Television has a long and problematic history in treating rape as shorthand for character depth and drama, trotting it out only when writers want to shift circumstances quickly. It's a tempting fallback — violent, taboo, conflicting — but in doing so, they often glaze over the complexity of what it means to be a survivor, rushing through valuable firsthand perspectives for the sake of plot resolution and entertainment. The era of Peak TV, however, has ushered in a wealth of more rich and nuanced story lines, at last depicting rape in a way that better advances real-life conversation, which is why the portrayal of sexual assault on The Mist is so wildly disappointing: Where many shows are pushing forward, The Mist is stepping back.
The series, which debuted on Spike June 22, is a reimagining of Stephen King's 1980 sci-fi horror novel. It's set in the small town sprawl of Bridgton, Maine, tracing the chaos that stems from the sudden arrival of a thick, foreboding mist and the deadly creatures lurking within. The show makes a sudden departure from its source material, however, when it introduces an unsettling arc for high school teen Alex Cunningham (Gus Birney) in the premiere episode.
Football star Jay Heisel (Luke Cosgrove) invites her to a party to celebrate the team's win, and though Alex's mother initially forbids her from going, her father later gives her permission to sneak out, so long as she agrees not to drink. Once there, Jay valiantly saves Alex and her best friend — a pansexual goth kid named Adrian (Russell Posner) — from a homophobic bully, then persuades her to have a drink to shake off the encounter. "Just one," she demurs, signaling some heavy-handed foreshadowing.
Flash forward to the next morning, when Alex's parents find her sitting stoically on the backyard swing. She tearfully explains that the last thing she remembers was someone guiding her upstairs, and when she woke up, there was blood on the sheets. Adrian saw what happened. He says it was Jay.
Her parents promptly take her to the police to file a report, then to the doctor to get a rape kit. Jay is brought in for questioning; Adrian comforts Alex. In one of the few moments viewers are actually granted a glimpse into how Alex is processing her own assault, Adrian warns her, knowingly, that in a town where football players are lionized, it's Alex that will ultimately shoulder the blame. "You know how this is gonna go. Everyone loves Jay," he says. "They'll say you're a liar and that it's your fault."
And sure enough, Jay's teammates soon arrive at Alex's house, break her kitchen window, and write "whore" in white chalk across the street outside.
It's a narrative that immediately recalls real-world instances like the infamous Steubenville rape case, and could easily have proved an incisive lens for concrete issues. But something about it feels feigned, skin-deep, as if they're hitting all the expected marks without exploring the story in the depth that it deserves. As a result, it seems exploitative, not purposeful — a plot device touted for shock value or relevance rather than anything with broader meaning.
In that regard, The Mist falls back on outdated tropes where it should be challenging them. Rape is a horrific and dehumanizing violation, making it an obvious and effective touchstone for viewers to grasp, but in 2017, it should be one backed with thoughtfulness and intent, not skimmed over amidst blood-soaked death scenes and some looming supernatural threat.
It's possible that The Mist will examine Alex's sexual assault more thoroughly as the series presses on, but if it continues to revert to well-worn patterns, her story will be quickly abandoned for driving action, then returned to only when writers need to dredge up more emotional pull. The potential is there, somewhere, but so far, The Mist has woefully (and quite predictably) missed the mark.