Monday, May 6, 2019

The Alien Christian Grey: How Roswell NM built a love story around emotional abuse

Jeanine Mason and Nathan Parsons as Liz Ortecho and Max Evans in Roswell, New Mexico
Max Evans is a bad boyfriend.

The CW’s Roswell reboot is a very fun show to binge over a weekend. It’s got 90s music, a smorgasbord of former Freeform and The Vampire Diaries stars aging into an easy charisma, and one absolutely knock-out performance from Lily Cowles as Isobel Evans-Bracken.

It’s also got a problem, and that problem’s name is Max Evans. Max, an alien played with baritone intensity by Nathan Parsons, is Roswell, New Mexico’s male romantic lead. And he is awful. Controlling, self-centered, manipulative. The best that can be said of him is that he, like all of the show’s main cast, has good politics. But boy, if he isn’t Exhibit A for the argument that people can have outwardly great politics while being privately horrible.

A great deal of Roswell NM’s first season is built around Max’s love story with series lead Liz Ortecho (a very charming Jeanine Mason), but it’s hard to invest in their epic love when it leads to conversations like this:
Max: After everything that we have been through, do you truly believe that I am capable of killing someone you love? Liz, I have loved you my entire life. Including every single day that you were gone in the last decade. 
Liz: That's not what this is about. 
Max: Well, that's what everything is about for me.
For context, Liz is confronting Max because she believes, with very good reason, that he may have murdered her sister. Max would like to take this opportunity to tell you how hard his life has been, what with all the loving Liz while she’s been away. Max, by the way, knows (or thinks he knows) what happened to Liz’s sister, and has not only been keeping it from her, but actively covered it up, so it’s particularly galling that the next thing out of his mouth is, “Leave the past in the past. There's nothing we can do to change it.”

Also, and this is kind of tangential, but it’s also Very Max: He says, “After everything that we have been through,” but at this point he and Liz haven’t really been through that much? They were lab partners who were into each other a decade ago, and then like two days ago he saved her life and told her he was an alien. That’s it. This whole long, tangled history they have together is all in Max’s head. But whatever, as long as it’s true in The World According to Max, I guess we’ll go with it.

This conversation is full of hallmark Max Evans moves. Is someone in his life going through something awful? Don’t worry, Max will find a way to make it about himself. Is there a problem in the world? Max is on the case! He’ll fix it, although he might not bother to consult the people involved about their preferences. Or inform them afterward. Is everyone getting all weirdly upset about all this stuff, even though he, Max, is The Most Burdened Alien? Sounds like it’s time to leave the past in the past, friends!

The one signature move that Max doesn’t pull out in that conversation, he uses in the very next episode, when Liz, after discovering that he knows more about her sister’s death than he’s been letting on, tells him that although she wants to believe he couldn’t have killed her, she can’t entirely bring herself to trust him. This is Max’s response:
Max: I have been pouring my heart out to you ever since you got back. And I need to know. How do you truly feel about me, Liz?
Yes, the final Max Evans power move: forcing people to share their feelings with you even when they have made it entirely clear that they’re uncomfortable doing so!

Those four behaviors — centering every situation around himself, lying and controlling, forcing emotional reveals, and then forcing emotional resolution — are the behaviors of the worst person you know. Actually, let’s be more blunt. If they’re displayed consistently, those are the behaviors of an emotional abuser.

And Max does display those behaviors consistently. He doesn’t even just consistently use those moves on Liz; he uses them on every important person in his life. Here he is, talking to his sister Isobel, who is unconscious after she injected herself with a serum to try to stop herself from hurting anyone, after finding out that 10 years ago, she killed Liz’s sister while in a blackout, and Max covered it up:
Max: You know, all day... All day I've been thinking... I wish I loved you less. 'Cause this is not something I survive. Okay, if you were trying to… to slip away without taking anyone else with you, you failed. You failed. You failed. 'Cause losing, losing you is gonna kill me. 
So Max, seeing Isobel’s overwhelming trauma that has been compounded by his own lies and controlling behavior, responds with a statement entirely about how terrible this situation is for him. “I wish I loved you less” is a particularly charming way of putting it. It really drives home how much Max’s wellbeing, not Isobel’s, is the subject of concern, here.

Or there’s the time that Max, locked in a bunker with his fellow alien Michael Guerin (Michael Vlamis), presses Michael to talk to him about his feelings, and Michael reveals that he’s angry that Max convinced him to cover up the murder of Liz’s sister. In the process, he never really reveals, but kind of hints at some resentment at the fact that Max was raised by a family, while he was raised in foster care:
Michael: We should have told the truth. I didn't have parents to turn to. You did. But you didn't want to tell 'em, so we carried it ourselves. We never should've done that.  
Max: I get it. You haven't been mad at me for ten years, you've been angry for twenty. Ever since my parents showed up and picked me. I got the family, I got the sister. You want to talk about burdens? I carry the guilt of that day everywhere. I pushed my own parents away because I am pissed they didn't take care of you. You are my family, Michael. Everything that happens to you happens to me. Every beating, every burn, every damn heartbreak, you are never alone. We are trapped together in all sorts of ways.
Max, having pushed Michael to reveal his deep emotional trauma (and then put a lot of words into his mouth) would like to remind you of the ways in which this has all been very hard on Max. Here’s a hint, Max: “You are never alone” is a lovely sentiment, and probably one Michael needs to hear, but everything that happens to him actually doesn’t happen to you, and while I’m sure there’s legitimate guilt involved with being the kid who got adopted, Michael’s trauma is not about you. Michael gets to be angry about growing up without a family without you having it worse because you felt guilty, just like Isobel gets to be fucked up about her traumatic blackouts without you having it worse because you’re worried about her, and Liz gets to be upset about her dead sister without you having it worse because you’re in love with her and heartbroken that she doubts you. Those are all legitimate reactions for you to have, but they are not the most important things about the respective situations, they’re not things that you should probably be unloading on Michael, Isobel, or Liz, and you are not the person whose feelings should be centered, here.

(Max’s takeaway from this scene, by the way, is that Michael resents him for being adopted when Michael wasn’t, which is like, fine, I guess you could take that from it. But an equally good takeaway, especially if you look at things that Michael says elsewhere in the scene, is that Michael resents Max for being super controlling all the time. I’m actually pretty sure this is intentional — they’re setting up conflict for the finale — but it’s notable for how much it’s completely glossed over as an actual issue of note. It’s the only time in the entire season anyone calls Max on that, outside of once when Isobel is way more chill about the whole “you covered up my blackout murders” thing than frankly either Max or Michael deserves. But in that case the show was on Isobel’s side, whereas in this case the moment Michael even starts to go down the line of, “hey, you’re always trying to call the shots for us and that sucks,” Max starts making fucking speeches about what a burden that is for him. Yes, really: Michael complains that Max is controlling, and Max makes it all about how hard that is on him. It’s remarkable how much Max’s behaviors consistently feed off each other.)

The story with Michael actually gets worse, because as part of his and Max’s heart-to-heart, Michael, who has permanent damage to his left hand, reveals something that he never had before: the story of how he broke his hand when they were teenagers, and the deeply personal reasons why he never allowed Max to use his alien powers to heal it.
Max: So what's the real story?
Michael: I've told you.
Max: No. You've said bar fight, you've said junkyard accident, you've said chupacabra. You've never told me the truth.
Michael: Alex Manes's father. He caught us together. And he just snapped.
Max: You never let me heal it.
Michael: Yeah. How would I explain a perfectly good hand to Alex? Anything to protect the secret.
Max: Talk to me, dude. Nothing else for us to do.
Michael: I didn't let you heal it because I needed the reminder. I needed evidence of what could happen when you believe that humanity might be good. Alex made me believe there was a place for me here. Hope's a dangerous thing. These scars, they remind me to avoid it in the future.
Note, here, that in order to get this full story out of Michael, Max has to push him to talk twice. But finally, he gets it, since it means so much to him: How Michael broke his hand, and why he let it stay broken.

And then, knowing that, two episodes later, Max grabs Michael’s hand, and as Michael begs, “No, don’t, no, no, please,” Max heals it. And what does Max say? “You don’t need to live in the past.”

Well excuse you, Max, but that wasn’t your choice to make. Maybe moving on would be healthy for Michael to do, but he needs to make that choice for himself, and he definitely needs to make it with some fucking bodily autonomy. You pressured Michael until he told you his story, then you made his story all about you, then you forced him to deal with his problems in exactly the way that you wanted them dealt with, and then you demanded that we all move on.

I could list a dozen more examples of this pattern, because this is who Max Evans is. And what’s very concerning is that the show seems to know that it’s who he is. He’s just too consistently written for that not to be the case. Roswell NM knows that Max is a person who does these kinds of things. It just doesn’t seem to know that these things are bad.

Moreso even than the original Roswell, Roswell NM owes a debt to The Vampire Diaries and Veronica Mars. The showrunner, Carina Adly MacKenzie, got her start on TVD spin-off The Originals, and TVD’s tropes and tone made the jump to Roswell NM along with a good chunk of its cast. Veronica Mars was simply hugely influential on all of modern teen television, and it provides a lot of the elements of Roswell NM that are not to be found in the original: the murder mystery, the “we used to be friends” vibe, the small town political allegory.

Both TVD and Veronica Mars were also heavily invested in the Bad Boyfriend trope: the romantic lead who you just know is no good, but he’s too charming not to keep around. TVD had Damon Salvatore, who once murdered his girlfriend’s brother because he was feeling grumpy (it didn’t take), and later occasionally Klaus, who was just a straight-up Big Bad. Veronica Mars had the king of Bad Boyfriends, the “obligatory psychotic jackass” himself, Logan Echolls.

The difference between Max Evans and Damon Salvatore or Logan Echolls is that Roswell, NM does not know that Max Evans is bad. Whereas for Damon and Logan, badness was part of their fundamental character construction. Not only did the shows understand that the characters were morally compromised, other characters reacted in appropriate ways when their friends started dating murderers and… well, whatever you want to call Logan. On Veronica Mars, when Veronica hooks up with Logan, people look at her askance. She looks at herself askance. There’s an entire late season two episode devoted to Logan realizing that nobody fucking likes him. On TVD, Damon probably gets too much of a pass, but there are always characters (Caroline, in particular) who maintain either a distance from or a distaste for him.

Not Max, though. The characters on Roswell NM think Max is fantastic. Liz’s best friend, Maria, tells her, “I like him for you.” His sister, Isobel, describes him as “my person.” When human characters who aren’t closely connected to him find out that an alien serial killer is wandering around Roswell, they know in their bones it can’t be that alien Max Evans, who is just too good of a guy.

Just to be clear: If I found out my friend was dating Max Evans, I would not tell her that I liked him for her. I would steady my nerves, and then I would have a quiet, serious conversation about the red flag behaviors I’d noticed, and then I would hope like hell that she listened to me.

And the show doesn’t give any of the other outward cues that visual media use to indicate that a character is behaving badly. It doesn’t lay in menacing or even ponderous music, and it doesn’t cut the scenes to try to create tension. The scenes between Max and Liz are scored and shot like tragic but romantic scenes between star-crossed lovers. The scenes between Max and Isobel are… also sometimes shot like scenes between star-crossed lovers, because that relationship is all kinds of weird, but there’s never a musical or cinematographic cue that we’re meant to see Max’s behavior as intrusive, threatening, or concerning. The scene between Max and Michael is engineered to play as downright heartwarming. Max is a bad boyfriend, but he’s not a Bad Boyfriend.

Looking at some of the scenes that I’ve laid out, and some of the behaviors that they’re indicative of, you can kind of see what Max is supposed to be. He’s been in love with Liz for ten years: that’s commitment; that’s deep, passionate love. When his loved ones are hurting, he hurts: that’s empathy. He wants to know what his loved ones are feeling: that’s caring, and curiosity. He wants to fix their problems: that’s proactiveness.

But Max does not express any of these traits in healthy ways. His love for Liz blurs into obsession. His empathy is always focused on his own feelings. His curiosity and his proactiveness do not spare any space for desires of the people he supposedly cares about.

As for the “let the past be in the past” thing, that’s a thematic statement, expressed by the worst possible character. Of all the characters on Roswell NM, Max is the one who least needs to learn a lesson about letting the past stay in the past, and often is someone who actively benefits from that outlook, so having him announce it just reads as preaching, or worse, manipulation.

And look, the Bad Boyfriend trope is not my favorite thing ever, but at least it leaves the door open for critique of the behavior in question. At its best, it can lead to a self-awareness that allows for real character growth — see the aforementioned Logan Echolls episode. At its worst, well, even Bella Swan occasionally spares a thought for the idea that it’s maybe not totally normal that Edward wants to eat her.

Whereas Max, despite being basically an even more vanilla Christian Grey, occupies such an unimpeachably Good place in his show’s mythos that he never gets critiqued. Outside of the brief period at the beginning when Liz thought he might have murdered her sister, I think Max gets called out maybe three times in Roswell NM’s first season, and it’s pretty much always for something political. (E.g., “you’re violating that prisoner’s rights,” or, “you called me gay, but I’m bisexual.”) If only we were having a cultural moment centered around recognizing that abusing people — and overlooking the abuse of others — is an inherently political act.

There are so many things that Roswell NM could do to fix the Max situation, without ripping the show apart at the seams. The simplest thing to do would be to just retool the character: Make him stop doing the awful things he does, and move on with our lives, merrily forgetting that First Season Max ever happened. This isn’t great continuity, but shows do it all the time, and it’s often to their benefit. “Whatever works” is not a bad showrunning philosophy.

But the writers could also use Max’s awfulness as an opportunity. Lean into it. Acknowledge it, work with it, and let him grow from it. Have characters actually call him on his bullshit, and have the narrative side with them, and have Max knowingly change his ways. The benefit of this strategy is that it’s something that Roswell NM, with all its immigration allegories and calling out of racists, clearly wants to be: responsible. It doesn’t just fix the show’s problem; it makes it clear that Max’s behavior is unacceptable.

Of course, in order to enact either of these strategies, Roswell NM would first have to realize that Max’s behavior is unacceptable. The first step in fixing a problem is seeing the problem. What a shame that the show has its eyes firmly shut.

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