Afterlife: Mirrorball

“”I prefer to think of it as healthy objectivity.”

“But that’s not always possible. Or even particularly healthy.””

Afterlife

My initial thoughts on Mirrorball are…a little confused.

Actually, my first thought is that it’s a very powerful episode (though I haven’t seen an Afterlife episode for a couple of weeks, so that might have something to do with it). It sees Gemma, a student at the university where Robert teaches, haunted by her best friend’s killer – but there’s something altogether darker lurking at the bottom of her distress. Meanwhile, Alison heads for a breakdown as her mother’s ghost refuses to leave her, and Robert struggles to tell Jude about his brain tumour.

It’s an episode that organises itself quite openly around gender lines –  it features what I suspect are the only two sex scenes in the entire series, so this isn’t surprising – placing two troubled female characters, Gemma and Alison, bound by their traumatic, familial supernatural experiences, in opposition to one apparently level-headed, rational male character, Robert. It’s clear, however, that it’s Robert who’s really floundering here: theirs is a world that he cannot quite access, which he cannot control, and it’s the women who make all the decisions in this episode, who calm things down or steer the direction of a life. Robert may be the eye of the storm, but he’s a passive one without any power to influence it.

It’s been niggling at me for a while that Robert’s relationship with Alison – and, in fact, with the women of Afterlife in general – isn’t actually very healthy. His behaviour frequently verges on violent; he shouts; he barges his way into other people’s space. And the programme seems, at least, to allow this, to justify it narratively, because after all he’s helping, saving, keeping safe. But I wonder, now, if that’s really the case; because, after all, what does Robert ever actually achieve for all his masculine swagger? Not a lot. Things happen to him, not the other way around. It’s reasonably common for rationalism to be associated with maleness, but I wonder if Afterlife isn’t groping its way to a rarer conclusion: namely, that the sledgehammer of rational thinking isn’t really the best tool with which to navigate the world, even if it is the truest one. It is clumsy, and leaves no room for emotional truth, for what may be healthy or real to an individual mind even if it is not objectively real.

The question here is: where does all of this leave femininity? Does it other it – by reading it as irrational, unfathomable, terrifying, leaving our POV male character as the victim of an unpredictable, feminine world? Or should we read this as a comment on the general uselessness of patriarchy as a way of living in the world?

Neither of these readings feel exactly true to me, though I feel that it is at least problematic that the episode organises itself along such essentialist gender lines in the first place. If I’m being honest, I think it’s precisely the no-man’s-land between possibilities that gives the programme its power. We can never quite place it in any camp, because it slides too readily into shades of grey; because, like many Gothic tales, it’s simply too baggy to shoehorn into any one box. But it’s on this shaky, ambivalent ground that Afterlife consistently does its best and most interesting thinking. I’m intrigued to see where it goes next.

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