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Television

CW’s Nancy Drew Could Do Something Great: I’m Afraid They Won’t

Casey explores Nancy Drew and its depiction of a character as an allegory of plurality!

CW: This will contain spoilers for all of Nancy Drew up to Season 3, Episode 6 (which I will try my best to contain to the most relevant bits), as well as mentions of stigmatization of neurodivergence and mention of the murder of a queer woman.

[You can stream the current season on the CW’s app or their website at https://www.cwtv.com/search/?q=nancy%20drew and previous seasons on HBOMax.]

The CW’s Nancy Drew series is one of the most criminally slept-on TV shows right now. The spin on the plucky young detective novel series provides a thoughtful, timely, and entertaining teen drama/thriller/horror show at a level of quality I just haven’t seen anywhere else. Though off to a rocky start as it found its identity, the show majorly hit its stride with “The Hidden Staircase,” in which Nancy Drew (Kennedy McMann) revisits an old case. You see, the show updates its Scooby-Doo-like “magic is a trick of con artists” with actual, terrifying monster designs that are unique and compelling. So the criminals shrouding their acts in superstition are often actually harboring deeper metaphors about the darkness within themselves and society.

To add to this, the cast of characters is filled out with career-making performances of deep characters and clever scripts. Characters and motivations are clear, complex, and ever-shifting in believable and entertaining ways, and even the scariest of monsters and weirdest of souls can be seen as true people with feelings, wants, and needs. The cast is big but not unmanageable (this household particularly loves the ever-embroiled-yet-clear-hearted Ace played by Alex Saxon). You still get the occasional guy who was murdering people just because he thought a monster was cool or the racist cafe owner who mostly served as an easy plot motivator, but that’s not why we’re here.

A painting of a young French woman, Odette, shown on a smartphone.

We’re here for two characters. The woman in the picture, Odette Lamar (Anja Savcic), a young, wealthy French lesbian who was kidnapped and ferried to the Americas to be drowned for her fortune, became a vengeful ghost. George Fan (Leah Lewis), eldest of four girls to a drunken medium, is the owner, proprietor, sole manager, and overall pillar of the gimmick seafood restaurant “The Claw.” The two have a fateful encounter when George and her friends investigate the aforementioned ghost, and through a complicated series of events, George ends up dying from a falling harpoon in said gimmick restaurant.

Luckily, the ever-resourceful and knowledgeable Nancy Drew rushes to a storehouse of magic relics for a shroud known to raise people from the dead. George sharply inhales, and then we move to the group gazing contentedly across the water as the sun rises. George steps away to get the others drinks and begins to sing a song in French, a language she does not understand. Standing behind her reflection, we see Odette.

This happens because of a complication (among many others) that the shroud acted as a kind of “spiritual flypaper,” as one character would later put it. It captures every nearby spirit and forces them into the same body. Since George had recently died and Odette’s spirit was nearby, both spirits entered the same body. It serves as a dramatic stinger to bring us back after the show’s break, as well as a defining moment of both characters’ arcs for the coming twenty or more episodes.

Odette looks out from a mirror as George mindlessly sings a song in French, a language she does not know. (season 2, episode 5).

This happens because of a complication (among many others) that the shroud acted as a kind of “spiritual flypaper,” as one character would later put it. It captures every nearby spirit and forces them into the same body. Since George had recently died and Odette’s spirit was nearby, both spirits entered the same body. It serves as a dramatic stinger to bring us back after the show’s break, as well as a defining moment of both characters’ arcs for the coming twenty or more episodes.

In the next episode, George has her usual mannerisms, knowledge, and personality. But she keeps drifting off. She causes a kitchen mishap when she grabs olive oil instead of the oil she knew the recipe called for; she goes into a coughing fit and stares into the distance until the panic accompanying the smoke alarm pulls her back. And later, she gets lost in the middle of a conversation and sings a song to herself in French. She doesn’t remember any of this. On account of her death, her loved ones set up a sympathetic ear for her to talk out her trauma.

She describes her death as similar to sinking in water until she didn’t feel anything. Ace (love him) asks, “Is that where you go when you drift off?” to which she says that she doesn’t know where she goes. After George voices her concern of feeling “normal,” Ace says, “You’re still you, but you gotta keep reminding yourself that.” Later, George uses this strategy to confront her trauma. She looks into a mirror and says, “I’m still me. I’m here, and I’m still me.”

Offscreen, Odette calls, “I’m here, too,” revealing to George that she and Odette have been sharing a body since the accident.

George, out of focus in the foreground, makes eye contact with Odette, reflected in a mirror in the background.

Now we’re at the meat of it: The drama and the “horror” at this moment are layered. The audience is left with a lot of questions about what this means for George. Is Odette just pretending to be George to enact some kind of violence upon our beloved cast? Can we ever truly be rid of Odette? What control does George have? Can we predict what George or Odette will do next? Is George still George?

These questions are at the heart of a ton of stories you’ve no doubt seen or heard of before. The spectacle of possession or of multiple personalities is not new to fiction; it’s not even new to George! In season 1, she’d been possessed by the ghost of a recent murder victim. The possession was violent and draining, threatening to kill George in under 24 hours, yet Odette had been with George for weeks at the time of these events. When asked about it, she says that her relationship with Odette feels different, and she’s right! It is different in more ways than she knows, even. In my read, George and Odette have a relationship more akin to read-world plurality than to a typical possession.

Likely, you’ve not heard the term plurality mentioned about a person before, but you’ve almost definitely heard of it as a person having “multiple personalities” or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). There’s a whole host of recognizable characters that fit the bill: Norman Bates, Frances Dolarhyde, Gollum, the guy in Fight Club, and James McAvoy in Split. Every single one of them is violent, unpredictable, and unstable. They’re monsters, manipulators, and murderers. They’re constructed to be easy to malign and hard to empathize with unless they “change channels” and mimic the mannerisms of a sad child.

Poster for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016) depicting a man casting multiple distinct shadows.

But again, George and Odette don’t have that. They’re two people with distinct memories, mannerisms, interests, knowledge, histories, and even sexualities. Rather than a literal rampaging beast with super strength or a homicidal mother stapled onto an otherwise normal (if not a bit odd) person, George and Odette come off as two people who just happen to share the same body. It’s awkward and sudden but not horrifying. The great thing that the show is doing here is taking a reality for many people that is often used for horror and is giving it a kind of banality.

George, realizing that the previous person in her position was institutionalized, saying “He went insane?” (season 2, episode 8).

Yes, the real-world experience mirroring a literal ghost possession is far from a perfect metaphor, beyond the implication that this could only happen to a person through supernatural means. Not every plural system (meaning the collective of individuals who share one body) has distinct personalities in the way that George does, just as not every plural includes people with distinct histories or accents or sexualities. The experience is just as varied among those who identify as plural as it is between any group of people you could gather in a room. Just as with any other group, terms and preferences vary based on context and the individuals involved. Some people may identify as having multiple personalities, some may identify as having DID, but others may feel uncomfortable with referring to their plurality as being a “disorder.”

Outside of fiction, the most popular depictions of plurality have led to a host of horrible practices and discrimination with people believing plurals to be anything from mildly untrustworthy to subjects of full-blown demonic possession (remember that last one for later). You can find more info here.

Even within the show Nancy Drew, this stigma is prevalent. Ralph, the previous person to use the same shroud George was revived with, had what Nancy calls “two other drivers in his head” (though the more broadly-accepted term is “alters”). As they come to learn, Ralph’s position led to his institutionalization. What the audience is supposed to consider “horror” visibly shifts at this moment. The worry is no longer “What danger could they pose to us?” but rather “What horrific treatment might society impose upon George and Odette?”

Odette and Bess Marvin (Maddison Jaizani) ice skate together, holding hands.

The drama of their situation comes more in the adjustment and in how to tell other people more so than playing up the “horror” of having more than one possible voice or personality. And it makes for some great television! For the rest of the season, Odette is treated as any other character in this drama. She and George have their own character arcs, love interests, personal dramas, etc. They quarrel, they communicate, they set ground rules and healthy boundaries, and they learn to coexist with each other! Their at once intertwined and solo story beats play to the unique situations that only being plural and adjusting to being out as plural in various environments can provide. The show had two people living in one body in a way that I legitimately don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard of in the media.

Above all else, I love the banality of it. For a short time, the show depicts multiple characters just living in a single body no differently than it would quirky roommates. I love it to the point that I was talking about it with my plural friends. I recommend it to so many people, and I think Season 2 especially is some of the best teen drama and pop-horror content available.

But, uh-

Ace and George sit in a diner booth. Ace, possessed by George’s grandmother, gives her a palm reading and says, “Your palm has changed.”

The show is far from perfect, especially in the first couple of episodes. Weird stereotypes and plot choices make it feel like a different show than the one I preach about. Towards the end of Season 2, Ace is possessed by George’s grandmother,  and his actor lip-syncs along with a Chinese voice actor as she warns George through voice-over. She delivers what I believe to be a relatively contrived plot device: Because of Odette’s connection with George, she says through Ace, George’s fate is driven to match that of Odette’s. From this point on, everyone in the story believes that George has a maximum of 10 years to live because of her soul’s tie to Odette.

The sudden, fated complication in their relationship was… weird. And sudden. It reads as the act of about a dozen people with writing credits across the series having different ideas of this plotline direction, especially since George doesn’t act on this information for quite some time. Odette, though…

Odette, reflected in a mirror, looks at George. George says, “What, like lock yourself up inside?”

In the season 2 finale, Odette and George share a number of fun conversations that show a healthy and entertaining partnership budding between the two. Then Odette basically says, “Okay, since I’m killing you, time to hide forever now. Bye!” Odette has an emotional goodbye to close out one story arc, and that’s just… it? Everyone kind of accepts that Odette as a person is now just turned off like a light switch.

 George’s arc in season 3 so far deals with her romance and attempt to build a life while reckoning with her severely shortened lifespan. In episode 6, she decides that she’s done dealing with this fate reportedly brought upon by her entanglement with Odette. She seeks out some dangerous methods to disentangle their souls, ultimately landing on one called the soul-splitter.

 Based on the history of the show to have characters making poor decisions course correct or realize their mistakes and make amends, I’m cautiously hopeful that the show is faking out and has better things ahead for Odette especially. Part of this optimism is based on the number of characters telling George how bad of an idea it is to use something called the soul-splitter! I’m predicting that this won’t “cure” George and will instead cause some other circumstances that bring her relationship with Odette into a new light. Hopefully, this won’t require Odette to make another sacrifice out of nowhere again.

Father Shane (Mackenzie Gray) tells George “The device wasn’t called a soul-untangler”.

George has a conversation with an expert on the soul-splitter who says that it was developed as a method to extract “any aberrant behavior from an individual” because they believed it to be the result of demonic possession (remember that one?). To top this off, the soul-splitter was conspicuously only developed by first-wave American colonizers and during the Civil War, times in which correcting “aberrant behavior” would’ve been extremely desirable to those with the means to do so.

This story going one way or another won’t make or break the show for me. I’m actually reasonably confident the writers aren’t even aware of the space they’re writing in, but they’re here. Despite all this, I worry that this really cool and unique plural-but-also-not-quite-plural representation is going down the drain in service of another story. With the episode airing November 19th being titled “The Gambit of the Tangled Souls,” I’m sure we’ll get some answers very soon, one way or another.

Here’s to hoping.

Written by @CaseyCrook

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