The Tomorrow People seems to be trying to be a show about mental illness in general — the pilot sets out this whole thing where everybody thinks Stephen is crazy because of his telepathy and stuff. But last night's episode was about two girls dealing with emotional trauma — and resorted to lazy cliches.
Before we get started discussing the episode, it's worth mentioning how inconsistent and random this show seems to be — nobody's personality seems to be the same from episode to episode, and the rules keep changing. Originally, nobody's powers could work inside Ultra headquarters, now they can. How well your powers work is a matter of concentration, or maybe it's a question of how strong your emotions are. It's just kind of... random.
So it's kind of sad that this episode decides to give Cara, the show's main female character, a totally different personality. Instead of the competent, funny (if one-dimensional) character we met in the first two episodes, she's suddenly kind of a basket case, that everybody else has to worry about. It's all because five years ago exactly, a boy tried to date-rape her and she accidentally killed him when her superpowers manifested. (And then her dad told her that nobody would believe she didn't murder the guy, and sent her away with a couple twenties.)
In the episode's main plot, Cara's inability to handle her trauma nearly gets everybody caught, and does get her caught. Stephen is sent on a mission to insert a dongle into the Ultra mainframe (which is turned into a running sexual joke — which is funny until you realize that it's another rape metaphor in an episode that's about the aftermath of a rape attempt.) Cara is using her telepathic abilities to guide Stephen through the Ultra HQ and to watch for anybody coming near him — the HQ where her powers don't work, remember? — and at a crucial moment, she suddenly freezes because she can't block out the thoughts of all the people on the street.
This leads to the dongle being discovered, and used to trap the Tomorrow People. (For some reason, the Tomorrow People can't just teleport themselves away the moment the Ultra agents attack.) John and Russell escape, but Cara gets captured. Uncle Jedikiah is about to kill Cara, but Stephen convinces Jedikiah to let Stephen give her the mutant cure instead. (Somebody should add that to the archvillain master list of things not to do — if you suspect someone is actually a traitor, don't let him/her administer any injections or supervise any executions personally.) Stephen miraculously stops time — something the show handily reminds us he can do at the start of the episode — and then swaps out the injection for some saline. Yay Stephen.
Of course, this leaves the whole theme of the episode being "Cara is totally useless because of her awful trauma," so the episode tries to redeem her somewhat. In the show's "B" plot, there's another girl who is conveniently having the anniversary of something terrible — in this case, a train accident in which the girl's sister died — and they figure out she's going to kill herself the exact same way. They can't send Stephen to save her, because it'll give rise to too many questions, so they send Cara instead.
And then Cara uses her powers in front of the suicidal girl. On purpose. And says things that she would have to be a telepath, or friends with someone who knows the girl and was already snooping ar her, to know. So basically, if the reason for not sending Stephen to do this intervention was to avoid giving away the secret of the Tomorrow People? Good job, Cara. Also, Cara's intervention consists of a few platitudes, and saying the girl's sister wouldn't have wanted this.
In any case, the engine of this particular episode is damaged girls — and the main one that we actually care about is Cara. Why is her experience more traumatic than the origin stories of the other Tomorrow People? It's probably not because her dad was a dick to her, or because she was falsely accused of something she didn't do — it's probably the attempted rape.
By coincidence, there's been a ton of articles lately explaining why using rape as a defining moment for female characters is lazy, terrible writing. The best of the bunch is novelist Maggie Stiefvater, who breaks it down for you:
I’m talking about novels where the rape scene could just as easily be any other sort of violent scene and it only becomes about sex because there’s a woman involved. If the genders were swapped, a rape scene wouldn’t have happened. The author would’ve come up with a different sort of scenario/ backstory/ defining moment for a male character.
Yes. Having someone force themselves on us is pretty damn traumatic, folks. But guess what? Our personalities are formed by a whole host of experiences. Pretty much the same host of experiences that any man might encounter.
Honestly, the treatment of Cara in this episode wouldn't bother me nearly as much if it didn't feel as though this show is having a hard time making any of its characters feel consistent. Cara is completely reinvented for this episode, and given a backstory that potentially makes her less useful to the team, in the long run. Especially if it's true that she can't be around normal people without getting overwhelmed. But in general, none of the characters in this show feels consistent.
Case in point: Astrid. Two episodes ago, Stephen tried to tell her that he had psychic powers, and she didn't believe him. Now, she witnesses him using his powers, and instead of saying "I'm sorry I didn't believe you in the first place," she's like, "You've been hiding your psychic powers from me, OMG I am going to get to the bottom of this." Obviously this is only the third episode of the show, so it's natural for the characters to take a while to settle down — but it would be nice to see some more thought going into them at some point.
And I'm all for this show exploring issues of mental illness and PTSD and emotional trauma. We need more shows that talk about that, especially in ways that remove the stigma from those things. But writing about those things requires not just bravery, but carefulness and a willingness to skip the cliches.