him, Stiles, when confronted with an affectionate, drugged Lydia, remains consistently mindful of her ability to consent, and leaves as soon it becomes apparent that she can’t. There’s also a strong parallel in their respective relationships with Anya and Malia, both of whom are new to being human and forthright in their desires; but while Xander is prone to mocking Anya and is often flustered or intimidated by her propensity to take control, Stiles is considerate of Malia’s learning and unthreatened by her directness.

Similarly, and despite being the token human in a crew full of supernatural creatures, Stiles responds to pressure with extraordinary courage, standing up to alpha werewolves, armed hunters, FBI agents, assassins and monsters alike. Which isn’t to say that Stiles can’t also be ruthless, or that Xander is never brave; demonstrably, they both have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s rather that, despite the many strong parallels between their characters, Stiles is comfortable in himself from the outset in a way that Xander isn’t. Where Xander Harris spends seven seasons trying – and, mostly, failing – to achieve the kind of stereotypical masculinity he simultaneously loathes and covets, Stiles, for all his unpopularity and insecurities, never feels emasculated by his status as an outsider. Even the loss of their virginities is comparable: when it happens, both boys are in the middle of stressful situations – Xander running from zombies, Stiles in Eichen House – and the sex is instigated by their respective partners. But whereas Xander sleeps with Faith, an experienced woman who doesn’t respect him and who kicks him out immediately afterwards, Stiles sleeps with Malia, who’s also a virgin, and whom he subsequently starts dating, a contrast which is arguably reflective of the esteem in which they initially hold themselves.

To put it bluntly, Stiles Stilinski is self-confident and secure where Xander Harris was self-hating and insecure, and while you can attribute a certain amount of that dissonance to their respective backgrounds – Xander struggles academically and has angry parents, while Stiles is bright and the product of a loving home – by and large, I’d attribute their differences, not to their origin stories, but to the fourteen years separating their creation. Stiles is a character who exists in large part because of Xander and other forerunners like him; he’s had the benefit – or rather, creator Jeff Davis has – of learning from Xander’s mistakes. If Scott McCall is Teen Wolf’s answer to Buffy Summers, then Stiles isn’t properly Xander, but a fusion of Xander and Willow: a still-flawed combination of their respective strengths, but pointedly minus the perpetual crisis of masculinity that makes Xander increasingly hard to sympathise with the further we get from 1997. Which isn’t to say that other showrunners aren’t still writing their own new Xanders exactly as is: if they were, then neither Teen Wolf nor Stiles would stand out quite so prominently. But given the still-extant problems of Nice Guy syndrome and male entitlement, the creation of characters like Stiles and Scott, who never saw their unpopularity and social awkwardness as an excuse for sexism, and whose subsequent development constitutes an evolution of positive masculinity rather than, as is more often the case, a capitulation to its more negative aspects, is not just subversive, but necessary.

Mentorship, True Alphas and Positive Masculinity

Though Teen Wolf plays host to a range of subtextual conversations, its portrayal of masculinity is arguably the most important, not only in terms of offering a positive alternative to the toxic, heteronormative manliness of old, but because it expressly codes this old-school approach as negative. Culturally, the term ‘alpha male’ has long since come to indicate the type of aggressive, successful and invariably sexist man that we’re all meant to either want to be or date; small wonder, then, that paranormal narratives which use alpha/beta/omega hierarchies tend to correlate alpha status with increased physical strength and social authority. And, to a certain extent, Teen Wolf follows the rule: alpha werewolves are bigger and stronger, they take their power through violence, and are the only ones capable of turning new wolves through the bite. But at the same time, we’re also given the concept of a True Alpha like Scott McCall: someone who achieves power through strength of character rather than killing, and who is, as a consequence, the strongest wolf of all. 

This being so, it’s not a coincidence that Teen Wolf routinely casts traditional alphas as the villains, with traditional alpha traits consistently shown in a negative light. In Season 1, Peter Hale is a murderous alpha out for revenge, and when Derek kills him and inherits his powers in Season 2, his attempt to be a “traditional” alpha – both in terms of werewolf culture and human masculinity – is consistently juxtaposed with Scott’s more pacifistic desire to do the right thing. As an alpha, Derek makes a series of bad decisions, not because he’s a bad person, but because his only template for alpha behaviour is one that manifestly doesn’t work. Confronted with the violence of Deucalion and the alpha pack in the first half of Season 3, Derek gives up his alpha power in order to save his sister’s life, a sacrifice that neatly parallels Scott’s burgeoning acceptance of being a True Alpha. In both instances, the best use of alpha strength is shown to be empathic and non-violent, rather than domineering and aggressive: Derek willingly gives up his status to save Cora, while Scott refuses to murder either Deucalion or the Darach and thereby lose his True Alpha potential. Similarly, after spending most of Season 4 in a state of increasing powerlessness, Derek’s metamorphosis into a full shift wolf in 4.12 – Smoke and Mirrors brings the analogy full circle. In Teen Wolf, the most powerful wolves aren’t physically violent alphas, but those who care for others before themselves, and who aren’t afraid to be weak – either literally, or in the eyes of others – if it means protecting their friends.

As such, there’s an important parallel between Derek’s treatment of Scott in Season 1 and Scott’s treatment of Liam Dunbar in Season 4. Though Derek doesn’t become an alpha until Season 2, he’s the only one available to try and mentor Scott after Peter turns him, and while Derek tries, he does a very bad job of it. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Derek’s development across the first four seasons is one of recovery, not just from trauma, but from the expectations of toxic masculinity. In Season 1, Derek is a hunted character, mourning the death of his closest remaining relative while trying to stay alive, save Scott and find out who the alpha is. Given his backstory – the death of his high school girlfriend, Paige, and his subsequent manipulation and betrayal by Kate Argent – it’s no surprise that he reacts with hostility to Scott’s relationship with Allison: quite literally, Derek has no yardstick for werewolf romance that doesn’t end in tragedy. By the same token, he’s also convinced that the only way for Scott to control the shift is through anger, as per this conversation from 1.06 – Heart Monitor:

Derek: Getting angry? That’s your first lesson. You want to learn how to control this? How to shift? You do it through anger. By tapping into a primal, animal rage. You can’t do that with her around.

Scott: I can get angry.

Derek: Not angry enough.

Which, as it turns out, is the point: Scott doesn’t get angry around Allison because his love for her is what anchors him to humanity. By Season 2, when Derek is teaching his own betas – Isaac, Boyd and Erica – how to manage the change, he’s learned enough from his mistakes to try a different tactic. This time, he doesn’t insist they learn through anger, but asks that they find anchors like Scott’s: meaningful connections or memories to keep them steady. (Heartbreakingly, Isaac’s anchor is his abusive father. Shocked, Derek says, “Your father locked you in a freezer in the basement to punish you,” to which Isaac replies, softly, “He didn’t used to.”) It’s not until Season 3 that we learn Peter was the one to originally teach Derek control through anger; Peter, whose entire approach to life is one of grasping manipulation.

And thus, the necessary symmetry between Derek’s progression in the first two seasons and Scott’s development as alpha in Season 4, when he accidentally turns Liam. In trying to explain the transformation to his new beta, Scott falls back on the same things Derek originally told him – “We’re brothers now”, “The bite is a gift” – which, as it did with him, go down like a lead balloon. But Scott, unlike Derek, has the luxury of learning from Derek’s mistakes, and goes on to try a different, more successful approach. Even so, we’re given a shot from Liam’s perspective that shows a concerned, staring Scott in the distance, mirroring the way that Scott once likewise glimpsed a brooding Derek, and when Scott chases Liam through the woods behind Lydia’s lakehouse on the full moon, it deliberately echoes the way that Derek originally chased Scott. And both times, too, Chris Argent appears – but where, in Season 1, he was there to hunt werewolves, in Season 4, her’s there by request, to help Scott as a friend.

When it comes to learning control, however, Liam is far more reminiscent of Derek. In fact, he has diagnosed IED – Intermittent Explosive Disorder – and struggles to control his anger even as a human. But Derek has come a long way since Peter turned Scott, and is now much better placed to try and help. Peter himself, however, remains as wrathful as ever, his rage exemplified by his brutal murder of the Mute in 4.4 – The Benefactor. As he walks away from the body, this exchange takes place:

Derek: We’ve learned a better way!

Peter: I’m a creature of habit.

While Derek has evolved beyond his reliance on anger, seeking out new mentor relationships with men – like the Sheriff and Chris – who can teach him differently, Peter retains the aggressive mentality of a traditional alpha, which is how he still sees himself. Peter’s villainy is evident, not just in his consistently murderous actions, but in his refusal to try a different approach. Derek, by contrast, and despite the many mistakes he made during his own stint as an alpha, is actively trying to be a better person, and that makes all the difference.

This emphasis on valuing male compassion and empathy over physical aggression is evident in other aspects of the narrative, too. One of the most powerful examples of this comes in 2.11 – Battlefield, when Deaton and Scott show Isaac how werewolves can take pain from people and animals. Isaac, who has suffered years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father, cries when he first relieves a dying dog’s pain, and as he looks between Deaton and Scott, it’s clear he’s expecting mockery or rebuke. But instead, Scott smiles at him and says, gently, “It’s OK. First time he showed me, I cried too.” Teenage boys emotionally supporting each other in non-toxic ways – and more, being mentored in that support by caring adults – is not something we see enough of on TV, let alone in contexts like this. Just as importantly, the lesson Isaac takes from this encounter is something he later passes on. In the wake of Allison’s death in 3.24 – The Divine Move, Isaac and Allison’s father, Chris, are left alone to grieve. Clearly struggling, Chris tries to make Isaac leave, prompting this exchange:

Chris: I appreciate the concern, but you don’t have to stay. I’ll be all right. I’ve dealt with this before. I have a capacity and… an ability to compartmentalise my emotions.

Isaac: I don’t.

It’s a simple, powerful admission, and one that allows Chris to step outside the harmful stoicism he’s trying to construct for himself. Instead, he hugs Isaac, and the two of them comfort each other. Nor is this the only time on Teen Wolfthat a grown man’s emotional withdrawal is questioned by the comparative openness of a teenage boy. After Scott’s father, Rafael, shoots and kills an assassin who was threatening Stiles, the two have a similar conversation about coping mechanisms in 4.8 – Time of Death:

Rafael: It’s not easy, taking a man’s life. Even when he forces you to do it.

Scott: How do you deal with it?

Rafael: You look at it logically, without emotion. You… you compartmentalise.

Scott: How do you do that?

Rafael: I used to do it by drinking.

Even without the added detail that Rafael is a former alcoholic whose marriage broke down as a direct result of his behaviour while drunk, it’s crystal clear from this exchange that unemotional compartmentalisation doesn’t work; that it is, in fact, a negative approach. Both these scenes stand as neat counterpoints to another father/son conversation much earlier in the show, between Sheriff John Stilinski and Stiles in 1.10 – Co-Captain. Having sneakily plied his father with alcohol in order to gain access to details of an ongoing police investigation, an already guilty Stiles becomes awkward when John tries to talk to him.

John: You know, I miss talking to you. It’s like we never have time –

Stiles: Gotta make a phone call, dad. Be right back.

John: I do. I miss it.

(Stiles gets up.)

John: I miss your mother.

(Stiles freezes.)

Stiles: What’d you say?

But John doesn’t answer, reaching for the bottle instead – only this time, instead of pouring him another glass, Stiles gently pulls it away. It’s a nuanced, moving scene: though Stiles’s mother has been dead for years, her loss is still an active part of both his and his father’s characterisation, and while (as this exchange demonstrates) they don’t always talk about her, the affection they have for each other is undeniable. Like Scott with his mother, Stiles doesn’t hesitate to tell his father he loves him, and even though they struggle at times, their relationship is always constructed as a loving negotiation: they might not always talk, but they both make an effort to communicate, which is ultimately the point.

Mothers and Daughters

For all that Teen Wolf makes an effort to engage in trope subversion and positive depictions of gender roles, it doesn’t always get things right, with the treatment of certain female characters being a case in point. The fact that Erica dies offscreen is a lingering source of disappointment, as is Allison’s final speech about how “perfect” it is to be dying in the arms of her “first love”. Both characters deserved better, and while Allison at least was given a nuanced, compelling emotional arc that neatly paralleled her development as a hunter, Erica was never really developed beyond her role as a teenage femme fatal. The end of Season 2 gave us a brief glimpse at her potential for complexity – her fear of how things had escalated, her desire to start over, and her relationship with Boyd, who was similarly underutilised – but it was too little, too late. That being said, and while it’s difficult to read between the lines, given that actress Gage Golightly was cast as the lead in a different TV show between the second and third seasons, it’s possible that her abortive arc – and, indeed, the sudden appearance of Cora, who fit the same place in the narrative – was the result of professional conflict rather than disinterest on the part of the writers. (This would also explain Cora’s midseason departure despite her family connection to Derek: Erica had always wanted to leave, and after Boyd’s death, it would have been natural for her to move away from Beacon Hills. But again, that’s speculation on my part.)

Erica’s role as an antagonistic blonde seductress stands as one of the more stereotypical things Teen Wolf has ever done, especially in terms of her attempts to “steal” Scott from Allison and her eventual fridging. However, with the exception of Erica – who is, if not quite a villain, then certainly not an ally, and for reasons completely unrelated to her sexuality – it’s notable that the other girls are never shown to compete with or belittle one another. The closest we come is in Season 1, when Lydia kisses Scott, but it’s never shown to compromise her friendship with Allison, who takes it in stride, extracts an apology, and carries on as normal. Girl hate and internalised misogyny are very real problems, both narratively and within wider culture, and it’s refreshing to find a show where, for all their different personalities and – at times – their conflicting romantic goals, Lydia, Allison, Kira and Malia are shown to be unfailingly supportive of one another. The fact that Allison and Kira in particular are shown fighting side by side, working as a seamless team, is especially important, as is the fact that Lydia goes out of her way to help Malia integrate academically.

Given the show’s frequent focus on male relationships, it’s important to note that female mentorship isn’t neglected, either. Though Allison’s relationship with both her mother, Victoria, and her aunt, Kate, is necessarily complicated, the narrative still paints them with the complexity and the respect they deserve, rather than reducing either woman to the role of straw villain. In 3.5 – Frayed, while Allison is struggling to calm down and stitch up a badly wounded Scott, it’s significant that she imagines Victoria talking her through the process. This vision of her mother isn’t bowdlerised, but every bit as fierce and demanding as we remember: whatever else Victoria Argent was, she inarguably had strength, and Allison draws on that to still her shaking hands. A parallel scene between another mother and daughter comes later, in 4.12 – Smoke and Mirrors, when a badly wounded Kira imagines her mother, Noshiko, teaching her how to jumpstart her kitsune healing. As with Victoria and Allison, the Noshiko that Kira conjures is just as calm and powerful as the original: these are warrior-mothers, and their daughters steady themselves by imagining, not their comfort, but their guidance.

The relationship between Lydia and her mother, Natalie, is of similar importance. Though a minor figure in the first two seasons, Natalie begins to make more of an appearance from Season 3 onwards, and after Lydia is strangled by the Darach, we’re shown a crucial moment between the two of them in 3.11 – Alpha Pact, when they contemplate Lydia’s bruised throat in front of a mirror:

Natalie: Okay, sweetheart. This is not a problem. Having gotten more than my share of hickeys in high school, I’ve developed some patented cover-up methods.

(Beat)

Natalie: You don’t want to go to school? You don’t have to.

Lydia: It’s not that. It’s just… Someone tried to strangle me. And I survived. I don’t need to hide that.

Natalie: No. No, you don’t.

By the same token, it’s noteworthy that we’re also given multiple mentorships that cross gender lines – women who mentor men, and vice versa, though narratively, the former is far less common. In a powerful scene at the start of 2.11 – Battlefield, we see Stiles confiding in the school counsellor and sometime emissary, Marin Morrell, about his fears and insecurities, while Scott’s positive relationship with Melissa frequently involves him turning to her for advice. In 3.13 –Anchors, when Scott is starting to lose control of the shift – partly due to the influence of the Nemeton, but also because of the permanency of his breakup with Allison, who used to be his anchor – Melissa gives him some of the best advice in the show:

Melissa: Sweetheart, let me tell you something no teenager ever believes, but I guarantee you is the absolute truth. You fall in love more than once. It will happen again. It will be just as amazing and extraordinary as the first time and maybe just as painful. But it’ll happen again. I promise. But until then, be your own anchor.

It’s excellent advice – and Scott, because he respects his mother, takes it.

Sex and Romance

Given Teen Wolf’s narrative emphasis on masculinity, the extent to which the show is nonetheless shot with the (straight) female gaze in mind is striking. While it’s understandable that a show about shapeshifters would feature a certain amount of obligatory shirtlessness, it’s noteworthy, not only that the camera routinely sexualises the male characters, but that it simultaneously declines to sexualise the women. We see far more male nudity than female, and the difference between, for instance, Lydia’s shower scene in 2.1 – Omega and Jackson’s in 2.7 – Restraint is clear: the camera is almost protective of Lydia, cutting and tilting to give her the maximum amount of privacy, while in Jackson’s case, we’re treated to panning, slow sweeps of almost his entire body. Nor is this distinction due to any meaningful difference in their personalities: Lydia, like Jackson, is an unapologetically sexual character, and in both scenes there’s an element of contextual vulnerability, with Lydia having just recovered from Peter’s attack and Jackson being controlled by Matt Daehler. Rather, the creators of Teen Wolf have seemingly made a conscious decision to take the female gaze as default, which is – like so much else in the show – unusual enough to be subversive.

It’s also worth noting that, when it comes to heterosexual romance scenes, Teen Wolf puts a subtle but significant emphasis on female pleasure. Given the ratings restrictions inherent in female top-half nudity, the virtual impossibility of pretending to touch someone’s breasts on camera without actually touching them and the fact that sex scenes featuring female orgasms are more likely to receive a higher rating, and you have a situation where sex and romance in TV land tends to fall into one of two categories: full-on, HBO-style nudity that’s overwhelmingly shot in the male gaze and oriented towards male pleasure, or encounters that start with kissing and end up under the (conveniently modest) sheets after an equally convenient fade-to-black, with the odd implied blowjob thrown in for good measure. As a result of this, the one thing you rarely see televised is foreplay: the kind of gentle-yet-sexy intimacy which, rather than reducing women to passive sexual subjects, paints them as the recipients of worship. But this is what Teen Wolf does, and does well. Without wanting to go into voyeuristic detail – which is, admittedly, difficult – the fact that we see Scott McCall kissing up his girlfriend’s neck in slow motion, touching her lightly, in shots that manage to highlight her enjoyment without objectifying her body, is almost as subversive a thing as seeing Ethan and Danny in bed together.

At the same time, we’re also given a cast of female characters who not only exhibit sexual agency, but who aren’t punished for doing so. Erica, whose status as an antagonistic bombshell makes her the most likely target for such policing, is never rebuked for her sexuality, but for her aggression and violence alone: whatever mistakes the show made with regard to her treatment and characterisation, slutshaming her was never among them. By the same token, Lydia, Allison and Malia are all allowed to take charge of their desires without criticism or censure, while Kira is never framed as prudish for appearing more hesitant. This positive acceptance of female desire is also what allows the show to distinguish Kate Argent’s treatment of Derek as abusive without making her sexuality synonymous with her evil, as is usually the case with sexy female villains. Thus, when Kate captures Derek in Season 1, he doesn’t banter with her about their past sexual relationship, as countless action heroes in the James Bond mode have done before and will doubtless do again; as though sex with a beautiful woman must necessarily be separate from her betrayal or abuse of him Because Men Love Sex Regardless Of Context. Instead, he goes quiet, his eyes and body-language screaming distress: he doesn’t want Kate to touch him at all, let alone sexually, and when she does, it’s arguably sexual assault on top of every other type of damage she’s inflicting.

Triskeles, The Threefold Death & Villainous Triptychs

From the outset, villainy in Teen Wolf is a complex thing. There’s never just a single adversary per season, and however clear someone’s motives are, there tends to be at least a smidge of moral ambiguity to keep things interesting. There is, however, a fascinating pattern to the show’s use of antagonists, and one that ties neatly into its thematic appreciation for threes. Derek’s triskele tattoo, we’re told, symbolises various threefold structures – alpha/beta/omega, mother/father/child, past/present/future – and in Season 3, the Darach’s ritual sacrifices, like those of so many ancient cultures, both come in threes and are executed using the threefold death. Similarly, the werewolf Sutomi trains her beta wolves to control the shift using a tripartite aphorism: “Three things cannot long be hidden – the sun, the moon, and the truth.” Triads are everywhere in Teen Wolf, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the show’s approach to its villains.

Because in every season – or rather, in every narrative arc, given the sharp division of Season 3 into two separate acts – there are three distinct types of antagonist: unambiguous monsters, those made monstrous by revenge, and those who have become the tools of monsters, their moral ambiguity subject to change and dependent on context. The pattern can be roughly broken down as follows:

Teen Wolf table

Beyond this outline, of course, the issue is more complicated. In Season 2, it’s arguable that Derek, Erica, Isaac and even Allison all count as ambiguous monsters at various times, given their fluctuating allegiances, while Victoria Argent’s strike against Scott and her unflinching support of Gerard arguably sets her alongside him, even though she plays a more minor role in the story. Similarly, while Noshiko originally summoned both the Nogitsune and the Oni in the second part of Season 3, and despite her threat to kill Stiles, the fact that she otherwise helps the protagonists suggests her character is more ambiguous than not; or at the very least, that it’s necessary to distinguish between her actions in the 1940s and her choices now. But while it’s possible to debate the specifics, the threefold nature of villainy in Teen Wolf is nonetheless clear, and constitutes a fascinating dialogue on the nature of victim/oppressor relationships and the cyclical nature of violence.

Because in every season, certain present conflicts are invariably shaped by historical crimes. Peter Hale’s revenge is monstrous – both in terms of his deliberate actions in Season 1, and the unintended consequences of his rage in Season 4 – but so are the crimes that were committed against his family. What Jennifer Blake does in her role as Darach is abhorrent, racking up the largest number of innocent victims of anyone in the series; but so, too, are Deucalion and the alpha pack, whose predations, past and future, she is trying both to revenge and prevent. Matt Daehler’s use of Jackson-as-kanima to take revenge on the people who nearly killed him is brutal and ugly and unforgivable, but the trauma he originally suffered at their hands was real, and all the more poisonous for going unacknowledged. And while Noshiko’s decision to summon the Nogitsune lead to the deaths of untold people, her desire to avenge the atrocities concealed at Oak Creek was wholly understandable. Especially given the latter’s connection to World War II, I can’t help but think of W. H. Auden’s poem about the same conflict, ‘1 September 1939′, and these lines in particular:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

But for all that Teen Wolf is a show about different kinds of supernatural creatures, it remains consistent in its conviction that genuine evil is found in the absence of empathy; in the actions of those made radical by conviction or revenge, who don’t hesitate to end or threaten innocent lives if it gets them what they want. As Lydia says to Meredith in 4.10 – Monstrous, “Not all monsters do monstrous things.”

Evolving Roles

This being so, the fact that Teen Wolf allows its characters to move through various morally ambiguous states – to change sides, or repent, or relapse – is part of what makes it successful. As obvious as the theme may be in a show about werewolves, there’s a very real sense in which the narrative is primarily concerned with transformation: not just the bodily kind, but morally and emotionally. The shapeshifting concept first expressed in Season 2 – that sometimes, the shape you take reflects the person that you are – is more than just a literal conceit. At first glance, the wording seems to suggest that everyone has a set, predetermined nature: that your static, unchanging personhood reflects the kind of animal you become. But just as the colour of a werewolf’s eyes can change along with their status, so can a shifter’s new shape reflect their efforts at self-improvement. Thus, Jackson becomes the kanima because of his ugly nature, but transforms into a proper werewolf when his humanity is restored, while Derek becomes a full shift wolf by sacrificing himself for his friends, effectively gaining strength through his willingness to use it wisely.

Similarly, as the characters age and develop, the balance of power in their other relationships begins to change, too. In Season 4, Liam is introduced: a freshman whose anger, lacrosse skill and arrogance are deliberately evocative of the now-absent Jackson; as, indeed, is his friendship with Mason, a gay man of colour, which parallels Jackson’s relationship with Danny. As former targets of Jackson’s hostility, Scott and Stiles initially have a bad reaction to Liam – but where Jackson occupied a position of relative power over them, we’re very swiftly reminded that this isn’t the case with Liam, who is not only younger, but weaker, too. When Liam ends up injured after an encounter on the lacrosse field, Scott overhears him talking to his stepfather at the hospital, remorsefully stating that it was his own fault for going up against two older boys.

Particularly in terms of the persecution complex that traditionally accompanies characters like Scott and Stiles – that is, average, unpopular boys who only come into their strength after a certain amount of bullying and/or isolation – the fact that Teen Wolf explicitly shows the reversal of their circumstances is an incredibly powerful thing. However much Liam might remind us of Jackson, neither the audience nor the characters are allowed to think that this entitles Stiles and Scott to mistreat him out of some lingering sense of inferiority. And, to their credit, they learn the lesson quickly: instead of treating Liam as a rival, they try to support him instead, carrying on the show’s tradition of positive masculine guidance by becoming mentors in turn. Yet at the same time, the conflict that originally set them at odds – Scott’s fear that he’d lose the lacrosse captaincy to Liam – is addressed in a respectful way. As Scott frets over Liam’s injury in 4.3 – Muted, Stiles offers him necessary reassurance, not about his actions, but about the emotions underlying them:

Scott: If I hadn’t been so worried about being captain, he wouldn’t be hurt, either.

Stiles: It’s OK to want something for yourself once in a while – team captain, alpha werewolf. You’re still only human.

Just as Teen Wolf declines to perpetuate the idea of girl hate, so too does it decline to indulge the idea of toxic masculine hierarchies. Scott is allowed to feel threatened by Liam’s skill inasmuch as it potentially represents a loss for him, but this doesn’t mean he’s allowed to feel threatened by Liam himself – or that his fear entitles him to become to Liam what Jackson once was to him.

Race and Refrigerators

When it comes to death in Teen Wolf, there’s a niggling imbalance in terms of who tends to bite the dust. Of the five recurring, non-enemy-combatant characters who’ve definitely died – Allison, Victoria, Erica, Boyd and Aiden – three are white women, one is a man of colour, and one is a white man. Throw in the fact that several women with significant relationships to main characters have either died off screen or prior to the first episode – Stiles’s mother, Claudia, and his friend, Heather; Derek’s mother, Talia, and his sister, Laura; Malia’s mother and sister – and there’s an argument to be made that Teen Wolf has a women in refrigerators problem. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the show’s development in this respect: Allison’s departure from the main cast lead to the introduction of Kira and Malia as season regulars, and in a genre that usually privileges the resurrection of male characters while leaving women permanently dead, it’s not insignificant that the Season 3 finale saw Kate Argent return from the grave. That the show is steadily building a supporting cast of female characters – such as Braeden, Marin Morrell and Meredith – is another point in its favour, as is the increasing attention given to Melissa, Noshiko and Natalie. (And though it’s only a background detail rather than a point of active characterisation, I appreciated the fact that, as of Season 4, we know that Lydia’s grandmother was a computer programmer in a lesbian relationship with a woman who raced yachts. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make all the difference.)

Similarly, while the early seasons falter somewhat on the issue of race – Season 1 contains at least two cringeworthily stereotyped portrayals of black criminality that add absolutely nothing to the narrative – it’s an area in which the show consistently tries to improve, though with mixed results. The fact that it takes until Season 3 to officially confirm Melissa McCall as Hispanic and Scott as biracial, and then only fleetingly, can be taken either as an unnecessary delay or a minor detail, given that Scott is still being played by a biracial actor, and while both Braeden and Marin Morrell are compelling, powerful characters, the fact they both fit the stereotype of the tough, morally ambiguous black woman is a different problem. By the same token, your mileage may vary on whether Alan Deaton is a praiseworthy representation of black masculinity, in terms of being a calm, clever, highly intelligent and pacifistic character – which is also true of Liam’s stepfather, Dr Geyer – or if his status as an emissary and magical advisor to the protagonists needlessly evokes the magical negro trope. That Kira is a kitsune rather than a werewolf is arguably a respectful reflection of her Japanese heritage; the fact that she becomes instantly talented in fighting with a katana and nunchucks is less so. The fact that a not insignificant portion of the Season 3 plot involves active acknowledgement of the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II is definitely a positive thing, historically speaking; and yet the WWII association remains firmly within the bailiwick of things which are common to Asian American narratives.

Yet at the same time, we also have unequivocally positive characters like Scott, Danny and Mason, who are not only active subversions of stereotype, but original, compelling individuals in their own right. Danny in particular is a warm, funny, complex person: an openly gay athlete who’s also a musician, good with computers and incredibly sweet to his boyfriend. Though his departure from the show is never explained, his final appearance with Ethan, in which he reveals that he’s known about werewolves all along, is both cathartic and touching, and one of my favourite moments in the entire series. Television needs more characters like Danny Mahealani, and hopefully his popularity will lead to the creation of others like him.

All of which is a way of saying that race, like so much else, is a complex issue. But although Teen Wolf stumbles at times, their overall efforts at creating a subversive, diverse and affirmative story are sincere – and while this doesn’t exempt the show from criticism, it does go some way towards creating a sense of trust.

Strength and Mental Illness

An area in which the show manifestly succeeds, however, is in its portrayals of mental illness, strength and disability. Throughout the course of the show, both Scott and Stiles are shown to suffer from panic attacks – Scott once, and Stiles repeatedly – and in every instance, their reactions are validated. In a show filled with alpha werewolves and evil druids, one of the most genuinely frightening episodes revolves around Stiles’s stay in Eichen House, a private mental health facility. The cruel, manipulative presence of the corrupt orderly, Brunski, is chillingly felt, while the depiction of institutional abuse is of power is all the more affecting for being realistic. The fact that both Stiles and Lydia are shown in counselling sessions with Marin Morrell – and, at least in Stiles’s case, making sincere use of them – is a testament to the seriousness with which the show treats mental health. Though more than one episode makes use of hallucinogenic visions as a means of revealing inner conflict, the idea of characters “going crazy” in these moments is never trivialised. Though Scott, Stiles and Allison all suffer from anxiety, nightmares and a variety of other symptoms in the wake of their interaction with the Nemeton, the fact that their problems have an ostensibly magical origin isn’t used to diminish or deny their genuine psychological impact, and especially in the case of Stiles, whose possession by the Nogitsune leads him to experience the same neurological symptoms of the dementia that killed his mother, it’s made clear that making pedantic distinctions between the magical, the physical and the mental is vastly less important than addressing the actual psychological consequences of their presence.

This same logic is evident, not only in the show’s refusal to either handwave Meredith’s instability as a consequence of her banshee status or to diminish its impact for the same reason, but in its handling of suicidal ideation in the harrowing 3.6 – Motel California. When wolfsbane poisoning causes Boyd, Ethan and Scott to all attempt suicide in a motel famous for the number of guests who’ve killed themselves while staying there, it falls to Lydia, Allison and Stiles to save them. The respective rescues of Boyd and Ethan are tense enough – Lydia uses fire to jolt them out of their trances – but when they encounter Scott, who’s doused himself in gasoline, it ends up being Stiles who talks him down, stepping into the danger zone in order to keep him safe. Though the incident is ultimately instigated by magic, the fact that Scott has suffered enough trauma by this point for his despair to be heartfelt is neither elided nor diminished. Stiles saves Scott, not by pointing out that his behaviour is being influenced by outside factors and getting him to ‘snap out of it,’ as is so often – and unhelpfully – the case in such narratives; instead, he appeals to the bond between them, and risks his life to affirm what Scott means to him.

Earlier in the same episode, and in a much less fraught conversation, Ethan asks Danny about the scars on his chest. It’s not just an idle question: as is the case with Scott’s chronic asthma and Erica’s epilepsy, turning into a werewolf has the ability to heal, not just physical injuries, but certain medical conditions. Though there was an element of physical seduction in the way that Derek persuaded Erica to accept the bite, it’s made clear on multiple occasions that her primary reason for accepting was to cure her epilepsy, and while Scott was bitten against his will, he nonetheless enjoys the benefits of no longer being asthmatic. This being so, the subsequent conversation between Ethan and Danny is an incredibly significant one, not only in terms of their respective characterisation, but because it constitutes an acknowledgement that disability and illness can be part of a person’s identity, and not something that everyone would necessarily want to have ‘cured’ or erased if the option presented itself:

Danny: It was surgery to correct misshapen cartilage I was born with. I had a metal bar put in when I was fourteen. It stayed there for two years to support my sternum so my lungs wouldn’t be crushed.

Ethan: What if there was a way they could disappear?

Danny: I don’t really want them to. I like them. They make me feel like a survivor.

Similarly, and as per the events of the previous episode, 3.5 – Frayed, it’s relevant to acknowledge that not even werewolf healing powers can protect against ailments with a psychological cause. Mistakenly believing himself to be responsible for Derek’s death, Scott is being steadily incapacitated by an injury his body refuses to heal. Typically, it’s Lydia who correctly diagnoses the problem:

Lydia: You know, it could be psychological.

Stiles: What do you mean? Like psychosomatic?

Lydia: Somatoformic. A physical illness from a psychogenic cause. Yes, it’s all in his head.

Stiles: Because of Derek. He’s not letting himself heal because Derek died.

Allison: Then what do we do?

Lydia: Stitch him up. I’m serious. Maybe all he has to do is believe he’s healing.

Which is a neat parallel to a similar incident in 1.8 – Lunatic, when Scott has a panic attack. On that occasion, it’s Stiles who figures out the solution, which is to give Scott his now-defunct inhaler:

Scott: I… I was having an asthma attack?

Stiles: No, you were having a panic attack. But thinking you were having an asthma attack stopped the panic attack.

Scott: How did you know to do that?

Stiles: I used to get them after my mom died. Not fun, huh?

In both instances, the fact that Scott has werewolf healing doesn’t prevent him from experiencing physical symptoms as a result of mental and emotional distress – and in a cultural context that all too often dismisses mental illness as illusory or as little more than attention-seeking behaviour, Teen Wolf’s treatment of the issue comes across as both respectful and validating.

Onwards to Season 5

For all its flaws and foibles, Teen Wolf stands out, not just as a compelling young adult paranormal show, but as a compelling show, period. With its strong ensemble cast, triptych antagonists, complex narratives and an ongoing commitment to diverse, respectful storytelling, Teen Wolf is a show I desperately want to see more of, and more like. With the Season 4 finale leaving just enough dangling narrative threads to whet the appetite – the as-yet unknown identity of Malia’s mother, the Desert Wolf; Derek’s newfound transformation; the supernatural holding cells beneath Eichen House; Rafael’s hanging request that Scott tell him the truth about Beacon Hills; the creation of Kira’s first tail – I can’t wait to see what the subsequent seasons bring. Teen Wolf is an engaging, remarkable, powerful show, and I’m indebted to Jeff Davis for creating it.

Spoiler warning: All The Spoilers for Supernatural. All of them. 

Exposing yourself to certain fandoms on tumblr is like signing up for a bout with Stockholm syndrome: sooner or later, you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid. And by “drink the Kool-Aid”, I mean “become obsessed with Supernatural“, which – surprise!* –  is exactly what happened to me. I mean, I knew all about the sexism, the queerbaiting, the manpain; about the woeful representation of POC. I vowed, on the public internets, that I would never watch it – and in a universe without tumblr, I may well have done just that. But slowly, steadily, like dripping water eroding stone, the steady flow of GIFs, photosets and soulful meta wore down my resistance. Surely, I told myself, I ought to at least watch the pilot, just so I can say that I gave it a fair shot. So I did – and I wasn’t impressed. I even livetweeted my endeavour, complete with scathing criticism. The portrayal of women was so ludicrous, and Dean Winchester so obnoxious, that I didn’t make it much more than halfway through the first episode before giving up, and for a while, that was that: I’d tried Supernatural, I hadn’t liked it, end of story.

But.

Despite myself, I found that I wanted to know what happened next. Enough of my friends whose taste in shows I either shared or respected had been surprised by my reaction – had vouched for the worthiness of at least the first five seasons, despite the acknowledged problematic elements – that I started to waver. Had I been judging too harshly? My curiosity was piqued, but in the end, what tipped the balance wasn’t the recommendations of friends or the writings of strangers: it was this speech by Misha Collins – which, yes, I encountered via tumblr – in which he calls out the show’s writers for their needless use of sexist language and misogynistic tropes. Just the fact that one of the main actors was willing to both acknowledge the problem and speak about it went a long way towards reassuring me that Collins, at least, was someone whose work I wanted to support. So I made my decision: I’d give Supernatural another try, endeavouring to make it to at least Season 4, when Castiel – played by Collins – finally makes an appearance.

This decision was roughly equivalent to taking a second hit of heroin because the first one hasn’t kicked in yet.

As promised, Supernatural has a lot of problems – and I mean, a lot. (As, indeed, does heroin.) There’s scarcely a male character on the show whose defining emotional arc doesn’t hinge on his having lost his mother, wife/girlfriend and/or children, and scarcely a female character with an emotional connection to Sam or Dean Winchester who hasn’t been fridged in order to give them more angst (though in fairness, the male death toll is similarly high). Overwhelmingly, the POC characters are either exoticised, stereotyped and/or played as villains, while the queerbaiting is made all the more frustrating by the overall lack of actual queer characters. The sexist language, too, is omnipresent: if you made a drinking game of it, and took a shot whenever someone says bitch, whore, or explicitly codes weakness as female (“no chick flick moments”) and strength as male (“sack up!”), you would end up drunk after any given episode. Throughout nine seasons, but especially in the first three, almost every female character either falls squarely into one of four categories – Victim (dead or damselled), Virgin (pure and protectable), Vixen (sexy and strong) or Virago (angry and strong) – or straddles their intersections with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Supernatural is, quite categorically, a show about straight white manpain as facilitated by dead ladies and magic – and if that were all it was, I’d never have made it through two full seasons, let alone nine.

However.

It is also a show with a sprawling, complex mythology that nonetheless manages to stay coherent and engaging as it develops. Like The X Files, it has a deft touch with humour, poking fun at its own meta and idiosyncrasies at least as often as it takes itself seriously. It strikes a solid balance between stand-alone episodes and extended arcs, and the characters – well, that’s where things get interesting. Because for all that the Winchesters are frequently situated as being traditionally masculine, even hypermasculine heroes, this isn’t their be-all, end-all.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Dean – whose love of classic rock, classic cars, weapons, whiskey and women makes him about as stereotypically masculine as it’s possible to be – is also an active subversion of the very masculinity he ostensibly personifies. Sometimes, this comes across as being an unintentional – but still canonical – consequence of queerbaiting: that is, of the show’s habit of putting (presumably) straight characters in homoerotic situations, or strongly implying a homoerotic subtext, without ever crossing the line into overt displays of queerness. But this practice, while deeply frustrating, also feels like a very real reflection of, and reaction to, the show’s conflicting fanbases, and to the sheer impossibility of pleasing them both – namely, of the schism between (predominantly) male viewers who tune in for the adventures of Fiercely Hetereosexual Warrior Dean Winchester, the epitome of maleness in a show that is very definitely All About Dudes, and (predominantly) female viewers who tune in for Tortured Bisexual Dean Winchester, a good man who is eighteen kinds of broken and quite clearly in love with an angel. (Or his brother. Or both. Whatever.) Uncharitably, the queerbaiting is a way of firmly committing to the former fanbase while giving the latter just enough hope to keep them invested. More charitably, it’s a way of trying to please both groups equally without doing anything that either camp could construe as unforgivable. Most likely, it’s a combination of both, which, when combined with the conservative homophobia of network executives, tends to err on the side of default straightness. Whatever the answer, Dean Winchester remains a complex enough character to defy easy categorisation – and intentionally or not, even without the problem of queerbaiting, his version of masculinity as portrayed on the show is worth interrogating; as, indeed, is Sam’s.

Right from the outset, the Winchester brothers are set up as being, if not total opposites, then temperamentally opposed. The first time I tried to watch the pilot, Dean came across as brash, obnoxious and full of himself, while Sam, whose initial distance from hunting provides the audience with an introduction to the concept, feels more sympathetic: a nice, normal guy being dragged into danger and tragedy by an uncaring sibling. But as the season – as the show – progresses, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t what they seem. Dean’s arrogance is, very explicitly, a coping mechanism, and even in Season 1, we can see the cracks. Sam, by contrast, is highly – and successfully – compartmentalised, able to set aside his past and live normally in ways that Dean just can’t. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison of Dean’s attempt to live a normal life at the end of Season 5 and Sam’s attempt to do likewise at the end of Season 7. When Dean leaves, Sam is imprisoned in hell, having first extracted a promise that Dean won’t try to rescue him. Dean accedes, and goes to live with Lisa, his ex-girlfriend, and her young son, Ben – his reward for having stopped the apocalypse. But Dean, by his own admission, is a mess: he is tormented by Sam’s loss, suffering from recurrent nightmares and flashbacks as well as survivor’s guilt. When the hunting world impinges on his new life, his relationship with Lisa irreparably breaks down as he begins to exhibit the classic symptoms of PTSD: hyper-vigilance, obsessive behaviour, aggression as a fear response, and a compulsive need to control both his environment and the actions of his loved ones. Sam, however, suffers from no such baggage, despite the fact that he doesn’t know if Dean is alive or dead. He makes a new life for himself with ease, and while he does talk to his new partner, Amelia, about having “lost” his brother, it’s clear he isn’t psychologically damaged in the way that Dean is.

In fact, the only time we really see Sam undergo this level of distress in response to trauma – nightmares, impulsive behaviour, rage – in a context that isn’t directly related to his burgeoning demon powers is very early in Season 1, immediately following Jessica’s death. Which begs the question: is Sam compartmentalised because it’s an inherent part of his personality, or is it something he’s learned – a coping mechanism, the same as Dean’s bravado? I’d contend it’s a combination of nature and practise. From what we learn of Sam’s childhood in various flashback episodes, it’s clear he’s always harboured a burning desire to be normal, but it’s equally clear that the same is true of Dean, too. Both brothers have suffered from their upbringing, but whereas Sam is clearly capable of cutting himself off from his family (running away as a teenager, going to college, moving in with Amelia), Dean can never manage it. Which is, quite arguably, the consequence of his being the older brother: Dean’s entire life has revolved around protecting Sam and obeying his father, whereas Sam, who lacked those responsibilities, has a better baseline for normalcy – or at least, for self-definition in the absence of family and hunting – and therefore a better starting position from which to try and establish himself as a separate person. The Winchesters rely on each other, but while Sam depends on Dean as a person, Dean depends on Sam for his purpose, too.

Superficially, Sam is presented as being sensitive and emotional – and therefore the more stereotypically feminine of the two – while Dean is typed as tough and strong: a heroic masculine archetype. But in terms of their actual psyches, the opposite is true: Sam is compartmentalised, resilient and capable, while Dean is a wreck. Throughout the show, both brothers are repeatedly told by a slew of older men – hunters, angels and demons alike – to “stop whining” and “sack up” whenever they dwell on their problems. Any failure to do so, whether perceived or actual, is invariably criticised as being feminine, or derided by comparison to feminine behaviours. Yet at the same time, Dean’s issues are real enough that the same people telling him to “be a man” are also, at various points, genuinely worried by his refusal to seek help or tell them what’s wrong. The contradiction is not only striking, but deeply representative of the toxic burden of enforced, stereotypical masculinity. On the rare occasions when Dean does try and talk about his feelings, he is invariably mocked as weak, whiny and effeminate; but when, having absorbed these lessons, he tries to cope through drinking, self-destructive behaviour and suicidal thoughts, he is criticised – often angrily – for being an idiot. Sam likewise receives the same treatment, but to very different effect. Unlike Dean, who can’t separate himself from his work, Sam’s stress response is to leave whatever situation is upsetting him and calm down elsewhere – a much healthier approach, though one that also earns him rebuke. Time and again, when Sam gets angry, feels betrayed or is otherwise shown to be under pressure, he leaves, turning his back on his (undeniably damaged) family and ignoring other responsibilities in favour of self-care. That he is often cast as selfish, untrustworthy, traitorous and insensitive for doing this – presumably on the basis that Real Men don’t run from their problems or let their friends down, ever, no matter the personal cost – is part and parcel of the same toxic logic that romanticises male self-sacrifice and silence.

For all that Supernatural can and does act as a paean to the virtues of traditional masculinity – brotherhood, battle, stoicism, strength – whether intentionally or not, it just as frequently demonstrates why this mindset is  brutally flawed, with the worst psychological consequences of investing in its mythos – repression, loneliness, self-hatred, addiction, suicidal ideation, insecurity, worthlessness – personified by Dean Winchester. Unlike countless action movie heroes who drink their whiskey, kill the bad guys and stride manfully into the sunset without ever flinching, Dean drinks excessively to the point of attracting comment, has nightmares about his actions, and has to be rescued from danger at least as often as he does the rescuing, because half the time, his “act first, think later” policy is a self-destructive impulse rather than an actual plan. Almost, you could define the split in the Supernatural fandom as being between those who think Dean Winchester is someone to be idolised for his masculinity, and those who see him as needing help. And even now, I still can’t tell if Dean’s relationship with traditional masculinity is deliberately portrayed as compounding his traumas to the point of causing new ones, or if its implications have been hidden from the writers by cognitive dissonance and/or social conditioning. Given the number of creative voices involved, I suspect it’s both, depending on the episode – but either way, it makes for some interesting analysis.

As a duo, what makes Sam and Dean so compelling is the extent to which their personalities, strengths and weaknesses differ, not just from each other, but from first appearances. Particularly in the early seasons, much is made of Sam’s ability to successfully comfort the many grieving strangers they encounter, whereas Dean is always blunt, less adept – and less willing – to tailor his approach to the person, a contrast we’re initially inclined to see as proof of Sam’s sensitivity and Dean’s rudeness. And certainly, Sam is a caring person. But as the show progresses, his interactions become less a function of compassion and more the consequence of his being a better liar than Dean, with fewer compunctions about emotionally manipulating strangers to get the information he needs. When it comes to informational lies – credit card scams, adopting fake IDs – Sam tends to be uneasy with the deception in ways that Dean isn’t; but while Dean is happy pretending to be someone else, he doesn’t fake his emotional reactions. Broadly speaking, Dean is a situational liar and emotionally honest, while Sam is an emotional liar and situationally honest – the exact opposite of how they present.

When it comes to their relationships with women, however, another curious comparison presents itself. Without wanting to overanalyze the handful of sex scenes sprinkled throughout the show, it’s notable that Dean’s encounters, in contrast to his aggressively masculine persona, tend to be romantic, even gentle, with Dean himself often shown to be the more passive partner, while Sam is assertive and dominant to the point of being rough (as more than one person has noticed). Dean has slept with angels; Sam lies down with demons. And for most of the show, that’s not just a metaphor: the big reveal of Season 5 – that Sam is meant to be Lucifer’s vessel, while Dean is earmarked for Michael – is arguably foreshadowed by their earlier romantic pairings with Ruby and Anna, respectively. But as of the most recent season, their predestined dichotomy is turned on its head: Season 9 starts with Sam being possessed by an angel, and ends with Dean turning into a demon, a deliberate subversion that shows how far Sam has come, and how far Dean has fallen. The Winchesters have been to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, but despite the implied promise of the lyrics to Carry On Wayward Son, they’re yet to find any peace.

What really gets me about Dean Winchester, though, is his status as the most broken of Broken Birds I’ve ever encountered – and in a show where so much else about the gender roles is regressive, it’s striking that the most ostensibly masculine character is one who’s best defined by a trope that’s overwhelmingly female-dominated. In this sense, Dean actually makes for a good case study about our perceptions of gender in stories; specifically, our tendency to hold female characters to higher standards than men, not only in terms of their actions and personalities, but in how we judge whether they’re three-dimensional or poorly-drawn tropes, and our corresponding tendency to assume male competence as a default. Right from the outset, and despite being situated as the more experienced hunter, Dean is – not ineffectual by any stretch of the imagination, but prone to the kind of error which, were he a woman, would likely be counted as signs of inherent weakness.

In the first four episodes of Season 1, for instance, Dean continuously fails to establish his fake identities with any degree of success: twice, he gets in trouble with officials who call his bluff, and twice his incompetence leads to civilians detecting the lie. In 1.1 (Pilot) and 1.4 (Phantom Traveller), it’s Sam, not Dean, who kills the Big Bad, and while he saves the child in 1.3 (Dead in the Water), the offending ghost is dispelled, not through his actions, but the self-sacrifice of another character. The only monster Dean kills is the titular villain of 1.2 (Wendigo), and in 1.4, he’s actively disarmed by his fear of flying. All of which is paired with a high degree of sentimentality: in both 1.2 and 1.3, Dean is visibly flustered by a simple kiss on the cheek, while his strongest emotional connection consists of his bonding with a child over their mutual loss of a parent. Under identical conditions, a female character would, I suspect, have to work much harder to be seen as competent: her failed bluffs would be seen as failures of intelligence compounded by a poor kill rate, while her visible terror would see her pegged as overly emotional. Which is what happens, when successive generations of terrible female characterisation condition viewers to infer the presence of gendered stereotyping on the basis of normal behavioural cues: there’s such a backlog of bullshit to work through re the portrayal of women on screen, it can be hard to step back and judge new characters on their individual merits. But because Dean Winchester is not just male, but overtly masculine, wrapped in a leather jacket and driving a Chevy Impala, we trust that he knows what he’s doing, even when we’d be well within our grounds to think the opposite.

I have more to say, but I’ll save it for another post, as this one is already considerably longer than planned. Apparently I have Feelings about Supernatural that demand expression, and that, right there, is a sentence I never, ever thought I’d be writing. TUMBLR, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?

Feel These Things

Sam Winchester - How Do I Stop

Dean Winchester - I Wish I Couldn't Feel A Damn Thing

 

 

*Or not, for anyone who’s been following my tumblr/Twitter presence for the past few weeks.

Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself: you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.

But here’s the thing: I fucking loved Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a sympathetic character, but that’s not the same as her actually being unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we need to do that, because it’s what we are.

But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even see in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.

And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where the audience is still encouraged to like them when they are.

Returning to Orphan Black, for instance, if Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to SwordfishDeath Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet, her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.

Which isn’t to say that we never see mothers struggling – it’s just seldom with their desire to actually be mothers. Maternal angels struggle with the day-to-day business of domesticity: how to deal with teenage chatback and those oh-so-hilariously forgetful sitcom husbands, how to balance the bills and keep everyone fed, how to find time for themselves amidst all their endless finding time for others. By contrast, selfish absentees are usually career-oriented single mothers in high-stress jobs, either unwilling or unable to find the appropriate amount of time for their children. Looking at the gender disparity in the characterisation of TV detectives who are also parents is particularly interesting: not only are the men more likely to have wives at home (to begin with, at least), they’re also more likely to be granted reconciliation with their children later. Contrast obsessive, depressive detective Kurt Wallander, who slowly rebuilds his relationship with his daughter, with obsessive, depressive detective Sarah Lund, who steadily destroys the possibility of a relationship with her son. Compare single fathers like Seeley Booth and Richard Castle, whose ability to parent well is never implied to be compromised by their devotion to the job, with single mothers like Alex Fielding and Gloria Sheppard, whose characterisation is largely defined by the difficulties of striking a balance between the two roles. Orphan Black’s Sarah is a rare creature, in that she falls outside the usual boxes for maternal categorisation, and in so doing forces us to re-examine exactly why that is.

In fact, though their respective shows and stories are utterly dissimilar in every other respect, in terms of her approach to motherhood, the character Sarah most reminded me of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping outlined above – Laura was a high-flying corporate lawyer and newly single mother whose decision to move to a small town and reconnect with her family constituted the titular sea-change – she was written with such complexity and feeling as to defy the cliché. She was eager and well-meaning, but just as often selfish and oblivious. Though she learned to slow down and listen to others over the course of three series, she never became a domestic goddess or a motherly martyr; nor did she magically lose her flaws or suddenly develop a perfect relationship with her children. Instead, she remained a prickly, complex character, quick to both give and take offence, but also introspective, passionate, sly and caring. Like Sarah, she wasn’t always sympathetic, but that didn’t stop me from loving her, flaws and all.

But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection. I’ve seen a bit of positive/sympathetic meta surrounding Once Upon A Time’s Regina, but otherwise, I can’t think of many overtly antagonistic female characters whose actions and motives are viewed as complex, and therefore potentially redemptive, instead of just as proof that they’re bad women. We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings that broke them, then we surely must owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

Throughout history, women’s legal status and protections have been tied to the question of whether or not they’re seen to be virtuous, whatever that means in context. The sworn virgins of Albania were granted equal status with men – indeed, were allowed to live and act as men – provided they never had sex, owing to a specific legal stricture which ascribed female virgins the same financial worth as men, while valuing women less. The big three monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all boast scriptures and/or religious laws that have, both historically and in the modern day, allotted specific legal privileges to women provided they remain virtuous; privileges which are invariably retracted should the woman in question be seen to have strayed, or become tarnished, or to have otherwise lost her virtue. We see this echoed in modern rape culture, which puts the onus for self-protection on women to such a degree that, far too often, if a woman is raped, her victimhood is viewed as a consequence of poor character – because if she really was innocent, then how did she let it happen? Why was she dressed that way, or out late, or drinking? Why, if she wasn’t already lacking in virtue, would she have been in the company of a rapist?

And so, our treatment of morally ambiguous female characters ends up paralleling some truly toxic assumptions about gender and morality. Women cannot act to redeem themselves independently, because under far too many laws, our need of redemption voids our right to try and reacquire it. Good women can redeem broken men, but good men can’t redeem broken women, because once we’re broken, we lose our virtue; and without our virtue, we’re no longer women, but monsters, witches and viragos.

Which is why, to come full circle, I fucking love the fact that Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning isn’t always sympathetic; isn’t always traditionally likeable.  She is, rather, an antiheroine in the most literal sense: and with all the Madonna/Whore bullshit we’re still caught up in imposing on women, that’s a class of character we desperately need to see more of.

(Note: I’ve only talked about men and women here, rather than third gender, genderfluid and other gender non-conforming persons, because it’s men and women we usually see depicted in stories, and whose narratives therefore form the bulk of our cultural stereotyping. The absence or elision of narratives concerning other genders, however, along with their own highly stereotyped portrayals when they do appear, is a problem in and of itself, and a contributing factor in the way men and women are stereotyped: because when we view gender purely as a fixed binary phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make it harder to see beyond the rules that binary has traditionally imposed on our thinking, repeatedly foisting “masculine”/”feminine” values onto successive new characters without ever stopping to think that actually, we might challenge or subvert those norms instead, a blindness which only helps to further perpetuate the problem.)

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl – because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! – but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes. And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do:  some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office.   

I started watching the Hawaii Five-0 remake on LoveFilm Instant in a fit of cynical boredom. I expected it to be hilariously terrible; I expected to get ten, maybe fifteen minutes into the first episode and then give up due to an eyeroll-induced migraine. I expected cheesy dialogue, mediocre to terrible acting from everyone who wasn’t either Daniel Dae Kim or Grace Park, cardboard characterisation and nonexistant plotting, because I mean, seriously: Hawaii Five-0 remake.  Given all my trepidations, it’s a wonder I bothered watching at all. But I also wanted to see some blue skies and tropical, non-Scottish scenery, and so I thought, why not? And yes, the first episode did managed to find not just one, but two different excuses for Grace Park to be scantily clad (first in a bikini, and then by having her strip to her underwear); and yes, the stereotype of the big fat, friendly Hawaiian guy who sells shaved ice and has one toe dipped in the criminal underworld was textbook enough to cause even someone who’s never been to Hawaii to look sideways at it; and yes, the entire premise of all these ludicrously elaborate big-time crimes being committed on a tiny island is blindingly unrealistic; but somehow, I found myself watching a second episode. And a third. And a fourth.

And now, as I’m nearing the end of season one, I’ve realised I kind of love it.

At the most basic level, the characterisation and writing work. The banter between Steve McGarrett and Danny Williams is sharp, lively and highly enjoyable, providing a solid narrative anchor for the total overthetopness of their crime-solving techniques. Their personalities clash in the usual odd-couple way, but due particularly to Scott Caan’s energetic Danny, the partnership never feels stale. The plots are, as predicted, ridiculous, but despite the fact that the comparative smallness of Hawaii makes them feel noticeably more ridiculous than they would if the show were set elsewhere, they’re otherwise no more ridiculous than the usual procedural fair, but with the added bonus that, as the show is shot on location, you get plenty of gorgeously sweeping vistas of oceans and jungles and mountains and rainbows and actual goddamn sunlight thrown in, which tends to make up for it. Daniel Dae Kim’s Chin Ho Kelly and Grace Park’s Kono Kalakaua are both meaty, well-rounded characters who, in a refreshing twist, are allowed to have a racial heritage that matters to them as people without defining them totally or nudging them into caricature territory; and even though all three Five-0 men are afflicted with Suitably Dramatic Manpain Backstories – McGarrett’s dead parents and villain-oriented vendetta; Danny’s complex relationship with his ex-wife and shared custody of his daughter; Chin’s false accusations of corruption and the subsequent implosion of his life – the main team nonetheless manages to interact in a way that feels supportive, human and everyday in all the right ways.

All of which makes the show engaging and fun, yes. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Because: OK. If you’re like me, and you watch a lot of procedurals, then chances are, you’ve noticed how many of them reflexively try up the stakes and increase emotional investment, not just throughout the series as a whole, but particularly in the first and early episodes, by killing or damselling attractive, young, and overwhelmingly white women. To give some examples, the first episodes of Bones, Castle, House, True Blood, Angel, The Mentalist, Elementary, Sherlock, Supernatural, The Killing and Twin Peaks all involve dead women; and indeed, several of them base their entire premise, or the premise of whole seasons, around female-oriented murders. And that’s not an anomalous sample group, either: if you were to go and check the first episode of every procedural, crime or thriller/suspense oriented show of recent years, then I’d be prepared to lay good money that the vast majority of first deaths, or first imperilments, will be of conventionally attractive young white women. 

It takes Hawaii Five-0 until episode five before they either investigate a woman’s murder or rescue a damsel in distress, while the next focussed damselling of a female character doesn’t happen until episode eleven. And that might seem like an inconsequential thing, but seriously: do you know how rare that is, to be able to watch a procedural show where women aren’t being kidnapped or raped or murdered every three episodes? It doesn’t happen. But not only does Five-0 avoid the trope, it actively subverts it, producing multiple episodes where female characters thought to be victims really aren’t, or where women in vulnerable positions end up showing astonishing strength. And then there’s Kono, who, yes, is the only woman on the team, and a young, attractive one at that. But notwithstanding the events of episode one, she’s never sexualised by her colleagues – by which I mean, she’s not presented as a love interest for any of the men she works with, and again, that shouldn’t be so hard to come by in a TV show, but it is. This is a procedural without sexual chemistry; a show where a young, intelligent, kickass WOC has three older male mentors who actually fucking treat her respectfully, who don’t make comments about how hot she is, whose sex life isn’t the subject of skeevy jokes or subplots, and who gets to be her own person rather than a romantic prop for someone else. There’s even a moment in one of the early episodes where Kono remarks that of course, she’s going to be the one who has to go look after a child-witness, because she’s the woman; and she gets told that no, it’s because you’re the rookie, and that’s what rookies do – and you know what? She actually gets to be a rookie without that being an excuse for lady-incompetence or a cute way to make the sole female character less powerful: because not only do we see her demonstrate extraordinary skill, but we also see her being taught and praised by her mentors, asking for advice and receiving it, making mistakes and learning from them. Kono isn’t a sex object, she’s not a blank space and she’s not an office romance waiting to happen, and off the top of my head, I honestly can’t think of another crime show with a female character like her.

But the most important thing about Five-0 is the diversity. On the downside: so far, there haven’t been many native Hawaiians in the show, which is disappointing. But otherwise – and I cannot stress this enough – even though the main cast is two white guys and two POC, on an episode by episode basis? POC are the majority, and they appear in every possible capacity. And this is so, so significant in terms of modern procedurals, because as with the first-episode dead woman, there’s another toxic pattern common to the oeuvre, namely; that nine times out of ten, the only POC victims we see are either criminals, poor (where poor is coded to imply unworthiness) or possessed of criminal pasts, and even if we’re meant to sympathise with them, that sympathy is always filtered through the bigoted lens of accepting them despite their shady histories and/or poverty. This logic is so pernicious, it frequently extends to main characters, which is why Tara and Lafayette of True Blood, Eric Foreman of House, Kimball Cho of The Mentalist, Alfredo of Elementary, and Javier Esposito of Castle are all revealed to have criminal backgrounds and/or to have struggled out of poverty. POC characters whose personal histories are defined by neither class warfare nor illegal dealings, by contrast, are very seldom presented as victims. When POC are murdered, these stories overwhelmingly whisper to us, it’s not because they’re good people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – it’s because they lived in bad neighbourhoods, because they were poor or had criminal friends or were criminals either recently or at some point in the past; because they were gang members or illegal aliens or some other kind of Other. And as a result, these stories teach us – however subtly, unintentionally or against our better judgement – to feel less sorrow when POC are killed, and especially MOC, who are far more often portrayed as violent bogeymen than sympathetic victims. 

But Five-0 flips all that. We sympathise with illegal immigrants whose only crime is being undocumented; we sympathise with POC victims, and the families of victims, who are monied, middle-class and working class rather than exclusively poor; and, over and over again, we’re invited to identify with MOC, who are portrayed as loving, caring, peaceful, hardworking citizens – and family men, too – with enough regularity that, when we do invariably encounter POC gang members or criminals, their criminality isn’t implied to correlate with their race. Five-0 humanises POC victims in a way that no other procedural I’ve ever encountered does, and not just as a one-off, but as an actual thematic element to the show.

So, yeah. It’s still not perfect – there are other stereotypes in play, there’s zero queer representation, and I’d love it if Kono had a female mentor-character, or even just another woman, to talk to – but especially given how sceptical I was at the outset, Hawaii Five-0 has more or less floored me by casually subverting some of the most pernicious and ubiquitous tropes of the genre while still being joyfully full of explosions and car chases and scenes where Grace Park kicks ass, and it also – oh, joy of joys! – has multiple female and POC writers on staff, which, you know. Makes a damn difference.  (And also, Daniel Dae Kim’s cheekbones? YES.) So if you were on the fence or thinking of giving it a miss, maybe give it a look-see: the first episode isn’t the best, but beyond that, it’s definitely a show worth watching.   

 

Trigger warning: in-depth discussion of attempted rape.

Despite my personal love of season 6, Seeing Red isn’t an episode I’ve watched often, for obvious reasons that are, I suspect, shared by pretty much everyone who’s either a fan of Spike and/or his relationship with Buffy. The bathroom scene is fucking difficult to watch, not only because it’s so starkly realistic, but because it pushes their already broken relationship over a seriously damning line. Attempted rape lands squarely and undeniably in the category of Things For Which No Partner Should Be Forgiven Under Any Circumstances – and in real life, that’s not a rule I’m ever going to bend, because there’s literally no excuse for it. No. Excuse. At. All. But in the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey land of SFFnal narratives, where characters can be soulless or possessed or otherwise have their terrible actions contextualised and explained (if not necessarily excused) by Magical Forces At Work – and, more to the point, where our years-long investment in a particular relationship makes us unwilling to surrender the attachment on moral grounds when we could just as easily say the writers screwed up and superimpose our preferred headcanon in order to get around it – things aren’t quite so clear-cut*.

And so, the rape scene.

You guys. I don’t know what to think.

The thing is, I’d forgotten it. Forgotten, since my last proper rewatch, the pattern of the relationship that preceded it, selectively remembering only what suited me. I’ve seen commentary to the effect that, in order for Spike to have the mental break-slash-epiphany that leads to him getting his soul back, it would’ve been enough if he’d tried to kill Buffy, drain her, or turn her – anything but an attempted rape. And on one level, I agree with that wholly. Such an alternate scene might well have lacked the horrific, oh-god-no, no factor the existing one inspires, but that’s kind of the point: did we really need to go there? Narratively, there were other options available that would’ve got the job done, and which wouldn’t have left such a deeply problematic stain on their relationship. However we might define Spike’s actions in terms of his character and personal history within the show, there’s no way to separate that narrative from a wider cultural context, and as such, we have to view his subsequent redemption accordingly. By forgiving Spike, whatever the supernatural reasons and specificities involved, we are ultimately saying either that his attack didn’t fit with our preconceptions of his character, and therefore we can ignore it, or that attempted rape is something we can pardon under the right conditions, and while there might well be some people out there who have, for reasons of their own, gone down such a route in their own lives and made it work, as a general theme to impart to your audience, it’s not a great one.

Thus: the problem with the rape scene isn’t that it’s inherently unrealistic, but that it’s portrayed as something that Spike can recover from – and when you present your audience with a choice between pardoning the unpardonable Because Magic or completely severing all emotional allegiance to something they love, the majority will probably choose the former; not because they’re bad people or because they’re trying to trivialise an extremely serious issue, but because the unreality of fiction absolves them from making the harder choice that, morally, they’d hopefully want to make in real life. By which I mean: if it turned out someone you actually knew, someone you’d joked with and liked and hung out with on a regular basis for five years suddenly tried to rape their ex, then the fallout in your social circle, however clear-cut the facts of the case, would be epic. And as a result, I think that most people in that situation who acknowledged the truth of it would wish, however fleetingly, that the rape attempt had never happened at all,  not only because that would just be better, period, but because it would make things easier for them to deal with: the emotional dilemma of having to reconcile your friendly memories of someone with their hated identity as an attempted rapist would cease to exist in an instant – and that, that very understandably human but nonetheless deeply problematic temptation right there, is the reason why I dislike the presence of rape in this narrative: because no matter what arguments we make about shitty writing and sticking to headcanon, every time we duck the issue, we’re engaging in an emotional dry-run for wanting to handwave identical problems in real life. This is not a good thing; and in that sense, it would’ve been far better if the scene had never happened.

But.

As a piece of storytelling connected to and derived from established characterisation and plot?

It makes an awful kind of sense.

Because.

(Oh, god.)

 

(And oh, how my inner shipper wishes I hadn’t noticed this, because it makes everything so much harder now; queue a bout of the mental moral gymnastics detailed above, plus buckets of self-flagellation. But.)

There are serious fucking consent issues in Buffy and Spike’s relationship, and the rape scene is a deliberate callback to each and every one.

Because Buffy, thanks to a combination of self-hatred and fear of judgement, is deeply ashamed of her feelings for Spike. At the start of Tabula Rasa, when he confronts her about their kiss at the end of Once More, With Feeling, she tells him it was a one-off. But then, of course, it happens again – right at the end of the episode. As before, he confronts her at the start of Smashed; she tells him she’s disgusted with herself, and that it’s over. They argue; Buffy hits him; and when Spike hits back, he discovers his chip doesn’t work on her any more. “You came back wrong,” he tells her, and though we later find out this isn’t true in any meaningful sense, at the time, Buffy seizes on it as a justification for all her new, dark feelings:  if her lust and pain and rage are all explicable by some sort of demonic influence – if she’s not really human any more – then giving full rein to her desires is not only understandable, but arguably something she’s incapable of preventing. When Spike attacks her again, she grabs him, shoves him to the wall, and kisses him – and then they keep on, quite literally, fuck-fighting. The next morning, at the start of Wrecked, Buffy regains her sense of shame and tries once more to put Spike off. “Last night was a mistake,” she says, to which he shoots back, “Bollocks. It was a bloody revelation.” And then he pulls her into his lap. She tells him to stop. She tells him no. She even hits him a couple of times – and then she kisses him again. And then she pulls away from him. And then they fight. And then she leaves.

And this sort of thing keeps happening. Not every time, but most of the time, if consent is initially refused by one, the other ignores it – and this is invariably shown to be the “correct” decision in terms of what the other person, usually Buffy, “really wants”. In Gone, when Spike comes to Buffy’s house in the morning, he feels her up despite the fact that she tells him no; but minutes later, he repeats the action (albeit while reclaiming his lighter) and her enjoyment of it is visible. But later in the same episode, the scales are reversed: Spike throws Buffy out of his crypt, but it’s strongly implied that before going, she ignores his request and goes down on him, even though he’s told her to get out. Their relationship is physically, sexually violent: both of them frequently bruise, cut and otherwise damage each other during sex that’s heavily implied to have BDSM and sub/dom qualities. In S7, for instance, Spike tells Buffy that “I’ve done things with you I can’t spell”, while earlier in S6’s Dead Things, he praises her for “the way you make it hurt in all the wrong places”. In the same scene, Spike holds up a pair of handcuffs and asks if Buffy trusts him, strongly suggesting that she’s been the one tied down, for all that she later dreams of using them on Spike – a theory supported by the fact that, when she confesses the relationship to Tara, she asks herself aloud “Why do I let Spike do those things to me?” Yet though her answer to Spike’s trust question is “Never”, it’s spoken in a tone that suggests she might be lying, if only to herself. And on three other occasions, we see Spike talk Buffy into having sex with him despite her initial reticence – once outside the Doublemeat Palace, once at the Bronze, and once in her front garden.

In S3’s Consequences, when Faith goes to Angel for moral support after accidentally killing a human, she tells him, with angry defiance, that “Safe words are for wimps.” The line is both obvious bravado and a clear symptom of her self-destructive impulses: Faith is on the precipice of making some very dark choices, and in this moment, her youth and vulnerability contrast starkly with her aggression and rage. Three seasons later, the same line could very well be repurposed as the motto of Spike and Buffy’s sexual (though not their emotional) relationship. Contextualised by the presence of a safe word and an established set of rules, their repeated decision to ignore red flags over consent while causing physical harm to each other would be a totally different ballgame. Instead, they’re doing something that’s not only fucked up, but which is materially relevant to Spike’s actions in Seeing Red. Because – and this is broken on a whole new level – not only have their sexual encounters always involved violence, but they have never established a benchmark for consent that doesn’t hinge on ignoring ‘no’ and ‘stop’. So when Spike corners Buffy in her bathroom and tries to kiss her – when she pushes him away and says no – she’s effectively doing the exact same thing that has, in all their previous encounters, been interpreted as yes. Which means that he doesn’t start out trying to rape her – not in the sense of his motivation, anyway. I mean, that’s still what he’s actually doing, because Buffy is clearly withholding consent; but from Spike’s perspective, there’s a clear, demarcating moment when his actions actively turn to assault: when he realises the “usual” approach of grabbing and kissing isn’t enough, and says, aggressively, “I’m going to make you feel it”.

But when Buffy kicks him away and stands, a look of horror crosses his face – and he stops. He says, “I didn’t mean-“ but doesn’t finish the sentence. He realises what he’s done; and as he admits in S7’s Beneath You, it’s not something for which he can just apologise or ask forgiveness. It’s too big a betrayal. But in that moment in the bathroom, their whole relationship becomes a cautionary tale about the very important distinction between acknowledged, mutually agreed-upon BDSM pairings and just flat-out, fucked up, violent sex, and the absolutely vital importance of obtaining informed, enthusiastic consent on all occassions. Spike’s failure to have done so isn’t Buffy’s fault in any way, shape or form. But the fact that his assault is ultimately one big callback to their earlier lack of consent is absurdly problematic, in that it implies that his actions – at least initially – might be somewhat understandable; and that is profoundly fucking worrying, both as a thematic element and as a sign of writerly fail.

So, yeah. Regardless of whether you’re examining it in terms of action, implication, canon, context or narrative, this entire plotpoint is deeply – I’d even say irrevocably – borked. So instead of trying to pick a side, I’m just going to do what Buffy does: take things an episode at a time, and try to fight the evil where I see it.

 

*And that’s not necessarily a good thing, given its potential to influence our reactions to actual problematic behaviours in the real world by subconsciously priming us to forgive the people we’re predisposed to love, like, care about and/or feel invested in regardless of what they’ve done. I wrestle with this issue more or less constantly when it comes to my love of fictional characters whose actions are morally repugnant, but whose narratives continue to treat them as sympathetic figures after the fact. Which is bothersome on a different level: I acknowledge the existence of moral grey areas, I don’t insist on squeaky-clean heroes, and while I personally hold some specific crimes and criminals to be wholly irredeemable IRL, narratively speaking, redemption arcs are not only fascinating, but have the potential to ask some really interesting questions about the nature of heroism, anti-heroism, morality and forgiveness. So, yeah. It’s a bit of a mess. An interesting mess, to be sure! But a mess nonetheless, and in the absence of a hard answer, I tend to try and work things out on a case-by-case basis while regularly checking my subconscious assumptions by poking at them, always keeping in mind that because YMMV, my answers are not necessarily your answers. So, there’s that.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

“You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other ’till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood – blood screaming inside of you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”

– Spike,  Lover’s Walk (S3E8)

To me, the above quote is one of the single best speeches in all of Buffy – it might even be my personal favourite. In his lone appearance in S3, Spike is forced into a brief alliance with Buffy and the newly-returned Angel, and instantly sees through their claims to be “just friends”. Superficially, then, his response is not only the emotional denouement of the episode, but a comment on their relationship.

Only, here’s the thing: Buffy and Angel do become friends. Their love has already reached its big romantic climax. Buffy has fought with Angelus, not Angel; they’ve only had sex once (the events of I Will Remember You are reversed, and therefore don’t count); and though they argue down the line, they don’t ever hate each other. The relationship Spike is describing doesn’t exist.

Or rather, it does – but not between Buffy and Angel. This entire speech is a neat foreshadowing of everything that happens between Buffy and Spike. They’re not friends; they never were. Buffy dies being loved by Spike – he collapses in grief at the loss – and then later, after she says she loves him, Spike dies for Buffy in turn. They fight and shag constantly through S6 – sometimes simultaneously – and frequently state their hatred for one another before then: in fact, this is the exact progression of events in Smashed and Wrecked, when they first have sex. In Dead Things, we even see them stand on opposite sides of the same door, reaching for each other, each one yearning against their better judgement – blood screaming inside them to work its will, while Out Of This World by Bush plays eerily in the background. When it comes to Buffy, Spike is unashamedly love’s bitch. This speech will never not be about them.

Buffy and Spike is my crackship. Not because they’re impossible together, but because they should be – and because, like crack, they’re unhealthily addictive.

Their relationship is every possible flavour of fucked up. From the moment Spike first shows up in S2, they’re enemies – but when Angelus tries to end the world, it’s Spike who helps Buffy defeat him. In S4, despite their mutual loathing, we go down the rabbit hole of their relationship twice – once in Something Blue, when Willow’s magic forces them together, and then again in Who Are You, where Faith flirts with Spike while wearing Buffy’s body, and we realise he’s equal parts angry and aroused at the prospect. In Goodbye Iowa, he even refers to Buffy as Goldilocks – a term of endearment he uses again in S6’s Gone, when the usage prompts Buffy to cut her hair short. But it’s not until S5’s Out of My Mind that he realises he loves her: a dream-revelation that throws him awake with a whispered, “Oh god, no. Please, no.” (Love isn’t brains, children.)

Some of what Spike does is deeply gross (the Buffybot) or outright indefensible (his abortive rape attempt) – and yet, I keep coming back to their relationship; as broken and dysfunctional as it is, it’s nonetheless compelling. Even now, I still can’t decide whether every loving, useful thing Spike does while unsouled – withstanding torture to protect Dawn, fighting on Buffy’s side, comforting her when nobody else even knows what’s wrong – either outweighs or is outweighed by those two awful, terrible things. Because, here’s the thing: we don’t blame Angel for the crimes he commits as Angelus. His soulless personality is so different to his human one that it’s easy to view them as a flipswitch binary: he’s either one or the other. Angel has a romantic relationship with Buffy; Angelus wants to torture, abuse and kill her. But Spike is much more ambiguous. His emotional evolution starts while he’s still unsouled, to the point where loving Buffy prompts him to get his soul back. He’s so horrified by his actions in Seeing Red – the rape attempt – that, in his own words, he makes himself into the man she deserves: someone whose conscience would render him incapable of sexual violence.

And I just… OK. It’s impossible, literally impossible, to get away from the rape attempt (though apparently the fact that Xander did the same thing in S1’s The Pack is both forgiven and forgotten). You can’t ignore or downplay it, and while you can try and contextualise it for the purposes of discussing both Spike’s character and his relationship with Buffy, that still doesn’t change what he did. Thematically, though, there’s something significant in the fact that Spike stops himself – that he regains himself mid-assault, realises what he’s doing, and goes immediately to get his soul back. Because when Angel turns into Angelus after he and Buffy sleep together, the whole narrative becomes a metaphor for the fact that sometimes, men change once they’ve slept with you – they turn into monsters, and you’re left to pick up the pieces. It’s a theme that’s reiterated when Parker turns out to be a colossal douche, and to a lesser extent, when Riley starts seeing vampire gals on the side. Men turn into monsters, but overwhelmingly in the Buffyverse, they refuse to acknowledge it – except for Spike, who not only admits what he is, but actively tries to change.

See, the problem with Angel/Angelus being two extremes of a binary personality is that Angel is never held accountable (or at least, not by Buffy) for the things he does as Angelus. We never see him apologise: not for the way he treats her while evil, not for Miss Calendar’s death, none of it. Despite the fact that Angel’s whole redemptive arc is predicated on actively atoning for his vampire crimes, he still behaves as though it was all beyond his control. He doesn’t apologise for what he does to Buffy, because he’s not the one who did it – yet even if we consider that to be technically true, it still seems reasonable to expect him to seek forgiveness. Parker, however, has no such excuse: he’s a classic user, a weasel who avoids responsibility for his actions by claiming his motives were always obvious – that Buffy, or whichever girl he’s left broken-hearted, has simply misunderstood him. And then there’s Riley, whose response to being caught cheating is to issue an unbelievably selfish ultimatum: either Buffy can decide immediately that she still wants him around, in which case he’ll make an effort to earn back her trust, or she can stay angry and lose him forever. The speech that Xander gives Buffy at this point to convince her that Riley ought to stay is infuriating. He’s 1% right, in the sense that fairness doesn’t enter into it – Riley has given her an ultimatum, and as sucky as that is, she can’t abstain from making a decision – but given how incredibly shitty a thing Riley’s done by putting her in that position, he really doesn’t deserve Xander’s understanding; he certainly doesn’t deserve Buffy’s. And despite his denials, it’s clear his real issue with Buffy is her greater strength: she didn’t need his protection, he felt insecure as a result, and when presented with an easy out – flying away to the Amazon if his demands weren’t met, instead of staying to make things right – he takes it.

And then there’s Spike.

He apologises for the Buffybot; he openly admits that he’s a monster. After his assault on Buffy, the first thing he does is try to redeem himself, because unlike every other man she’s ever slept with, he admits he’s done something wrong, and that he, Spike, is the culprit. And it’s not silent redemption, either: the guilt drives him mad, and when he comes back at the start of S7, not only the audience, but Buffy herself is left in no doubt that what he’s done – regaining his soul – has been an act of atonement: that he’s given himself a conscience, punished himself physically and mentally, and returned with no expectation of forgiveness to offer what help he can. And that, I think, despite everything, is at the core of why I keep coming back to Buffy and Spike’s relationship, why I can’t let go of it: as brutally fucked up as their history is, and despite the fact that Spike’s assault is arguably* the worst thing any partner has ever done to her, he’s also the only parter to accept responsibility for his actions, and to try and directly atone for them. Spike learns because of Buffy; he becomes a better man – or a better monster – through loving her, and I don’t think that’s true of any of the others; even Angel.

And speaking of Angel: sit down and think for a moment about the basis for their relationship. S1 is only twelve episodes long. Angel doesn’t appear in all of them, and most of the time, his presence is fleeting. He and Buffy don’t even kiss until episode 7, and two episodes later, we’re meant to believe he’s in love with her – and while we later learn he’s been watching her quietly ever since she was called (which is incredibly creepy and stalkerish), the short timeframe strongly implies that her love of him is a youthful infatuation, at least initially. They’re together for a while, but a bit more than halfway through S2, he turns evil, and Buffy sends him to hell. When he returns in S3, he isn’t back on the field (so to speak) until about episode 7 – prior to that, he’s recovering. Though they get back together soon afterwards, when Joyce speaks to Angel about the “hard choices” he and Buffy have ahead of them, he breaks it off with her – and as sensible as that decision ultimately is, the way he goes about it doesn’t sit well with me. However immature Buffy was at the start of their relationship, she’s grown up enormously by that point, and instead of treating her like an adult – someone capable of knowing her own mind and making her own decisions – he takes the choice away from her, effectively dumping her for her own good. This is something he does again by returning in S4 without letting her know he’s there, and it’s also something we later see Riley do, too: indulging in paternalistic, overprotective behaviour despite her superior strength and emotional autonomy.

A sidenote here about Xander: I cannot even begin to express how much it bothers me that his rape attempt from S1’s The Pack is never addressed in the narrative. Despite remembering everything he did while under the influence of the hyena spirit, Xander feigns amnesia in order to dodge the consequences of his actions, putting him on the same page as Angel, Parker and Riley. Never mind the fact that, at this point – which is to say, four episodes into the first season – he and Buffy have known each other for all of a month or so, and that realistically, if a guy you’d known for such a short amount of time sexually assaulted you while in an altered state,  it ought to make you wary of him afterwards at the very least. But this doesn’t happen, which I take to be an enormous failure on the part of the writers. The fact that Spike’s assault is more forceful then Xander’s doesn’t detract from the vileness of the sentiment – nor, indeed, from the fact that, whereas Spike regains his senses mid-struggle and stops himself, Xander has to be physically incapacitated by Buffy. But despite the difference in their demonic aspects – Xander is possessed by a hyena spirit, while Spike is soulless – the two states nonetheless appear to be rather similar, in that both are guided by primal urges while still retaining their base personalities. It therefore seems a telling sign of Xander’s status as a Nice Guy that, whereas Spike seeks redemption for what he’s done while still soulless, Xander doesn’t so much as apologise even when back to normal. Xander, it seems, has less decency at times than someone who physically lacks a conscience.

Which is, I think, the best definition for vampirehood in the Buffyverse. Becoming a vampire invests you with bloodlust and demonic strength while stripping you of your conscience: what’s left is who you were before, but influenced by power and hunger and unfettered by consequences, which is the perfect explanation for Spike. In S5’s Crush, he’s implicitly likened to Quasimodo – a troubled outsider whose love for Esmerelda (that is, Buffy) can never be reciprocated, because his motivations in pursuing her are purely selfish – and yet, in the same conversation, we’re also invited to sympathise with him, for the sake of the effort he makes. Spike’s soullessness means that he’s without conscience, but unlike Quasimodo, he tries to grow one, and eventually succeeds by regaining his soul – but this being something of a chicken and egg dilemma, his attempts prior to that are equal parts creepy, misguided and genuinely touching. He makes a shrine to Buffy, furnished with clothes and photos stolen from her house. He tells her about Riley out of a mix of self-interest and real concern, but when he realises how deeply she’s been hurt by it, we see him express contrition and empathy. In S5’s Triangle, we even see him rehearsing apologies, complete with a dented box of chocolates. In Crush, he threatens her with death at Drusilla’s hands unless she confesses being attracted to him, but at the same time acknowledges how wrong his own feelings are. And when Glory captures and tortures him, he withholds the secret of Dawn’s identity at great personal cost, because he knows how much her loss would hurt Buffy. Without recourse to a conscience, he’s pulled in different directions at once, trying to do the right thing but failing at least as often as he succeeds. The demon in him is selfish, lustful and possessive, but the good man, the poet, so long dormant, is fighting for control.

And then there’s the issue of the Buffybot. More than once in the course of the show, a character spurned or crossed in love resorts to magic or science as a way to regain control: Xander once, with his wildly destructive love spell in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; Warren twice, first with his own robot, April, and then with the enslavement, attempted rape and actual manslaughter of Katrina; Willow twice, first with her abortive attempt to curse Oz and Veruca, and then with her erasure of Tara’s memory; and Spike twice, once with his abortive plan to cast a love spell on Drusilla, and then again with the Buffybot. (And that’s before you count Anya’s work as a vengeance demon.) As skeevy and gross as the two sexbots are, for my part, I find them vastly less disturbing than Xander’s attempt to actually put Cordelia in his power – at least the robots aren’t real people. (We see from the Buffybot’s point of view in one episode, which was mechanical enough to convince me it lacks true sentience.) In fact, Xander’s spell is uncomfortably close to Warren’s plans for Katrina, in that both men actually used magic to try and control their ex-girlfriends; the fact that Xander never killed or raped anyone doesn’t put him that much ahead of the game when you consider not only how narrow his escape was, but the fact that he’s never really penalised for it. By contrast, Spike abandons his plan to curse Drusilla when he realises their split is his fault, not hers, an epiphany that Xander never has, and which stands as yet another instance of Spike admitting his faults and learning from his behaviour when other, ostensibly more moral characters fail to do so under similar circumstances.

There is, I suspect, a rather awful reason for this – and, indeed, for why Spike alone of all Buffy’s lovers and love interests accepts responsibility for his actions. It’s all down to narrative impetus: we, the viewers, are meant to sympathise with Xander, just as we’re meant to sympathise with Angel and Riley. At base, we “know” they’re all good guys, and as such, their contrition is implied. We don’t need to see them apologise, because the surrounding story is structured to suggest that they’ve already been forgiven off-camera. But Spike, by contrast, begins as a villain. His developmental arc is the most dramatic and varied in the whole show, culminating in a  radical heel face turn at the end of S6. We need to see his redemption, because otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that it’s taken place – and to an extent, this makes sense: if the audience can reasonably infer that something has happened, then it’s a waste of script and wordage to insert it. The problem is that, if the good guys never apologise on screen, then their goodness is called into question – which is why  the most fucked up relationship in the whole show is simultaneously the most equitable. Neither Buffy nor the audience can assume anything about Spike’s intentions that we aren’t actually shown, and as a result, he has to work the hardest out of anyone to be seen as good.

Thus: when Angelus is trying to end the world, Spike is trying to save it. When Xander is busy making threats and lying, Spike is saving Giles and keeping his promises. When Riley is out paying lady vamps to bite him, or sulking because Buffy’s had the temerity to put her own need to be strong ahead of his need to feel manly and protective, Spike is telling her the truth and offering quiet, undemanding support. When Willow and the others are smothering the newly resurrected Buffy, Spike gives her an out. And when absolutely everyone betrays her at the end of S7, it’s Spike alone who keeps faith with her. From villain to invalid to lovelorn drunk; from glowering menace to chaotic, defanged outsider; from frenemy to lover to ex; from assailant to madman to stalwart, both Spike’s personality and his relationship with Buffy undergo the most development in the whole show. He’s done some truly awful things, but when it really matters and everyone else has abandoned her, it’s always Spike, and Spike alone, who’s there to watch her back.

*I say arguably, because Angelus’s crimes are pretty horrific, too, and YMMV in terms of which you consider to be worse overall: there’s no sliding scale for evil, no definitive catalogue with which to determine their heinousness objectively.

Some thoughts on Buffy, in no particular order.

1.

There’s an alternating pattern to the season finales/big bads that I’ve never noticed before: it switches back and forth between a massive, apocalyptic threat that’s billed as such from the outset, and personal vendettas that slowly develop into something more dangerous. S1 is the Master (apocalypse); S2 starts out as Spike and Dru, but culminates with Angelus (personal); S3 is the Mayor (apocalypse); S4 starts out with Spike, but culminates with Adam and the Initiative (personal); S5 is Glory (apocalypse); S6 starts out with the Trio, but culminates in Dark Willow (personal); and S7 is the First Evil (apocalypse).

And the thing is, off the top of my head, I can’t think of another show that does this. Overwhelmingly, modern TV series seem obsessed with the notion that each successive season finale has to be bigger than the last, which eventually leads to melodrama and the collapse of the show, because you can only go so big before things get ludicrous (the Doctor Who reboot being a case in point). Which isn’t to say that Buffy doesn’t escalate – it does. But it does so gradually, interspersing the big events with more intimate drama, and that’s something I really appreciate about it. Apart from aiding character development, it establishes a strong narrative rhythm and builds the tension season by season without ever making the constant danger feel monotone. I wish more shows did the same thing, or at least mixed it up a bit.

2.

I hate Tara’s family. I hate them with a passion I reserve for few things in the Buffyverse, because for a show that’s all about fighting Evil with a capital E, there’s really a lot of moral ambiguity going on. Should we forgive Angel for the crimes he committed while Angelus on the grounds that he lacked a conscience and was therefore effectively a different person, or do we hold him accountable for everything he ever did? And if we forgive him, do we then forgive Spike his trespasses while unsouled on the same grounds, even though he was capable of enough actual goodness in the same state that he arguably should’ve known better? And so on, and so forth – the point being, however, that Tara’s family are monstrous without the excuse of actually being monsters. They raise her to believe she’s evil and demonic purely as a means of keeping a leash on her; she stutters and cringes around them, and the big reveal as to why they spent nineteen years trying to break her spirit? Then men in her family want her home, to cook and clean and keep house for them, because they’re misogynist, sexist asshats. Which makes me want to STAB ALL THE THINGS.

3.

As a corollary of the above: the episodes I find hardest to watch – the ones that provoke an actual, bodily response in me, so that I have to squinch* away from the television – are all episodes about the abuse, abandonment and gaslighting tactics of friends and family. Ted, Dead Man’s PartyGingerbreadFamily, Hell’s Bells and Seeing Red all squick me in ways that other episodes just don’t. Something I find intolerable both narratively and and in real life is false accusation: people being blamed or framed for something they didn’t do, especially in a situation where their ability to respond or defend themselves is compromised. It makes me physically sick and furious, and so I struggle with these stories. I might well do a fuller examination of them later, especially Dead Man’s Party, which is a special kind of fucked up.

4.

Every single POC character in the show – and it’s not like there are many – is either unlikeable or evil from the outset (Rona, Mr Trick), an ally who’s eventually revealed to be morally ambiguous at best or traitorous at worst (Robin Wood, Forest), or someone whose ethnicity/accent is played for laughs prior to their death (Chao-Ahn, Kendra, Hus) – or sometimes a combination of all three (the Inca Mummy Girl). This is so incredibly shitty, I cannot even. As many others have said before me: Joss Whedon might be great at white feminism, but his racefail is spectacular.

5.

As a character, Dawn is portrayed as annoying, juvenile, awkward and whiny, yet the reason for this is never really addressed. Early in S5, it’s strongly implied that Buffy struggles to get along with Dawn because, despite her false memories of their childhood together, she doesn’t actually have the personal development to go with it: even though she believes in their joint history, emotionally, she’s still at step one. It’s not until she learns that Dawn is the Key that Buffy is able to recognise her own irritation for what it is, and to try to curb it appropriately: the privilege of an only child grating at the sudden and jarring transition to sisterhood. But when Dawn realises what she is, the full ramifications are never addressed: that despite all her memories of growing up as a human girl, she’s still emotionally an infant. By the end of S7, Dawn is only three years old in real time, and so has been on the emotional learning trajectory of a toddler while simultaneously going through all the angst and physical development of early adolescence. This has got to be the suckiest combination ever, and when you add in all the accompanying traumas she experiences in that time – learning her memories are false, the death of her mother, Willow’s magic addiction, Tara’s death, the death and resurrection of Buffy, the threat of removal by child protective services, multiple apocalypses and kidnappings – the fact that she’s even vaguely well-adjusted at the end of it all is a fucking miracle.

So, yeah. Don’t be so hard on Dawn. In a show where pretty much every character gets the absolute shit kicked out of them on a regular basis, she still gets an incredibly raw deal – but unlike everyone else, her pain is regularly dismissed in-show as teenage melodrama, even by characters whose own broken, demon-filled adolescences should’ve left them with more sympathy. And in return, we hate her for it.

More thoughts later!

*Squinch is a word I made up to describe the reaction I have to things that make me uncomfortable. It’s a combination of squirm and flinch.

S4’s Hush is widely acknowledged to be an awesome episode of Buffy. The acting is wonderful, the arc and writing are strong, and the non-verbal characterisation and communication are both brilliant. As villains, the Gentlemen are not only hugely creepy, but iconic – so much so that, as I was watching, I came to the belated realisation that two of Steven Moffat’s original monsters in Doctor Who, the Silence and the Whispermen, are inarguably Gentlemen knockoffs. (He’s even copied Whedon’s trick of the fake-creepy nursery rhyme to describe them.) It’s definitely one of the strongest episodes overall, and one that I still really like.

But.

(You knew there’d be one.)

Two things really bothered me in this episode – jarringly so, because I’d never noticed them before, and because they were both unequivocally sexist.

Firstly, there’s the issue of Anya. Ever since she turned human in S3, something about her characterisation in general and her interactions with Xander in particular has been really bothering me, but it wasn’t until Hush that I was able to pin it down: she’s a sexist caricature. Though her directness, socially inappropriate behaviour and greed are all played as quirky demon-turns-human traits, they overwhelmingly manifest as exaggerated and stereotypically negative female behaviours. After going with Xander to prom, which constitutes their one and only date, she forms a disproportionately strong attachment to him, demanding to know about the state of their relationship and in all respects behaving like a clingy, obsessive stalker – which is played for laughs at her expense. Immediately after sleeping with Xander, she says ‘I’m over you’, then penalises him for expressing the same sentiment, thereby conforming to the stereotype of women who say the opposite of what they mean – which is played for laughs at her expense. And then, in Hush, when she once again asks Xander about their relationship, he turns to her and says, ‘You really did turn into a real girl, didn’t you?’ – confirming the fact that her commitment anxiety, irrational mood-swings, demands that Xander buy her things, and nagging, attention-seeking behaviour are not only deemed to be inherently feminine traits, but are also viewed as negative because they’re female. Which, as ever, is played for laughs at her expense.

And I just. This skeevs me out and pisses me off so much, because even though Anya develops into an awesome character, these basic elements of her personality are always there to some extent, and they’re invariably painted as grounds for someone to mock or laugh at her. There are plenty of ways to portray her misunderstanding of human convention that don’t hinge on exaggerated sexist stereotypes, and given that Xander – Xander, King of Nice Guys and Insecure Masculinity, whose issues I’ll be blogging about in the future – is the one who helps her grow into a Real Human by socialising and correcting her, frequently by belittling her in front of other people? This is a serious problem.

Secondly: this is the episode where Willow first meets Tara at her Wiccan group, whose other members are portrayed as being anti-magic and generally ignorant. And… OK. It’s potentially a very cool idea! But here’s where it doesn’t work for me: the Wiccan group, instead of being about magic, is very clearly shown to be a feminist, pro-sisterhood organisation – or at least, they are on paper. They talk about empowerment and getting the word out to the sisters, and when Willow brings up the idea of actual magic, she’s chided for buying in to negative stereotypes. So, feminism, yes?

Only, no. The girl who rebukes Willow does so very passive-aggressively, in a way that portrays no sisterhood at all. But her treatment of Tara is even worse: despite the fact that Tara is visibly shy and stutters when speaking, the Wiccan group-leader mocks her, calls for quiet so Tara can speak (which is clearly a silencing tactic, designed to make her back down – which she does) and expresses sarcastic amazement at the idea that Tara might have anything to contribute. It’s clear from the way this is done that she – and, indeed, the others, who laugh along with her – have a pre-existing dislike of Tara, though we’re not told why. And I get what this scene is meant to do: in the Buffyverse, magic really exists, so the idea of Wiccans who think it’s fake is obviously comic. But here, in the real world occupied by the audience, there’s no such thing as magic – so what we’re left with is a scene that not only mocks as ignorant an overtly feminist group, but portrays its members as catty and cruel. Which, I’m sorry, but no.

And lest someone make the argument that, well, not every episode in the season was written by Whedon personally, so obviously some sexism still squeaked through? No. Hush is written by Joss alone; and believe me, as uncritical a fan as I used to be of his stuff – and even though I still love the vast majority of it – man are there some serious issues with what he does. UGH.

Prior to starting my watch-through of The X Files, my abiding assumption about Mulder and Scully’s relationship, given its status as the UST-OTP to end all UST-OTPs, was that their romance would be highlighted from minute one. I thought this because, by and large, it’s just what happens in procedural shows where the main character has a regular associate or partner of the opposite sex: sure, there are a handful of platonic exceptions, like Pete and Myka of Warehouse 13 and Lisbon and Jane of The Mentalist (for the first four seasons, anyway), but otherwise, the default setting is to comment, loudly and often, on the protagonists’ Secret Attraction. Whether it’s Booth and Brennan (Bones), Castle and Beckett (Castle), House and Cuddy (House), or Olivia and Peter (Fringe), the audience is never left in any doubt as to the presence of a love that dare not speak its name.

And so, not unreasonably, I’d assumed that at least part of the reason for this was the legacy of The X Files – and to a certain extent, that’s true: Mulder and Scully’s relationship casts such a long shadow that every subsequent TV partnership has been forced to address its specter. But the thing is, for the first four seasons, there’s not so much as a whisper of romance between them. Don’t get me wrong – their relationship is devoted, intense, exclusive and loyal, with neither one forming any other significant secondary attachments outside it, and you can certainly infer their attraction as subtext. But as I’ve said before, before S5, it’s only subtext: there are no lingering glances, meaningful conversations, awkward moments or obviously-engineered setups designed to force them together or highlight their romance, and nor do any other characters make a habit of commenting on their relationship. It’s all very refreshing, such that, somewhat ironically, it actually serves as a more genuine basis for their eventual romance than if the attraction had been earmarked the whole way through.

But in S5, Mulder starts to flirt with Scully – subtly, to be sure, but the change in his behaviour is nonetheless evident. He loves her, and yet makes no demands of her. Instead, he simply contents himself with indulging a slightly more intimate sense of humour than previously, and otherwise continues to treat her as normal. In S6, however, the writers have begun to shiptease in earnest, with other characters commenting on their attraction and mistaking them for a couple, and the advent of episodes whose premises force them together in quasi-romantic situations. The first movie, Fight the Future, bridges these two seasons admirably – not only because of the almost-kiss that (arguably) serves to intensify their relationship, but because it brings the primary alien plotline to a dramatic head.

But even once the shipteasing begins, there’s still a degree of subtlety to their relationship that’s unheard of in subsequent shows. Partly, this has to do with the quality of the acting – both Anderson and Duchovny turn in very wry, reserved performances – but mostly, it’s down to how understated the cinematography is. I’ve always known that the romances in other shows are heavily underlined and emphasised, but without being able to compare the default to a different approach, I hadn’t quite realised how pervasive the problem was, and how much it annoyed me: not just on the grounds of being narratively redundant, but because it treats the audience as inattentive and oblivious.

With regard to plot and execution, I’m still enjoying the show. S5 is an incredibly strong season, and S6, while slightly woolier on the main plot – understandable, given that Fight the Future had already provided something of a catharsis for the big themes – is still consistently strong when it comes individual episodes and characterisation. Which leads me to wonder if I’ll ever really tire of the show, even if the quality starts to drop (which experience would suggest it inevitably will). Because as far as I can tell, the three things that most bother me when applied to successive TV seasons – inconsistency, retconning and escalation – aren’t present in The X Files; or at least, aren’t present yet. By which I mean: the characterisation is still solid and internally consistent, there hasn’t been any obvious retconning of previously established information in order to allow for later plots (Chris Carter might be a pantser rather than a plotter, but he still respects his own established canon), and because the premise has always been one of world-altering conspiracies that extend to the highest levels of power, there’s no real scope for the plot to suddenly escalate beyond its original, local parameters (as has happened, for instance, with the death of Brennan’s mother in Bones, the death of Beckett’s mother in Castle, and the advent of the Potentials in Buffy).

All in all, then, The X Files is still proving to be one of the most consistently enjoyable TV shows I’ve ever seen. The steady development of Mulder and Scully’s relationship has been done respectfully over the course of many seasons, and yet has remained subtle rather than being constantly underlined and unnecessarily foregrounded. The monster-of-the-week episodes are still strong, and if the main alien plot is starting to run out of steam, that’s hardly surprising after six seasons and a movie. There’s even been a notable decrease in racefail episodes, which is definitely a plus. And frankly, even if things do start to go downhill from this point on, the show has won enough of my goodwill that I’ll be willing to tolerate a lot before losing patience with it. So: onward to S7!