Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Review: 'Sweet/Vicious' shows Jules's story in the powerful, gut-wrenching 'Heartbreaker'

Some thoughts on tonight's terrific Sweet/Vicious coming up after the break.

When Sweet/Vicious began, it did so in something of a light tone. Yes, the series is rooted in the sexual assault of Jules, and as she and Ophelia enact vigilante justice on other offenders, we get to see the painful aftermath of a truly horrific crime. But as the pair did their case-of-the-week-esque thing, there was plenty of comedy to be had. And though it never once lost sight of the larger social issues being addressed here, the opening episodes didn't prioritise addressing them as directly as they could over making an enjoyable series. Given the nature of the issues, that is absolutely not a problem: these characters and stories needed to be build up gradually before jumping into dealing with those issues becomes priority one, two, and three.

With "Heartbreaker" - in addition to last week's "Fearless" - the mood shifted from entertaining vigilante drama to a series harrowing enough to make you want to find the nearest friend/family member/pet/stuffed toy and hug them for a long, long time. Both episodes elicited a similar reaction from me:

"I hated watching that."

And that, folks, is the best compliment I can give.

Because, ultimately, when a series is discussing material as important and sensitive as this, the less I enjoy the way I feel while watching an episode, the better. Certainly, the enjoyment of the putting together of an episode - the writing, directing, acting, etc.; more on the latter below - is crucial, but if what I see makes me feel physically sick, then Sweet/Vicious has done its job. Sweet/Vicious absolutely did its job here.

What we know about the show and its story is that Jules was sexually assaulted by Nate, but until "Heartbreaker", we've only heard references to it. Here, creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (who wrote this hour) elected to change that, taking us back to the night of the crime. It's a good time to finally do this - Jules confronting her assaulter last week allowed her to express everything she's felt for a year, and the next stage is showing us as viewers exactly why she was pushed into taking the law into her own hands.

Rape and sexual violence storylines on television have come under much scrutiny in recent times - two of HBO's biggest shows, Westworld and Game of Thrones, have been criticised for their portrayal of it in the past two years, for example - and rightly so. This isn't a topic that should be treated lightly or haphazardly. It's a real problem for so many across the world and, like anything else ripped from reality, television has a duty to ensure that it uses such topics in the right way for the right reasons. To single out Game of Thrones, that portrayal was poor because it was for little more than to emphasise how terrible, horrible, no good, very bad the assaulter was, a fact that had already been made ad nauseam.

With Sweet/Vicious, we knew to an extent how bad Nate was - the assault of Jules, plus the endless creepiness of his character made that plain to see - but "Heartbreaker" made damn sure that we were aware that this individual is reprehensible, and that what he did to Jules is nothing short of sickening. MTV's pre-warning for viewer discretion was both welcome and necessary, more so than I expected. What followed was not only deeply upsetting, but disgusting to the point of anger. It was something of a tragic buildup watching the flashbacks before the party, given what we know in the present day: seeing Jules so happy and excited in comparison with her always-depressed demeanour now (especially early in this episode, where she's been in bed in Jules's apartment for a week) is saddening, but it's also a pointed reminder that what Nate did was truly horrifying and that it stays with the victim forever.

The act itself was the most difficult to watch, but Nate's pre-conceived notions of having sex with Jules (*) were arguably just as bad. Seeing him plan this is horrible - even worse that he discussed it with one of his friends, who I hope for his sake didn't realise exactly what Nate would do, even if he should have worked out that Jules was too drunk to have consensual sex. I'm glad that Sweet/Vicious actually showed it, but I'm equally glad that it wasn't unnecessarily dragged out; we can see how bad this is, there's no need to over-emphasise, especially when there was far more to the story.

(*) OK, let's look at the extent of his actions: he has a girlfriend who he actively didn't care about because she wasn't at the party, he knew that Jules was so drunk that she quite literally couldn't stand, he knew that she didn't want it. On their own, any of these are truly awful; together, it makes me feel physically nauseous.

Fascinatingly, the rape scene managed to be matched in terms of sheer repulsiveness. Certainly, comparing the rape with anything that came after would be insane, but on a visceral level, Jules being essentially cast aside by the therapist evoked in me just as much anger as Nate's attack did. That someone whose job it is to help students with issues like this would brush Jules's claim away as potentially being a regret situation, or that she'd have very little interest pursuing the matter because, and I quote, "Nate is one of our most high-profile students," not only explains exactly why there's now a pair of vigilantes running around campus, but points out the exact problem with the perception of rape in 2017. The therapist's patronising tone, best exemplified by "Do you know what I'm trying to say, sweetheart?", is disgraceful, but it's difficult to suggest that this comes across as entirely - or even remotely - fictional, and that's where the true tragedy lies.

As hard as it was to watch "Heartbreaker" for its content, Eliza Bennett's utterly magnetic performance enhanced every part. She was given a real range of material and delivered every facet: there was a clear divide between her many emotional states - happy and contented before the assault, completely broken after it, despondent in the present day, free while drunk, and blindly angry when seeing Nate while drunk. At every turn, it was impossible not to be invested in Jules and what she's had to go through. The raw emotion she displayed in the aftermath of her assault was incredibly powerful and immensely gut-wrenching, and all the while tear-inducing. If the Emmy voters recognised MTV as a scripted television channel, or we lived in a just world, I'd say that this would be Bennett's submission and nomination tape.

I can't say that I necessarily enjoyed watching "Heartbreaker". That's fine, though, because it was a stunning hour of television, and one that will live long in the memory.

Some other thoughts:
Norman Palm's cover of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", used in the aftermath of Jules's assault, was terrific. Cyndi Lauper's original version is great but far too upbeat for this episode.

Jules's aversion to alcohol being down to the rape was almost too obvious but was entirely justified. Nice, too, that Sweet/Vicious had Ophelia help Jules back into being able to enjoy herself. Though this series is about rape and vigilantism, it's also just as much about trying to cope with the aftermath of rape, and this is a big piece of growth for her character.

Ophelia and Evan's relationship is both fun and well-written, which I am greatly appreciative of, especially in an age where people on Tumblr try and define every relationship in pop culture.

Harris is getting back in on investigating the vigilante, while Tyler is now aware that his brother isn't snowboarding in Canada and subsequently filed a missing persons report. Ophelia and Jules could be in trouble very soon.

What did everyone else think?

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