Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jekyll: the Romance of the Abuser

Okay, it's pretty late to be reviewing a miniseries that aired in 2007, but, screw it, I re-watched it this week and kind of saw it in a brand new way.

This BBC series, written by Steven Moffat (who is such an inconsistent writer I can't even begin... how he can write the spectacular "Blink" and then turn around and shit out the worst season of Doctor Who... blah!), re-visits the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a contemporary setting. The series opens with Tom Jackman struggling to cope with the aftermath of his fiendish alter-ego's "adventures", without putting his family into danger. He is, however, being watched, and it soon becomes apparent that there's a deeper mystery afoot than just where Hyde parked the car.

Serious spoilers for the entire series below the cut, including major plot twists. Beware!

Also, Trigger Warning for pro-rape dialogue.


There are a lot of things about this series that I like. James Nesbitt is a brilliant actor and he nails every little bit of both sides of the Jekyll and Hyde role. Gina Bellman surprised the hell out of me, as generally I find her comic roles too cheesy and over the top - this seemed like the perfect dramatic role for her to shine in. There's also a host of fun supporting characters, though a few missed moments to develop them out completely (aw, Katherine, you had so much potential!). Scads of fabulous dialogue (like "He just sent a note with a dead lion - how much more serious do you get?" and "How was your driving?" "Expressive."), some rocking plot twists, despite the occasional misstep (tip: always tie up the psychopath - there's no good reason not to, Katherine!), and overall it's a pretty entertaining. Plus I'm a sucker for werewolf/unwanted monster transformation stories because of all the ways to tie it to the complex experience of menstruation (especially for those of us for whom menstruation is a bit like a curse).

But watching it again five years later, it seems so obvious to me know that the story is built around a particular myth that surrounds abusive partners. So very obvious that I can only attribute my complete failure to notice it the first time to the fact that at the time I was completely buying into this particular ideal: the transformative relationship between love and violence and the romanticization of abusers.

Spoiler time: In the original tale by Robert Louis Stevenson (hee, Gatiss cameo!), Jekyll's initial transformation into the devilish Hyde is kicked off by a potion he self-administers and then loses control over. However, in the series it is revealed that this story was a falsehood planted by the original Jekyll to conceal the fact that there was no potion at all and the change came about as a result of his overwhelming love for his maid, Alice. Thus, the transformation of Tom Jackman, a descendent of the original Jekyll and Hyde, was similarly sparked by his love for his wife Claire, a genetic clone of Alice. This is in fact the reason for Claire's creation and the orchestration of the relationship between her and Tom Jackman by the Big Evil Company™.

(Yeah, the motivations and goals of the standard Big Evil Company™ cliché are left fairly vague - something about medical enhancements based on Hyde/Jackman being the "next evolutionary stage of humanity". Standard ridiculous sci-fi tropes.)

Let's stop and consider the contrast here between Jackman and Hyde:

Tom Jackman: Soft-spoken, socially-awkward scientist. When he and his wife are harassed (and she sexually assaulted) by a gang of thugs on a beach boardwalk on their vacation, he is taunted but specifically refuses to fight back because there are too many of them, and instead takes the abuse quietly. He is also repeatedly described as someone who is sexually repressed, and in the first episode Claire indicates that she is disappointed (somewhat) but not surprised that he wasn't cheating on her as an explanation for why he has suddenly disappeared from his family's lives. All in all, not physical, not violent, not particularly sexual. And when he is sexual, it quickly becomes all about...

"Billy" Hyde: A monster, of the stereotypical "Id" variety. Violent, sexually rapacious, and self-abusive (alcohol, smoking, and occasional self-injury, mainly to dick around with Jackman who has to live with the consequences). The only reason he doesn't kill and rape more is because Jackman has convinced Hyde that he will be able to tell and if he ever finds evidence of Hyde's bad behaviour he will turn himself in, damning them both. One of the most fan-loved Hyde quotes gets pretty clearly at his personality: "Ever killed anyone? [...] It's like sex, only there's a winner." Or how about his definition of "the perfect night in": "A beautiful woman, a locked door, and soundproofing." Hyde does not particularly distinguish between consensual sex and rape much more than he distinguishes between sex and murder, except in that he knows he may get punished for crossing the line too much. He talks about killing a lot, but actually only kills a few times, even after Jackman begins exerting less control over him. He does frequently physically torture and maim people, however. It's also implied that he will behave cannibalistically ("I'm going to eat you!"), but he never actually does, though the audience is teased with this a few times.

He's also described specifically as being like a child, as a way of explaining, and in some cases defending, his immature, impulsive, and destructive behaviour:
Tom: He has Disney favourites?
Katherine: He likes the songs.
Tom: My dark side loves Mary Poppins, no wonder I was bullied in school...
Katherine: Dr Jackman, didn't you say he was like a child?
Hyde often refers to Jackman as "Daddy", and is eventually referred to himself as "Junior". There's even an insinuation at the very end that Hyde's personality/consciousness has jumped into one or both of Claire and Tom's twin boys, making that implied relationship literally true.

He's also physically different from Jackman - more like a younger brother than a twin. He's both depicted and described as being maybe five years younger, with darker and more hair, being slimmer and fitter, a few inches taller, and is demonstrably physically stronger than any normal human. And, very importantly, despite the violent nature of his sexual behaviour, he's consistently described as being much sexier than Jackman - a "world-class hottie" and "Mr. Sexypants", etc. This is even pointed out by the lesbian detectives, who say that if they notice it, it must be true.

(Don't ask me how I feel about the lesbian detective couple - I know it's tokenizing and trite, especially as one of them is pregnant, but I love those two actors and I love them playing a couple and I can't bring myself to hate it.)

Sexuality is one of the key differences between Jackman and Hyde, and the axis on which their personalities tilt. It is after Tom and Claire first have sex that Tom notices his arm hair is thicker and darker, briefly, and this what kicks off his inevitable transformation into Hyde. Later, Claire brags to a friend of hers that when she and Tom have sex, she turns his eyes black (another physical difference between Jackman and Hyde). The full transformation doesn't occur until after the assault on Tom and Claire on the boardwalk, during which Tom is impotent. Later in the evening, Hyde finally appears and takes a violent revenge on the punk, tearing his ear off.

This is the explanation for Hyde's existence given by the woman claiming to be Jackman/Hyde's mother in the final episode:
Tom's mother: People think that Hyde is Rage. Or Hate. Or Greed. Or Lust. But Hyde is far worse.
Claire: Then what is he?
Tom's mother: What was the first day you knew you could kill someone, anyone at all, if you had to?
Claire: The day I first held my children.
Tom's mother: It's our oldest, deadliest impulse, the need to protect our own at the expense of any other living thing. And we give that impulse such a nice name, don't we? Hyde... is Love - and Love is a psychopath.
So there it is. Sex with Claire first awakens Tom's inner monster, and then her sexual molestation and his helplessness to prevent it awakens the beast completely, to exact revenge on her behalf (and on behalf on his own abused masculinity, one imagines). Love's first transformation: from loving husband to psychopath. And the husband is simply another victim of his own uncontrollable passions.

But there's another transformation as well. Early in the series, there is a lot of tension about whether Hyde will hurt Jackman's family or not. Much of Jackman's effort is devoted toward hiding the existence of his family from Hyde at first, and then, after their discovery, threatening and controlling Hyde (by locking himself up before the transformation and forcing himself to stay conscious with sleeping pills). Yet Hyde, while he makes threats and taunts against Claire and the boys, never actually harms them and even protects them on a few occasions. Once Hyde learns that Claire (now and in her original incarnation as Alice) is the person responsible for his very existence, he becomes quite protective of her. In a dream sequence where he communicates with the original Hyde, he realizes that his love for her is what makes Jackman strong and himself weak, but rather than try to eliminate her as his weakness, instead he says:
"I’m so strong I walk through this funny little world of yours and I don’t notice it. It bores me. But you... you, Mrs. Jackman, you make me weak. I notice you."
This is Hyde's justification for reaching a détente and joining forces with Jackman in order to rescue Claire and their children following their abduction by the Big Evil Company™. Eventually he is so devoted to Claire and her children that he is willing to give up Jackman's body to save them. Again, there's a hint that he actually transplants himself into one of the children rather than dies completely, but that's still a major step down and a big sacrifice to someone whose sole purpose in life until that point is to enjoy his own pleasure and the suffering of others.

So here is the other side of the abuser myth - the power of love to transform a violent, selfish psychopath into a loving protector. Absolving both sides.

Don't get me wrong here - there's no actual evidence that Jackman or Hyde abuses Claire. Also, she's presented as a pretty strong female character. She's interesting and stands on her own as a character, her sexuality is depicted positively, and she shows a lot of agency on her own behalf, for all that she ultimately must be rescued. Which is not to say that "strong women" aren't abused, because HELL NO - just that she wasn't stripped of her agency and made helpless and dependent on a saviour-abuser figure to the extent that she could have with clumsier writing.

But what I see here is not the depiction of abuse so much the idealization of what could - should - be an abusive relationship, given Hyde's personality and predilections, but by virtue of the plot-magic of ~*~true love~*~ (love that crosses generations, mind - just as Jekyll felt about Alice, so his descendent feels about her clone) isn't. Claire drives Tom crazy (which means he's not responsible for his own actions, after a point, because there's only so much he can do to restrain Hyde), and ultimately also redeems him, all through the power of romantic love. She does weaken him, which must be inherent in something so womanly and emotional as romantic love (/sarcasm), but he accepts this weakness, rather than rejects it. Doesn't that remind you of the fantasy that if a woman just stands by her man, she can help him, fix him? That if your love is true and pure, it will conquer all, including the most reprehensible of behaviours? That all an abusive man really needs is the love of a good woman to keep him straight and on track?

Claire gets lucky, but there's another character who serves more as a cautionary tale. Katherine Reimer, the psychiatric nurse hired to assist Jackman and Hyde, nearly dies for making the same assumptions about Hyde. It's with Katherine that I think some of the assumptions undergirding this story get closest to the surface.

See, Katherine is smart. VERY smart. Right away in her introduction, the point is made that she is clever, educated, keenly observant, and not to be trifled with. She knows just how dangerous Hyde is, but also manages to work with him calmly. She even maintains perfect equanimity between her two clients, who are often at odds with each other (e.g., keeping Hyde's secrets from Jackman as well as vice versa, remembering their preferences), despite the fact that it's made clear early on that she is in love with Jackman. In fact, she seems to be the only woman in the series, even including Claire, who doesn't think that Hyde is sexier than Jackman. She and Hyde seem to get along reasonably well, although Hyde assures her that his good behaviour is only because he knows he is always being taped by Jackman and that he would be punished for hurting her. He promises her that should the power ever go out, he will eat her. (More likely he would rape and kill her, as that seems to be his actual M.O., posturing aside.)

Yet a major element of the second episode is that somehow Katherine is stupid enough to drug Jackman (for plot purposes not necessary to elaborate here), leave him in the restraining chair completely unrestrained, and THEN shut off all the power in order to bypass the computer's security system. The obvious result is that Hyde takes over in Jackman's unconscious state (which should not have gone unpredicted by clever, observant Katherine) and attempts to make good on his earlier promise to eat her. She manages to save her life only because she has reserved a single trump card of being able to tell him the identity of the person she is working for - his mother.

There are two reasons for this egregious lapse in characterization: 1) Sloppy writing. Seriously - it was just a lazy way to imperil her without providing a plausible reason for why she would do something so careless in the first place. 2) The half-assed reason alluded to in the show itself, which is that she genuinely believed that he wouldn't hurt her, because he likes her and they have a working relationship. Simply, that, despite all evidence to the contrary, she trusted that their friendship would protect her. And perhaps, on some level, her love for Jackman:
Hyde: Oh Katherine, alone at last.
Katherine: Mr. Hyde, you don't play these games - not with me. You've always had more sense. [...] You won't hurt me.
Hyde: I'll eat you!
[...]
Katherine: [referring to Tom] I know how he thinks.
Hyde: I am how he thinks.
Katherine: Then you've got a problem, because you like me.
Hyde: Bet your life?
But Jackman doesn't return her affections and Hyde doesn't care about Katherine enough not to hurt, rape, or kill her when given the opportunity, if she hadn't had that last bargaining chip.

I'm not going to suggest that this analysis is any radical or wise insight - as I said, I think it's all pretty obvious. Nor is the celebration of this particular myth limited to this show, these writers. It's a cultural phenomenon which shows up time and time again, in TV, books, movies, song lyrics, and the everyday ways in which we talk about our lives, reflecting and reinforcing the media lessons.

What struck me, though, as I said, is that the first time I watched this show, I really bought into it. I was still caught up with the romanticism of the idea of inspiring the beast in someone for love of me. Of taming the beast in the same way. That I could be so special to someone that I could make them crazy, and then pull them back from the brink again, in a way that no other person - no other woman - could survive. I wanted to be Claire - I didn't anticipate being Katherine.

It was only the second time through - five years older, five years wiser, a nice little pre/post measure for the effect of a social justice education, if you will - that I recognized that any Jackman with a Hyde inside waiting to come out is not someone I want to romance. And Hyde is not a world-class, badass hottie I want to attract. And in the real world, neither Claire nor Katherine would likely to walk away from that unscathed, if they walked away at all.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis of this series. I watched it last year and was fascinated by their take on the story (and Nesbitt's performance), but I have to agree that it hinges rather a lot on that problematic redeem-the-abuser stereotype.

    ReplyDelete

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