Amazon’s adaptation of the Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang comic series, like the source material, is a show about death. Paper Girls“The time travel story is, of course, about many other things: the tensions between who we wanted to be and who we eventually become, generation gap and trauma, plus a time war. What struck me, however, was that a bunch of uniformly brilliant cast plays characters who learn their own goals long before it comes, leaving them to confront the one thing none of us can escape: dying. It’s a gnawing, gnarly feeling that’s hard for just about anyone to unwrap. Except most of these characters have to do it at age 12.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the first season of Paper Girls.]
You can see it best in Mac Coyle’s story, perfectly played by Sofia Rosinsky, who has to carry some of the show’s darkest themes. She’s the brash, boisterous, swearing boy of the group who really gave her a bad hand. Her upbringing was tumultuous, with absent parents and violence, making her the most cynical of the four titular paper girls. You quickly learn how bad she is and it makes all her barbs feel fragile, hiding a lot of pain that she’s not old enough to handle. Hell, she can’t even really acknowledge it. This is all she knows and she has to survive it first. So when their journey into the bright, glamorous future of 2019 leads her not to an unexpected maturity like the other girls, but to a shocking death at age 16 from cancer, it hits you like a freight train. It’s cruel and unfair. And the show is no different.
One major change the show introduces is the presence of an older brother for Mac, Dylan, who greets her in 2019 as if he saw a ghost (which I think he has). After the initial shock, he soon falls into the role of guardian, not only to protect Mac, but also to make amends for their terrible childhood.
His instincts make him a bit of a surrogate for adult viewers who want to protect Mac. He plans to catch the cancer early, pretend she is a niece, and include her in his now prosperous life and family. In his own words, “giving you the life you deserve.” Watching him cry over this second chance with his dead sister gives you a sense not only of that urge to save her, but of a revival of the grief that shaped his entire life. Losing her made him a doctor, a job that lifted him out of poverty, and a family of his own. Perhaps there is a sense of guilt, a sense of a debt that must be repaid, for the life he was given to live that she did not.
Mac struggles to open up to him and the other girls about her struggles, which she usually tries to keep to herself. She’s not the only one trying to make it on her own. But while the other characters have to come to terms with death — including poor Larry, who bites the dust twice — the kids remain the focus.
Erin is the first to face a future death, her mother’s passing, something that falls prey to her existing fears, caring for a parent who doesn’t speak much English and is struggling in the small town of Stony Stream. Riley Lai Nelet portrays well the isolation of not only being the ‘new girl’, but of someone who has distanced themselves from their community and their grief because of their race and responsibilities. It’s that loneliness that makes it hard for her to connect, whether it’s her future self’s unwillingness to connect with her sister or her former self’s struggle to open up to the other paper girls – especially after seeing her older self die while potentially locking the group into her fate in the future. Unaware of Mac’s fate, she once again feels excluded from the group.
Tiff also feels obligated to make it on her own, even if it’s not with her own death. As she grapples with the potential danger her friends find themselves in, in an episode four scene so poignantly delivered by Camryn Jones, she tries to stand her ground among adults, desperate to grow up and take control of her life. while also having to overcome her inexperience.
While Tiff and Erin feel isolated by their fears, it is KJ who helps the group become dependent on each other as they face their grim future. Fina Strazza’s performance lets her quiet demeanor masterfully mislead from her strength. She’s the first person Mac opens up to (their blossoming infatuation, a whirlwind of confusion for two ’80s girls), and her immediate response is not to try to protect her or protect her, but to to share her pain with a tender embrace of understanding. She eventually helps Mac share the news with the others, an act that eventually cements the group’s bond and allows them to face their dark destiny together.
Not that Paper Girls is the only one that seriously endangers young people. Even in recent years, shows like Weird stuff and the wilderness teenagers have been put at risk. Those kinds of dangers, however, are different from the fate faced by Mac and others – in them characters are killed, but in ways that are often downright heroic or tragic. They’re big moments, built with fanfare (and probably a little too much signage) that offer the reward for character sacrifice or a moment of tearful sentiment for their loss. There’s a catharsis in the tragedies these shows present that isn’t there Paper Girls. I think that’s why Mac’s story has stuck with me since I read the comic. It doesn’t fixate on death itself or its consequences, but instead on Mac’s own internal struggle with a fate of no great significance, only terrible misfortune. There is no solution, just an admission that it is brutally unfair.
You can discuss it or Paper Girls is for kids or not. But I’d say it definitely appeals to adults and youngsters alike, but with its central cast, teens are definitely kept in mind. That is a precious thing. I know that as a child I had no access to this kind of fiction. Even as an adult, it is a reminder that children have a rich inner life. They deserve autonomy and space to actually deal with the harsh reality that is forced upon them.
Paper Girls feels like one of the few stories that fits what that feeling is like for a young child. To give voice to an experience that is all too common but almost never discussed. Like Mac’s brother, our instinct is, understandably, to protect children from this harsh reality. However, it is a fantasy; Like it or not, children face all sorts of problems that we wish were reserved for adulthood. Paper Girls might be a fantastic time travel show, but it doesn’t offer a warm slice of nostalgia. It offers teens a cold slice of reality.
Paper Girls Season 1 is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
The post Paper Girls Lets Teens Face Death – And Live With It – appeared first on Polygon.