Amy Manson as Maladie in The Nevers

“The Nevers”, Joss Whedon, and Who Controls Meaning

The biggest element of “The Nevers” you should know is that the show was developed and showrun by Joss Whedon. Given the multitude of disturbing allegations regarding racism, misogyny, and abuse that have surfaced about him, it will hopefully be his last. The creator of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” stepped away from “The Nevers” late last year, citing exhaustion. Given the timing as these allegations started mounting, it’s likely his departure wasn’t by choice. He was replaced by writer-producer Philippa Goslett as showrunner for subsequent seasons, but it was after a large amount of work on the first season had already been completed.

HBO series “The Nevers” follows heroine Amalia True and inventor Penance Adair. They run an orphanage for those who have been “touched” – granted a range of superhuman abilities. True can see glimpses of the future, for instance, Adair can see ways that electricity might be manipulated in her inventions. One of the girls at their orphanage is a giant; another they rescue can speak multiple languages but can’t control when. It’s all a bit 1890s London X-Men, but focused on women’s equality.

It’s unfortunate then that Whedon is the one who developed the show. Joshua Rivera tackled this well over at Polygon, describing “The Nevers” as a retread of Joss Whedon obsessions. Laura Donnelly’s True is the best martial artist around but struggles with inner vulnerability and suicidal tendencies. Rivera mentions Buffy, Faith, River Tam, and Echo from “Buffy”, “Angel”, “Firefly”, and “Dollhouse” as comparisons. I’d also add what Whedon did to Black Widow in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. But this is just the gateway to the full retinue of Whedon tropes “The Nevers” suffers.

I’ve already mentioned Ann Skelly’s Penance Adair – the awkard, genius, geeky confidant with a talent for research and coming up with deus ex machinas for tough scrapes. Think here of Willow from “Buffy”, Fred from “Angel”, Simon Tam from “Firefly”, or Claire Saunders from “Dollhouse”.

Don’t forget the stoic, fatherly, socially misplaced male figures who care for them and insist they should slow down and be less aggressive. That’s Rupert Giles, Wesley, Simon Tam doing double-duty, Shepherd Book, the “Dollhouse” parental-figure-of-the-week set-up. Welcome Zackary Momoh as Dr. Horatio Cousens.

The male romantic interest is a loose cannon whose history of sociopathic tendencies, shortness of empathy, and lack of reliability must be understood and dismissed in order for him to be tamed. That’s Angel, Riley, Spike, much as I love him Captain Mal. To a large extent, that’s Jayne as well – just without the romantic-interest side of things. “The Nevers” gives us James Norton as sex addict Lord Hugo Swan.

And yes, I understand that for vampires in the Buffy-verse, this archetype is usually a case of not having their soul while committing mass atrocities, but isn’t that what we hear time and again from men who’ve been exposed for bigotry, sexual assault, and abuse – “That’s not who I am”. Hell, isn’t “Dollhouse” about people who act as others – often violently – who then set it aside as a personality that isn’t their own? This might be the core Whedonism of them all, but learning that it’s core to Whedon himself can’t help but change our view of that trope.

Not to be forgotten, there’s also the awkward-but-lovable, largely innocuous male friend (Xander, Lorne, Wash, Simon Tam pulling triple-duty). Tom Riley is Augie in “The Nevers”. He’s Swan’s painfully shy best friend, whose abrupt insensitivity to the two women leads is presented as a feature of being too sensitive. What?

Oh, and if you can also squeeze a fetishized, make-believe interpretation of severe mental illness for a woman who’s clearly been victimized but who can’t communicate it to the outside world, you’ve got Whedon bingo. Think Drusilla, River Tam, Echo. This might be Whedon’s most insidious trope – the woman who has suffered trauma, and who most around her dismiss because she can’t communicate it. If anything else here can be understood as a potential projection of Whedon’s, this is the most frightening. For that matter, think of every leading woman on “Angel”, from Cordelia’s sudden death to the horrific possession and replacement of Fred by Illyria. Here, it’s Amy Manson’s Maladie.

If you want to think of the other half of what “Dollhouse” is about, this is it: people who are abused, over and over again, made to dismiss or forget what’s happened to them, powerless to communicate it, and trying to figure out how to do so in a coded way. In the wake of realizations about Joss Whedon, many of the tropes we call Whedonisms suddenly play out much differently. Few play out so terrifyingly.

The cast of “The Nevers” is charming, and that’s without mentioning Olivia Williams as True and Adair’s benefactor Lavinia. It goes without bringing up Pip Torrens’s blink-and-he’s-Hugh-Laurie turn as villain Lord Massen, Nick Frost’s double-crossing Beggar King, or Ben Chaplin’s growling Detective Mundi.

Yet the casts from all these shows have been charming. That shouldn’t make it easier to come to terms with “The Nevers”.

I still find a great deal to love in all these shows. I know where I took value from them, or where they did in fact challenge a pre-conception I had growing up in the 90s and becoming an adult in the 00s. Some of those shows did make progress. They did confront old problems, even if they brought up new ones. They did mean something, and that meaning wasn’t necessarily a lie. At the same time, I have a new awareness that contributes to my understanding of them, an awareness it would be irresponsible to view these shows without.

None of this is to say we should hate these characters. I love many of them. To me, it’s important to remember that Whedon didn’t realize them alone. Buffy is a creation of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kristy Swanson before her, of countless writers and directors who contributed to the character, and yes – of Joss Whedon. He is one of the most primary voices in every character of these shows, but he is not the only primary voice creating them.

Do we reject these shows and characters outright? As fans, do we have the ability to transfer mass understanding of their ownership and creative control to, say, Sarah Michelle Gellar? Do we understand her as the person who tells us who Buffy is now? Is it more productive to reject the characters and meanings of those shows, or to seize them and decide their meaning ourselves? Is what’s productive the same as what’s right?

I don’t know the answers to this. We are grappling with these questions across the board. It’s not the first time this has happened either – Harry Potter fans grapple with the role the franchise had in their own youth, even as they pry their understanding of it away from author J.K. Rowling and her anti-trans bigotry. Maybe it’s possible to still value what Harry Potter contributed while rejecting Rowling herself.

On the other hand, what Bill Cosby did amounted to a complete cultural rejection of “The Cosby Show”. Some people will say “turn it up” when a Michael Jackson song comes on; others will say “turn it off”. And yes, there is a racial double-standard at play here – how many white musicians are never held accountable for this? Pick your decade – Elvis, Jimmy Page, Stephen Tyler, and Anthony Kiedis all committed statutory rape. Where is our rage against them?

It’s made more difficult when the creations we’re talking about are less the product of a single person. Can you still watch the original “X-Men” movies because Patrick Stewart has worked so hard on domestic violence causes and is himself a survivor of child abuse, and because Ian McKellen has for so long been an icon for LGBTQ representation? Or should we avoid them because director Bryan Singer has been accused multiple times of statutory rape?

How do we weight those different elements? I don’t think I can tell someone who watches because Stewart or McKellen mean so much to them that they shouldn’t. I certainly can’t tell someone who won’t watch because of Singer’s behavior that they should. What I do know is that the conversation around them is deeply necessary. Above all, if we choose to watch, we can’t do so in ignorance. We can’t cut out the problematic element from it and act like it’s not there when it’s still fundamental to what we’re watching.

You can judge any show on its own qualities. Yet when so many of those qualities are informed by the well-established tendencies and projections of an abusive creator, you cannot pretend those qualities are isolated from him instead of informed by him.

Despite a litany of problems in “The Nevers” that arise from both this and from technical quarters (the show often looks like a 90s TV mini-series, and not in a good way), I’m debating whether I’ll still watch in the hope that it will get better. I wouldn’t consider this if Whedon was still on the show. If he was coming back, no chance. Given that he’s been replaced, I may give “The Nevers” a shot in the hope – perhaps misplaced – that what’s most Whedonesque about it will wash off as it goes. Then again, maybe the point is that it can’t.

Whatever it may be, whether this, Harry Potter, X-Men, countless other projects…I think it sends us all through a messy loop of thoughts. Perhaps I’m just making an excuse for watching something I’d like to see improve. Perhaps it’s an attempt to take a kind of control back from what feels like a betrayal. Or maybe that’s just an easy way to justify the cognitive dissonance of watching a show Whedon developed. Am I even hoping for the show to become good, or is there some part of me that would be even more satisfied seeing Whedon’s last work become a full-blown disaster? Do I want the show to succeed without Whedon, or fail because of him? Doesn’t thinking that way assign it as his, and disempower the cast and crew that also made it? Is it useful for me as a critic to analyze Whedon’s tendencies through what is hopefully his last show? Can that inform us in a way that helps, or is it just angrily chasing down a rabbit hole? Is there part of me that’s hiding behind the excuse of being a critic because I want to watch it? I do hope I’ll get to see the show reject these elements over time, and grow away from Whedon’s influence. How satisfying would that be? But it’s just as likely the show doubles down on what are now industry tropes even under a new showrunner.

If I watch this, is it one last place where Whedon gets to control meaning in a harmful way, or is it one more place where we get to take control of that meaning so that he can’t have it? I really wish I knew which it was.

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