Friday, July 22, 2016

Women and Death in Fox's Wayward Pines

The first season of Fox’s Wayward Pines, was very faithful to it’s source material - the trilogy written by Blake Crouch. What separates Wayward Pines from others in the dystopian genre is that instead of zombies or aliens being the threat to humanity, evolution as a response to the ways in which we have destroyed our planet is the threat. It’s a stark warning that humanity, despite its ingenuity, is indeed vulnerable and at it’s best, Wayward Pines warns its viewers not to assume that human superiority is indefinite.

As much as the concept of Wayward Pines stands out in the dystopian genre, akin to many similar texts, it fails when it comes to gender.  For some reason, the dystopian genre cannot move away from the idea that a straight cisgender white male is meant to save humanity from its destructive tendencies. Season one began with Pilcher, the megalomaniac  creator of Wayward Pines doing battle with former secret service agent Ethan Burke for control of humanity’s last town.  Gee, two white man battling for power how original. The first death of a speaking character in season one is Beverly. Beverly is the first person to admit to Ethan that something is wrong with the town and that she is not there of her own free will.  She includes Ethan on an escape plan she made with the now dead Bill and together they try to get out of Wayward Pines.  Even though they remove their tracking chips, it’s not long before their absence is noted.  Ethan does his best to distract the townsfolk so that Beverly can escape but she is quickly captured and executed in the town square by Sheriff Pope.  Beverly is killed as an abject lesson that people are to follow the rules and to show Ethan exactly what kind of world he is living in now. Sure, Ethan is upset about the execution for a New York minute, but he quickly forgets about Beverly and moves on.  Beverly ends up being less valuable than an end note.

Beverly’s death seals the antagonism between Ethan and Pilcher and from this moment on they are at odds.  Even when Ethan appears to capitulate to Pilcher after learning the truth about Wayward Pines, he cannot bring himself to follow orders and murder former lover and fellow secret service agent Kate Hewson, when her uprising fails.  Kate leads two rebellions during her time in Wayward Pines and both failed. Ethan’s rebellion ended in victory and though it cost his life, Ethan died a hero, even if he was not universally viewed that way by the citizens of Wayward Pines.  Though Kate is a former Secret Service agent like Ethan,  Kate’s skills were never primary to her character and instead, Wayward Pines spent much of its time fixating on the love triangle between Kate, Ethan and Ethan’s wife Theresa.  

When Ethan and Pilcher died at the end of season one, I had greatly hoped that Kate and Pam would come together to rule Wayward Pines and usher in a new day but it was not to be. The show skipped right over Kate and Pam coming together, to Ben (Theresa and Ethan’s son) waking in a hospital room with Jason in charge. Kate only appeared in one other episode and it was to die when the second rebellion she managed to lead failed miserably, leading to loss of life, the exile of Ben Burke and Xander and her own suicide. Unlike Ethan, whose death was heroic and resulted in saving the town from an invasion by the Abberations, Kate’s death served no higher purpose.  Kate’s suicide ultimately represented her powerlessness to change anything about Wayward Pines.

In season one, Pam, as Pilcher’s sister was a trusted member of the inner circle. This put her into conflict with Ethan but never positioned her as a co-antagonist with Pilcher because ultimately, he made all of the decisions and she functioned as a blunt weapon to carry out his wishes. Like Kate, Pam didn’t have a happy ending.  In season two, having determined that Pilcher’s grand experiment to extend humanity's time on earth was a failure, Pam began a plan to exterminate the town by infecting its members with small pox. It was the last ditch effort of the desperate.  Of course, she had to be stopped by Dr. Theo Yedlin (Ethan’s replacement), even though he fully acknowledges that there’s so much desperately wrong with Wayward Pines. Pam’s punishment was death at the hands of the neo fascist leader of the town Jason Higgins.  For Jason, Pam’s betrayal was too much because he had grown up seeing her as a mother figure, thus greatly foreshadowing the relationship he had with Kerry.  Like Kate, Pam only appeared in one episode of season two, and it was essentially for her to die.  Like Kate, Pam’s death served no higher purpose in the show and seemed to occur simply to give the insufferable Jason some manpain.  

Theresa is the third major female character to appear in season both season one and two and akin to Pam and Kate, she is also dead.  Theresa is a former Secret Service Agent turned stay at home mom, who spent most of the time on the show worried that Ethan would have another affair with Kate, or worried about the survival of her son. At no point, could Theresa’s character ever be seen as powerful and even when put in the situation to fight for her life during the Abbie invasion, it was Ethan who came to the rescue.  Alone and adrift in the wake of Ethan’s death and Jason’s control of the town, Theresa seemed to wander around Wayward Pines like a ghost, never doing much concrete to find Ben. In fact, Theresa’s inability to formulate a plan to find her son or affect any change is symptomatic of her complete impotence.  

Theresa’s character is the quintessential wife and mother and never evolves beyond that. Her only form of resistance is her rejection of Ethan’s former boss Adam Hassler - the man responsible for her family being in Wayward Pines.  Adam claims to love Theresa but clearly he sees her as a possession to be claimed from another man and is willing to do anything to make it happen.  With Ethan and Ben dead, Theresa is injured in an Abbie attack despite Hassler’s best efforts.  When she tosses his hand away at her death bed, it is the singular act of resistance Theresa displays in two seasons.  It’s noteworthy that it took Theresa’s death for her to show that she has some kind of backbone.

If you’re counting, that’s four dead female characters.  Of the ones who are living in season two, not much positive can be said.  Kerry is supposedly Jason’s second in command and partner.  It’s easy to see Kerry’s strength and intelligence, especially because it’s often juxtaposed to Jason, who is overly emotional, reactionary, angry and just all around pathetic. Kerry often has to carefully manage Jason to keep the situation from becoming a disaster. For instance, though Theo adequately proves that Margaret (the female Abbie they have in captivity) is not simply a dumb animal but an intelligent entity, Jason responds by killing the male abbies to punish them for scratching Theo. Jason then attempts to kill Margaret, until he is stopped by Kerry who argues that Margaret may be their only hope to understand the Abberations. Jason knows how dangerous the situation is but he still wants to kill Margaret, the only hope of saving Wayward Pines. Sure, Jason’s plagued with self doubt but he should be because he’s incompetent. Rebecca. a former architect and wife to Theo actually confronts Kerry about her relationship with Jason but of course, true love is enough for Kerry to overlook Jason’s glaring faults, even as he guides them closer and closer to destruction.

Kerry is a survivor as evidenced by the fact that she lived through the abuse of her father and her stepbrother and though she claims that neither are Jason’s father, I’m not sure I believe her.  Kerry wants nothing but to wash away the dust on her feet and see the world. She wants to reinvent herself and Pilcher steals that away from her when he puts her into stasis. Yes, Pilcher gave Kerry a life that she never could have imagined but it was clearly not a life that she wanted.  

Jason’s absolute incompetence is not the only impediment to the relationship between him and Kerry. Part of the responsibility for each member of Wayward Pines is to reproduce.  Unsurprisingly, pressure is unevenly applied to women though it takes two for conception. Megan being the fanatic, has no problem shaming Kerry for her failure to become pregnant.  At no time does Megan consider that an infertility problem could be Jason’s issue and instead it’s framed as a form of rebellion on Kerry’s part.  Motherhood ultimately is the issue that brings real conflict in Kerry’s life.  Not only is Kerry Jason’s lover, she turns out to be Jason’s mother.  The news of his parentage is so disturbing to Jason that he immediately grabs his gun.  Though Kerry is just as ignorant about their family connection, Jason sees betrayal and becomes violent. Kerry becomes the absolute manifestation of Jason’s Mommy issues and his feelings of betrayal and abandonment once again manifest. Given that Kerry only came to the attention of Pilcher because of an unplanned pregnancy, it’s telling that for the now infertile Kerry, motherhood comes to define her character, forcing her to shoot the one person she has come to love.   

Rebecca fascinated me at first in part because Wayward Pines has so few people of colour and the majority have been throw away characters. Rebecca is the architect behind Wayward Pines and she took the job after constantly being sidelined at work by a white male architect.  Wayward Pines is a project she was extremely excited about, though Theo seemed to feel that she shouldn’t get her hopes up. Unfortunately, Theo  was right because Wayward Pines wouldn’t be built for thousands of years, thus denying Rebecca the professional recognition she worked so hard to achieve.  Rebecca is clearly brave. We’ve watched as she stood up to Megan, and risked her life to get the original plans from Jason’s office when Margaret was on the loose. We know that Rebecca’s bright because she did after all design the town even though she’s forced to be Wayward Pine’s  hairdresser now.  I can get past that because Pilcher is the one who handed out work assignments but what I cannot get pass is the fact that Rebecca is the center of a love triangle.  While Theo was still asleep, she married Xander and with Theo now awake, both men are vying for her love and loyalty.  Rebecca has stated that neither Theo or Xander define or control her and yet so much of the screen time her character is given revolves around this hideous love triangle and now that she is pregnant with Xander’s child, it’s clearly only going to get worse. No matter how independent Rebecca claims she is, it’s hard not to see echoes of Theresa in her characterisation.

Finally, we must talk about Megan the true believer.  Megan was among the first to endorse Pilcher’s vision and became an ardent supporter of the town.  In the first season, Megan worked as the town’s school teacher and her main purpose was to tell the first generation the truth about where and when they lived and to prepare them to continue Pilcher’s legacy.  Megan was a fanatic and never once doubted Pilcher’s vision, even after he purposefully exposed the town to Abbies.  Since Pilcher’s death, Megan still continues to work with the young, her main job being to encourage teens to have sex in order to repopulate the earth. It’s Theo who dares to point out that having 12 year olds become pregnant is a problem. As a true believer, Megan is easy to hate. She uses her power to manipulate and hurt others and shames women who refuse or are unable to become pregnant. Megan isn’t even bright enough to acknowledge what she does not know and claims medical expertise she doesn’t have.  Megan, like Jason and Pilcher has drastically underestimated the Abbies and has no compunction about torturing Margaret.  When Megan is killed by Margaret, it’s almost a relief because she is so completely heinous but her death is yet another brutal killing off of a female character on this show.  Sure, Jason mourns Megan but manpain is the only thing that he’s good at.

It’s telling that the strongest female character on Wayward Pines isn’t even human.  Margaret walked into Wayward Pines to investigate the situation for a potential invasion. She allowed herself to be captured and she allowed herself to be experimented upon by Megan. With the exception of Theo, the residents of Wayward Pines viewed her as a dumb animal and she didn’t suggest differently, thus allowing her to observe their power structure and the threat the humans posed. Even Margaret however is damaged and clearly suffering from PTSD. Time and time again we watch as she has flashbacks to the day that the Abbies were simply gathered in their territory and Pilcher showed up in a helicopter and slaughtered them all without any kind of forethought. This is the basis of her anger at the humans and she rightfully sees them as colonisers. Because communication between Abbies seems to be telepathic, we have to assume from Margaret’s expressions, actions and the visions she sees what her character is.  

Two seasons of Wayward Pines has brought us death after death of female characters. To some degree Fox’s bad planning for the series resulted in not being able to sign up the original actors to reprise their roles.  That being said, they could have concocted some story to explain the absence of Theresa, Pam and and Kate without having them appear only to subsequently die.  Bad planning does not excuse such obvious extermination of women for the sake of building a bridge between season one and season two.  It’s telling that none of the male characters died at the same rate as the women and that even Pilcher, who died in season one, was given life again in several flashbacks. It seems to me that the real threat to the women of Wayward Pines is not in fact the Abbies, but the writers who seem to too easily decide that they are disposable.