Sholio (sholio) wrote,

Torchwood came for my soul

Having watched the "Dead Man Walking/Day in the Death" duology (Torchwood 2x07-08), I still think this is some of the most affecting, and perhaps among the best, sci-fi TV I've ever seen -- questionable special effects and occasionally questionable writing choices aside, it's just good. I think it might be the best Came Back Wrong story I've ever seen, certainly one of the only ones that's about learning to live with the Wrong rather than treating it as a convenient source of angsty My Friend/My Enemy cannon fodder or a plot-of-the-week that's resolved by the end.

It makes me think about just how much I love "learning to live with the terrible thing" as a narrative trope. It's certainly why I like stories about characters adapting to disabilities or trauma, but it's also something I truly love in various sci-fi and fantasy incarnations, especially the "but who am I?" version in which characters have to deal with navigating being a clone, a human weapon, a robot, or otherwise having their view of themselves undermined thoroughly by revelations about their true nature and/or other people messing with them for their entire life.

It's something I am continually disappointed by, in conventional TV sci-fi that enjoys fixing things by the end of the episode or else shuffling inconvenient clones/alternate-universe selves/robot doubles/etc offscreen to never deal with them again. I still remember very vividly one of the first times I really got hit with this feeling as a child, back in the '80s, watching that one Star Trek episode in which Q becomes temporarily depowered and then gets his powers back by the end of the episode. I can't even tell you how profoundly I did not want that ending; the story I wanted was the story of being a god, thinking of other beings as disposable, and then losing it all, becoming one of them, and having to learn to live with that.

"Lose it all, pick yourself up and go on" is a type of story I never tire of. And this one is just so good. It would have been so easy for the show to either fix everything or just leave it on a note of "welp, Owen's back on the team and things are back to normal" and never really talk about it again. But they didn't, and I love them for it. What happened to Owen was horrible. He died. And then he Came Back Wrong, and they kinda-sorta handled that -- and the show could easily have left it on the triumphant "he fought death and won" note at the end of the first episode in the duology and not deal with it ever again.

.... but they don't. He's not alive and not dead; he's trapped in the prison of his own dead body, with no idea how long it will endure -- he could drop dead two minutes from now or live forever; he can't breathe or eat or have sex or sleep; if he bruises or breaks a bone or cuts himself, it won't heal. Practically speaking, his life is a living nightmare. Everything he lived for, from drinking to running field missions with the team, is gone.

And there are a lot of shows -- most shows -- where that would be The End. He'd either be completely healed by the episode's end, or he'd sacrifice himself heroically for the team. Instead, it's an episode about figuring out how to live with it.

It's bad; they don't downplay that. Especially to go from being perfectly healthy to that in the pull of a gun's trigger. But ... it's basically a disability, just a very weird one. I appreciate that the show never explicitly compared Owen's condition to a disability in any overt way, while also hitting every beat of the emotional arc of learning to deal with something truly horrendous happening to your body, from the point of view of an emotionally damaged asshole who's always shut everyone out, who now has to learn to accept help and let people in. Owen only really figures out how to love his teammates, and vice versa, after he loses them and they lose him and then he comes back (sort of) in a version that means he really, truly needs them, in a way he never has before.

And he hates this! He's terrible at it! He'd literally rather be dead; he just can't figure out a way to die! He's miserable and terrified and furious, and he's lashing out, and he's genuinely awful to them, and he hurts them. But, to be fair, some of them are pretty awful to him at times too. (Jack, let me talk to you about your people management skills in this episode.)

Watching this episode, in general, made me think about how much I've been soaking up the idea from Tumblr that some things We Do Not Talk About, when the entire second half of the duology is about suicide, framed as a conversation between two suicidal people. It's messy and angry and prickly, as it should be. Maybe it doesn't showcase the right things to say. Maybe therapy should proooobably have come up at some point; maybe, extra-narratively speaking, suicidal depression should have been framed as an illness rather than a choice. Look, I don't know if this is a good episode about suicide. But it felt, to me, like a true episode about suicide. I love the thing Owen says at the end, about finding that little spark of light, the thing that gets you through the moment: a smoke, a drink, a friend, a song; the thing that makes it possible to keep going through this minute, and then maybe the one after that. I remember a friend of mine, back in college (with major depression, recovering from drug addiction) saying almost exactly this to me once; it's something that's always stuck with me. This is a dumbass sci-fi show with poor-taste sex jokes and fart jokes, nonsensical plotting and an incredibly gratuitous date rape in the first episode, played for laughs, that I still try to pretend never happened. But you know what? Something about this episode rings true. It latches onto the dark places in my brain and gives them a little bit of light.

It doesn't stop me from wanting a magic fix for Owen, or a better ending than canon eventually gave him -- not in this episode, which was sublime, but at the end of the season. I still can't believe the same show that gave us a character arc this lovely also gave us, well, whateverthefuck the last episode of this season was.

But when this show was good, God it was good.

(On a purely shallow note, that one bit in 2x08 with Owen sticking his hand into the electrical box and killing the power by electrocuting himself while the horrified security guard stares at him and he grins like a loon is one of my favorite dead!Owen things. I genuinely couldn't remember if it was an actual thing from the show, or something from a fic. I love that it's an actual scene in the show. I love even more that it was literally PART OF THEIR PLAN, and not an improvised desperation move, because he had brought something to wrap around his hand with him. Owen, you could have just flipped the circuit breakers, but no.) This entry is also posted at with comment count unavailable comments.
Tags: tv:torchwood
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