July 23, 2013
Teen Wolf Recap: Visionary
People who need to justify the public's sudden widespread interest in fictional supernatural creatures tend to cast them as metaphors: zombies are the stumbling hordes of viral infection and pandemic. Vampires are the simultaneous threat and promise of penetration, consumption, absorption: they turn sex into death and death into life. Werewolves are our inner beasts, the animals we keep under our skin. It's no accident that all three conditions are transmitted by bite: the fear of mixing fluids is ancient and primal. There is always some kind of violation, some kind of transformation, when skin is broken and blood is revealed.
Having a supernatural body means physical strength and stamina and quite often the ability to heal (zombies are obviously the exception: their power is their illness and the mindless spread of contagions). The flipside of that is losing some measure of control over yourself: turning into a wolf when the moon is full or popping fangs at the scent of human blood. Depending on the myth you turn into a creature or live with one inside you. To be turned, to let someone turn you, gives them power over you, especially in the werewolf world. It's established in the first season of Teen Wolf that an alpha can call and control those he's bitten. The rule of the pack turns family into hierarchy. It's the same play of control and surrender that always governs our relationships to our bodies writ large. That's the real draw of these myths: they are all in some sense about how monstrous and alien the human body can feel even when we're still living inside of our own familiar skin, how terrified we are that our humanity could coexist with-- might like to be consumed by-- something animal and wild.
Teen Wolf does an interesting thing by giving us a hero who never wanted the bite, didn't ask for it and doesn't like it. Scott is a reluctant werewolf (and now a reluctant Born and Magically Deserving Alpha). The narrative never makes as much as I think it should over the issue of Scott's consent, the fact that Peter Hale found him in the woods and turned him because he was a warm body, because he was there. The show's stories are full of similar incidents: Peter tries to turn Lydia and, when she proves immune, uses his connection with her to posess her from beyond the grave, manipulating and seducing her into resurrecting him. As a teenager Derek was raped by a woman who then used her to connection to him to burn down his family's home, killing everyone inside of it. Last week Alpha Kali impaled Derek's packmate, Boyd, on Derek's claws, in effect forcing him to commit murder.
So this week's story about why Derek is so consumed with pain and always has been-- apparently the part where he was raped and then his rapist murdered his family isn't enough trauma?-- is a particularly odd and tone-deaf one. It turns out that teenage Derek fell in love with a girl named Paige, and evil Peter convinced him to have her turned into a werewolf without, you know, asking her if that was okay with her first. We see this happening in flashbacks, the visual storytelling sometimes at odds with Peter's narration (Stiles gives the world's cringiest expository line about unreliable narrators at the end, as if we might have missed the part where Peter is lying through his teeth). The bite doesn't take; Derek kills her, beileving she's about to die anyway.
There's a lot of background mythology being shoehorned in here, stuff about Celts and druids and emissaries and Nemetons. Paige dies by the roots of a tree that's supposed to protect the surrounding community from fires and plagues, the suggestion being that ten years ago Peter mysteriously manipulated Derek into getting his girlfriend bitten and killing her there, that all of the suffering that's happened in the years since has been a result of that. And it's mythologically interesting, sure, and if they can really pay it off it might be beautiful, plot-wise, but I wish to god the whole thing didn't rest on the murdered body of a teenage girl.
Because the point of this episode is basically: Peter is awful and you can trust him even less than you thought you could. (There's a second story being told by the Argent's patriarch, Gerard, about how Deucalion went from being a peaceable, reasonable guy to the rabid Demon Wolf we've come to know, the moral of which also seems to be that Gerard has always been an evil creep.) Also, Derek has suffered mightily and that's why he's so angsty and guilt-ridden and awful all the time.
But what about Paige? Here's what we know about Paige: she was fifteen and she played the cello. She was tough and self-reliant and, like most teenage girls, suspectible to tease-flirting, a boy who seemed to show his soft side only to her. She knew Derek was a werewolf, she tells him just before she dies. And she loved him anyway.
But the point of her life isn't an end in itself: it's to further all of these men in their plots. She's the blank center on which the rest of the story turns, her body used and then discarded. She's the object upon which the action happens, the stable point from which everything else spins out. She's silenced when Derek doesn't ask her what she wants for herself, and muted when he decides for her. It's an absolutely classic example of fridging, a woman's body being used to fuel a man's pain and a man's plot. There's a lot of complicated consent in Teen Wolf but Paige's story is just the same old rape narrative with no chance for redemption.
The point of using vampires and werewolves and zombies to tell stories is that metaphor gives us space; it allows us to explore aspects of opression and consent, sex and violence and death that are hard to look at--much less talk about--head on. So the greatest failure of the episode, for me, was in the lack of imagination and the failure of that metaphor. The supernatural justification for Paige's death is ultimately superficial: at root, this is about Derek (and perhaps his family) not wanting to lose access to her body, wanting to keep it young and strong and healthy and pretty. Paige isn't bitten out of desperation but out of simple human cravenness. It's not the animal or the monster in anyone who takes her down, in the end. It's the Hales' fear of rejection and discovery, human calculation getting in the way of any kind of animal empathy. It's not a werewolf story at all; it's the most tired kind of myth about bodies: that especially the young female ones are anyone's for the taking, and that whoever survives to tell the tale gets to own her story in the aftermath.