Through the Mist
SPOILER ALERT: This blog contains spoilers for The Mist (Netflix 2017).
Recently I watched Netflix’s The Mist, a TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s novella of the same name, already once adapted as a film (2007). I have never read the novella nor seen the movie, and will make no comment on either. I enjoyed the first 60% of the show, with reservations about aspects of the plot. Even early on, The Mist leans too heavily on equating mental illness with violence and casts suspicions on the reliability of survivor’s accounts of sexual violence. I would not overplay downsides; the show is mostly on side with the survivor character, takes issue with misogyny and sometimes depicts mentally ill characters with humanity, but other issues with the story did not appear out of nowhere.
To understand the aforementioned issues, we must delve into the ultimate antagonist Adrian. LGBTQ+ representation is rarely good, even if continuously improving (albeit not in some simplistic linear and even sense). Adrian is gender nonconforming and pansexual, at least in his identification. (More could be said on the shows understanding of such identities, but this is a relatively minor issue against the more significant problems with the character.) Adrian is defined almost entirely by his experiences of homophobia (and, arguably, transphobia). He is beaten as a child, he is rejected by his father, he is threatened by jocks, he is unable to be open about relationships with closeted boys who are themselves self-hating gays, and so on.
Stripped of these features, it would be hard to identify a character here whatsoever. For all his plot agency, Adrain’s choices in the story are almost always set against this background noise of prejudice to which he is reactive. There is nothing wrong with depicting prejudice, and not doing so in certain contexts could be distorting, but even in narratives focused on such subjects it is recommendable to give a character more motivation than same sex attraction and processing a barrage of nigh universal abuse. It is this narrowness that sets up Adrian’s twist and the show’s downfall.
The Mist is about mass hysteria, moral panics and rural insularity. When the titular threat envelopes the small American town, gruesomely killing those caught out in the supernatural weather event, most find refuge in a mall. Once there, they are undone by a mob mentality, a barbaric system of justice and reactionary paranoia. The show draws heavily from a somewhat elitist tradition of anti-conservativism; seeing in conservatism not a response to social contradictions, but the consequence of any rule of the majority. The powerful might be corrupt, but it is the undifferentiated mass who are irrational. This misanthropic notion rests on half-truths, but misses that through history reactionary ideology is often engendered at the top (scientific racism, institutionalised homophobia, genocides, engendered by the powerful to sustain their power), even if such ideas find fertile ground in backwards conditions.
Still, given the shows criticism of conservativism, one would expect it to take issue—broadly—with conservative reactionary tropes. And, if falteringly, it does do so. But not for Adrian and certain other subjects. As the plot reaches its crescendo, he is revealed to be a rapist, a murderer and an all-round sociopath. Mentally scarred from his years of being abused, his need for love has pushed him to indulge violence. Worse, some imply that the mist is a response to this queer character’s actions (if not directly his queerness); that is, nature returning the world to a state of order by doing away with a perpetrator of unnatural violence. Humanity as such is unnatural because we engage in violence for sport, the show states explicitly through one of the stranger characters, a hippy turned pagan priestess. It is not much of a jump to wonder if Adrian’s unnatural qualities stretch to his queerness. To suggest this so much as could be is at the least carelessly laundering bigotries.
No multi-charactered narrative can expect to flawlessly navigate the mass of prejudices in society. Tropes abound in the unconscious, unacknowledged psyches of every author, including authors from oppressed communities. Tropes are not flat and simple. For example, common depictions of Black person as helpful, magical aids to white characters’ journeys are dehumanising, but not because they directly denigrate Black people; rather, such a character stereotype removes agency. Not all narrative character tropes are even reactionary at all. The corrupt self-appointed leader, a trope The Mist relies on heavily, might be staid, but it works in its deployment and conveys no malign ideas. Because tropes are complex, and not always obviously tropes, falling into them per se, and falling into the more reactionary ones, can be easily done innocently.
The issue then is not that The Mist contains tropes, or that it contains a reactionary one, but that it contains such an aggressively reactionary trope. I can only speculate why, but I have read that the showrunners did want good queer representation. That is, they did not see Adrian as advancing reactionary notions. It is therefore unlikely they would frame the supernatural threat as nature’s response to his queerness. It seems more likely to be a case of a subversion of tropes gone awry. Adrian is many stereotypes bundled into one terrible character, and one as yet unmentioned here is the gay best friend. Indeed, he is the ‘best friend’ of the woman he rapes. My guess is that tropes like this one was what the writers had in their crosshairs, the simplistically ‘good’ gay who, like the friendly magical Black person trope, is devoid of a humanity that must include moral ambiguity.
The problem is obvious, however. In deconstructing a set of largely liberal and glib ‘positive’ queer stereotypes, they arrive back at the reactionary stereotypes those liberal tropes were initially rebuking. This type of naivety runs through The Mist and its handling of progressive and conservative ideologies. The show is intensely moralistic, so an aesthetic defence of it as a work of art not beholden to depicting anyone in any particular way does not track, but its moralism is also of a confused and contradictory type. As mentioned, its base assumptions are rooted in an elitism, its evident disdain for the unthinking masses. Given this, it wants to tackle social issues of misogyny and queerness in ways those selfsame masses, liberal or conservative, cannot.
The resulting conceited contrarian approach is less insightful than the writers perhaps imagine. An ‘obvious’ defence of LGBTQ+ people as fundamentally human does not need a clever twist, it is not in itself interesting but is a good point of departure for queer representation. Likewise, an ‘obvious’ acceptance of the account of sexual violence given by survivors does not need the additional complexity of an evil queer best friend manipulating the woman’s account of events. Here, the obvious ideas of the more progressive strata of the mass are merited and right, however narratively uninteresting and however much such notions do not serve the misanthropic agenda of a show that seeks only to condemn the mass be they reactionary or not. Making Adrian a rounded human being with flaws and virtues, rather than the monster he is shown to be, is just too obvious for The Mist.
The Mist, I will again speculate, is well intentioned. Its goal is not the furtherance of hate. But in being too clever by half (one of those non-reactionary tropes), it ventures into ugly and narratively unsatisfactory choices. Horror can be an excellent vehicle for advancing the concerns of those not well represented, but here it staggeringly fails because its authors are more concerned with condemning humanity as a whole than offering a nuanced portrait of one part of humanity.
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