It takes a skilled and compassionate team to turn out an episode of television that can be simultaneously both the most goofily joyous, and the most harrowingly heartbreaking of a series.
In using Jules’ participation in the friendship-celebrating Opharris Day as a frame to finally flash back to every detail of her rape at Nate’s hands the year before in this week’s shattering, necessary episode of “Sweet/Vicious,” creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson — and of course actors Eliza Bennett, Taylor Dearden, Brandon Mychal Smith, and Dylan McTee, and all the rest of the crew and execs over at MTV — did just that.
And I miss the days of a life still permanent/Mourn the years before I got carried away
So now I’m staring at the interstate screaming at myself/Hey, I wanna get better!
When “Heartbreaker” (Jan. 10) opens, Jules is buried in pillows and nostalgia, bingeing home movies of her best pre-rape days with Kennedy. She’s been camping out at Ophelia’s apartment for a week, stuck with her “stories” as her only emotional outlet following her confrontations with Nate and Kennedy — now that she and Ophelia have had to back-burner their vigilante takedowns following Ophelia’s live-streamed beating of the dean’s son and, later, half-accidental framing of one of the “victims” for it.
Woke up this morning early before my family/From this dream where she was trying to show me
How a life can move from the darkness/She said to get better
Ophelia has no intention of letting this wallowing continue: “You know what they say: all stories and no play makes Jules a dumb asshole,” she declares — blessedly rude, peak Ophelia: “It’s cool if you don’t identify me as your best friend yet, but you sure as hell are mine,” she follows up, softening in a way that is also, we all know by now is just as much of who she is:
“So let me do what best friends do, and make you feel better.”
I chase that feeling/Of an eighteen year old who didn’t know what loss was/Now I’m a stranger
While Ophelia is initially mortified to realize that she planned a whole day of drinking (including a game called “Edward Fortyhands”) to celebrate her and Harris’ third friend anniversary (thus, #OpharrisDay), Jules acquiesces — and soon she is watching Ophelia slip Jack into Harris’ Coke while munching on sour gummy worms.
One emotional run-in with Tyler later (who, side note, has matched the facial expression in his MIA stepbrother’s snowboarding picture with the exact same expression in a family photo from Facebook, and finally filed an official missing person’s report), Jules is diving headfirst into party mode — doing shots, playing drinking games, setting up home karaoke to The Bleachers’ therapy rock “I Wanna Get Better” — racing to push herself back to normal.
While my friends were getting high and chasing girls down parkway lines
I was losing my mind ’cause the love, the love, the love, the love, the love
That I gave wasted on a nice face
Until now, we’ve only known the general story of what broke Jules’ sense of normal in the first place. This week, we see that break — in bleached out, horrific detail — as Jules’ fun at Opharris Day only comes following a long flashback: All the way through the frat party, the assault, and the aftermath a year before.
She and Nate were friends. They spent all night drinking together, to make up for Kennedy being stuck home with a cold. She drank too much and needed to lie down before walking home. Nate and his friend conspired for Nate to follow and take what he wanted. Jules said no. Jules said no. Jules said no.
I come home in the morning light/My mother says when you gonna live your life right
Oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones/And girls they wanna have fun
Nate passed out. Jules had to pick her way home alone, in the middle of the night. She had to decide to even call what happened assault. She had to pack her own clothes up in a bag and go to the campus clinic for a rape kit. She had to sit through the not knowing of whether or not the clinic was going to say anything about her visit to her dad. She had to go home to a boppy Kennedy, recovered and so vociferously grateful to Jules for being such good friends with Nate. She has to decide to start lying for everyone else’s protection… All set to heart-sickening acoustic cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
And then we are back to Opharris Day, and while Ophelia is stressing over seeing Evan on a date with another girl (comedy gold), and Harris is stressing over his vigilante article getting killed from Law Journal (this is what Medium is for), Jules is hyped up on her dance party and new friends, and really thinking: I’m getting better.
So I put a bullet where I shoulda put a helmet/And I crash my car ’cause I wanna get carried away
That’s why I’m standing on the overpass screaming at myself/Hey, I wanna get better!
…And then Nate shows up, stares at Jules, and toasts her smugly, holding eye contact until his drink is all gone. And Jules’ mood spirals, and we flash back again, this time to the Title IX office, where the new therapist there patronizingly suggests that Jules wasn’t assaulted at all, and is instead making up a story for a slip in judgment she felt guilty over after the fact.
“I am very sorry this happened to you,” the worst future version of Lane Kim (guest star Keiko Agena) says, “But I need to make sure that this is about assault, and not regret. I worry that you don’t understand what will happen if we move forward with a case like this [against the campus’ star athlete]. Do you understand what I’m trying to say, sweetheart?”
And I’ve trained myself to give up on the past ’cause/I froze in time between hearses and caskets
Lost control when I panicked at the acid test/I wanna get better
And back in the present, Jules has left — to get her vigilante costume and switchblade and wait to jump Nate in the men’s restroom, once and for all. She is not better. She is not well.
Ophelia disarms her, and talks her into going to group — and finally, for once, being the one to talk.
Cue our final flashback: Jules’ first group meeting, where finally we get to hear the story of the girl raped by Will Powell, Jules’ first target. She is talking about how she felt so powerless, and we can see Jules catch hold of that word, the change in her face as she finds her new purpose. The matching expression as she pulls up her mask outside Will Powell’s house so many months later.
And then we are back in the present, to our healing, newly hurt Jules back at group (accurately, mixed-gender), laughing sarcastically at the therapist’s opening question, “Are you feeling better?” before calming, looking up and at the camera head on, and settling in to tell her story.
I wanna get better, better, better, better
I wanna get better
Our humanity comes from the way we treat others: Do we believe victims when they tell their stories? Do we support people who are hurting? Do we do the work to defend the indefensible, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient?
Too often the answer is no. We rarely do what is hard, even when it is what is right. The victims of sexual assault are rarely given the benefit of any doubt, let alone the resources for justice. And to add insult to reality, popular culture does the portrayal of this crime no justice, exploiting it too often as titillating, or motivation for a man’s hero story, or both.
In a beautiful follow-up piece for MTV, show creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson walks through her writing process for this episode, which was, in her words, “non-negotiable since day one.”
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be like,” said a male executive that is no longer at MTV. I turned, surprised by this response to the assault scene between Nate and Jules.
“What do you mean?” I responded, worried about what would follow out of this older, straight, white man’s mouth.
“You know, it was so fast. It wasn’t violent. It happened and it was over. It made me feel kind of sick,” he said.
And that’s when I knew we had done it right. […] I know this episode will be unspeakably hard to watch for many who have been through this, but it was very important to me to put this reality on screen. I tell this story not only for the survivors who have lived it to let them know they are not alone but also for the people who don’t understand it. The people who deny that it’s happening, who hide their heads in the sand and let this epidemic grow.
What MTV has done with Robinson’s vision is groundbreaking, necessary, and hopeful, as hard as it has been (and will continue to be) to watch. Yara Shahidi is leading a campaign to make hers the generation that end smoking. With allies like Robinson and all her incredible, and incredibly keyed in lead actors, they might be able to make a generational dent in this epidemic, too.
Tell everyone you know, and everyone you love, exactly why to watch this show. It’s non-negotiable. It’s wonderful.
It’s how we get better.
For a look at one campus doing assault repercussions right, check out this Teen Vogue story on the University of Minnesota. If you or anyone else you know who has been sexually assaulted, resources are available through RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. For immediate help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
“Sweet/Vicious” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on MTV. There are three episodes remaining in the season.