“The Nevers” Can’t Escape the Joss Whedon Curse

Laura Donnelly as Amalia True and Ann Skelly as Penance Adair in The Nevers (Photo credit: Keith Bernstein/HBO)

The Nevers, billed by the Los Angeles Times as HBO’s “next great fantasy series,” was the most recent of Joss Whedon’s highly-anticipated works, that is until the director’s reputation started publicly falling apart and he left the show in November 2020, citing exhaustion. Since then, multiple coworkers have accused Whedon of abuse. In June 2020, Justice League actor Ray Fisher, who played Victor Stone in the film, told a live panel that Whedon’s treatment of the film’s cast and crew was “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable.” Similarly, Charisma Carpenter, who, up until her sudden departure, played Cordelia Chase in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then again in the series spinoff Angel, tweeted in February 2021: “Joss Whedon abused his power on numerous occasions while working together on the sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel…. The disturbing incidents triggered a chronic physical condition from which I still suffer.”

Whedon’s tendency to emotionally abuse women and people of color operates in stark contrast to the “male feminist” reputation he’d created for himself: While he was once widely respected for creating “strong female characters” (despite being persistently accused of perpetuating faux feminism), in 2021, his feminism has been widely debunked as “quiet misogyny”—a consequence of prioritizing cis white male “creative geniuses” over allegations of abuse. The Nevers was supposed to be Whedon’s next smash hit, but since he stepped down as writer, director, executive producer, and showrunner, the show’s marketing has conspicuously avoided mentioning his involvement. However, his creative input—and all its problematic baggage—unmistakably weighs down the show’s potential.

The Nevers tells the story of the Touched, Victorian women who have extraordinary superpowers. Among the Touched are Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), a widow with a penchant for fist fighting, and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), an inventor who can see and control streams of electricity. For reasons that are unclear in the first four episodes available to reviewers, the duo has decided to provide housing for other Touched people. An HBO synopsis describes Amalia and Penance as “the champions of this new underclass,” who fight against “pretty much all the forces—to make room for those whom history as we know it has no place.” Indeed, The Nevers is constantly bustling with enemies of the Touched, which makes it difficult for the viewer to grasp what’s actually going on. This is a problem on multiple fronts: There are too many characters, too many high-stakes plotlines, and not enough explanation for how it all connects.

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Throughout the show, there’s a sense that we should understand the Touched as a kind of marginalized population. The powers that make them unique are also what causes people to hate them and commit violence against them. Unfortunately, the metaphor doesn’t quite land and instead exposes Whedon’s empty misunderstanding of women’s stories. The show invests in this marginalization-through-magic trope so heavily that most of the characters are defined through their obscure powers rather than fleshed-out characterization. For example, Mary Brighton (Eleanor Tomlinson) has the power of singing a song only other Touched people can hear. The point of this power is unclear, and the viewer doesn’t find out why this matters before Mary is brutally shot to death, again, for reasons that aren’t explained. Before her murder, Mary only speaks of her power and how being Touched is a type of marginalization—but beyond her moving into Amalia and Penance’s housing for the Touched and her brutal death, there isn’t actual evidence of how a beautiful white woman with an angelic voice is marginalized.

The sheer number of characters probably makes the task of characterization difficult—as it stands, “giant girl” and “girl who speaks different languages” are the only way viewers can tell characters apart. Consequently, these “strong female characters” are actually a one-dimensional cast of misfits desperately trying and failing to pander to a feminist audience. Beyond the lack of characterization, it’s difficult to believe the Touched truly are marginalized (beyond random bursts of violence from unexplained demons that seem to persecute them relentlessly) when the main characters are able-bodied, thin, white, straight women who often rub elbows with members of Victorian high society and have enough resources to house several of their own. The show attempts to displace marginalization onto non-marginalized bodies so that the viewer is more likely to empathize—but it simply reveals that Whedon (and presumably the writers’ room) doesn’t have enough of an understanding of marginalization to be able to subvert it narratively.

For example, Amalia and Penance often mention the marginalization they experience because of their powers—and yet, they are shown to have distinguished connections. Besides the unexplained demon attacks, much of the “marginalization” Penance experiences can be connected to Augustus Bidlow (Tom Riley) who rejects her at a party because of her status as Touched. It’s as if the show’s writers believe that marginalization is “bad things happening to minorities” rather than an effect of a society that is exclusionary and oppressive by design. This logic certainly explains why the Touched seem to live mostly in harmony until they’re violently attacked for having power, rather than demonstrating their “marginalization” through more textured storytelling. This becomes exceedingly obvious when certain historically offensive tropes are introduced to the story, and there aren’t any attempts to present them in a new light. Take, for example, the character of Dr. Horatio Cousens (Zackary Momoh), a Black man who is Touched with the power of healing.

The Nevers exposes Joss Whedon’s empty misunderstanding of women’s stories.

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The viewer is first introduced to Horatio when he’s healing Amalia after she’s been in a particularly brutal fight. While he heals her, Amalia tells him he deserves better than to fix “gangsters and freaks,” to which Horatio responds he has no choice because he’s seen by society as a voodoo witch doctor due to his race and extraordinary abilities. This dialogue would be clever if Horatio’s character was then developed beyond the fact that he’s Amalia’s helper and advisor. But the show refuses to see Horatio as anything other than a Magical Negro, a trope that usually depicts a Black man with mystical powers who only exists in the story to support the white main character through his magic and by giving them emotional support. This is exactly how Horatio comes across: The only times he has a substantial amount of screen time are when he is called to heal Amalia and give her support and advice on how to stay out of trouble. And beyond Horatio’s helper role—an already flawed attempt at representation—none of the minor characters of color have significant roles in the show.

Similarly, the single openly queer woman character is portrayed as a violent, repulsive villain whose brutality is never quite addressed. Maladie (Amy Manson) is an unstable, volatile enemy of Amalia’s who dwells in the sewers and whose only character traits are being a hysterical, strange woman with unexplained sores all over her face. Critics have written that Maladie’s character is a copy-and-paste job of Angel’s Drusilla (Juliet Landau), and seeing as Whedon’s previous portrayals of queer women have ended in misery, it’s not surprising to see this unexamined queer villain trope in The Nevers. Though the show does have another queer character, pansexual Hugo Swan (James Norton), it’s difficult to look past the association of female queerness with villainy. Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), the only visibly disabled character in the show, is another example of how the show misunderstands marginalization. Lavinia is a villain who lobotomizes the Touched and enslaves them to dig underground tunnels.

The trope of the physically disabled villain is, like Horatio’s lack of characterization, just casually introduced with no attempt at subversion. This trope has been historically critiqued because it associates physical disability with immorality and evilness. Disabled villains are generally overrepresented as their disability is used to make their immorality more sinister. As it is, The Nevers seems to be simply introducing Lavinia’s character without attempting to subvert the trope that broken bodies signify broken people. Ultimately, The Nevers is a messy attempt at reproducing the success of previous Whedon projects. But this time, the lingering effects of Whedon’s behind-the-scenes behavior leave the viewer unable to deny the show’s blatant attempts at pandering to a progressive audience through empty representation and weak metaphors for marginalization. If Whedon had learned from the countless feminist critiques of his work over the years, perhaps The Nevers would actually live up to the hype.

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Nicole Froio, a Brazilian woman with short, blonde hair, poses on a concrete balcony
by Nicole Froio
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Nicole Froio is a writer and researcher currently based in South Florida. She has just submitted her PhD thesis on masculinity, sexual violence, and the media. She writes about women’s rights, Brazilian politics, books, and many other topics.