Gurl Interrupted: The Inside’s Special Agent Rebecca Locke

June 22, 2005 Comments Off

FOX’s new crime drama, The Inside was created by Tim Minear, the man the Weekly Standard calls “one of the five best minds in television,” and Howard Gordon (24) who is likely one of the unnamed other four. The show has been described by its creators and dozens of reviewers as television’s answer to Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling lost a lamb. The Inside‘s Rebecca Locke lost a year and a half of her childhood to a psychotic kidnapper who was never captured. Clarice found peace inside the spicy brains of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the brilliantly terrifying cannibal. Rebecca narrowly avoids being crushed under the weight of a 900lb cannibal, and is nowhere near finding peace.

Like Clarice, Rebecca is young, earnest, bright, and finds her inexperience exploited by her superior. The Inside features one of my favorite kinds of hero’s journey: A young woman stumbling along a dark hallway, slipping in the bile of human depravity, just to earn a thimble full of hope on the other side. And dear god, was that dramatic, or what?

Supervisory Agent Virgil “Web” Webster (Peter Coyote) runs the Violent Crimes Unit of Los Angeles’ branch of the FBI. His entire team is carefully crafted to serve his most nefarious needs. Danny Love (Adam Baldwin) is a tactical specialist and former Marine. Minear describes him as the Bud White of the show. Like the character in LA Confidential, he’s useful for his ability to use brute force to make a suspect comply. Minear says, “I think maybe when he served in the military he may have tortured some people. And he liked it.” Paul Ryan (Jay Harrington) is the Boy Scout, annoyingly moral and unable to exist comfortably with any sort of gray area. “Web finds Paul useful because he’s beyond reproach,” explains Minear. “He’s sort of like the Exley character, but not so easily corruptible. If Web needs to sweep something under the rug, it’s useful to take Paul’s most noble qualities and use them to deflect any questions about Web’s methods.” Lastly, there’s Special Agent Melody Sims (Katie Finneran). “She’s Eve Arden,” says Tim. I’m not sure how the lady who played the principal in Grease and Grease 2 is useful to Web, unless he needs someone to make frequent announcements preceded by a xylophone intro.

And then there is Rebecca Locke. Rebecca Locke (Rachel Nichols) never passed her psych exam to become a field agent for the FBI. When she was 10 years old, she was kidnapped and held prisoner for 18 months until she escaped on her own. Her abductor was never caught, and our girl became that creepy kid in the neighborhood, never making friends or learning those all-important social skills that allow most people to navigate the world through other people. Rebecca never stole her friend’s boyfriend or nursed her best girlfriend through a bad breakup with Pringles dipped in hot fudge. She went to school, hid behind her unicorn-print Mead Trapper Keeper, got good grades, and kept mostly to herself. If you turned her dial two clicks to the right, she could have ended up with a few decapitated heads in a freezer in an isolated compound in Montana.

But Rebecca went the way of law enforcement, joined the FBI, and eventually ended up sitting in a cubicle, analyzing data, eating Lean Cuisines out of a plastic tray all alone while her co-workers went to socialize over cheesesteaks at Quiznos. She might have lived out her days as a hollow shell except that she got a call from Web, who had just lost an agent to a bizarre suicide driven by both mental illness and getting too involved in the hunt for a serial killer. Web rubber stamps Rebecca’s psych test and proceeds to mindfuck her into being his team’s new star profiler. Actress Rachel Nichols says of Web, “It’s like Oliver. He takes the orphans in and gives them treats, then uses [the orphans] to steal.”

Web specifically chose Rebecca because she didn’t pass that psych exam, because she doesn’t understand the social bonds of a team, and has a tunnel vision about self-reliance. “She doesn’t think she’s invincible, no, but she does think she can subject herself to these killers and be okay, because she’s survived worse,” says Nichols.

A few critics have taken Minear, and thus Rebecca, to task for being what they perceive to be a weak woman with a rescue fantasy. In her review of The Inside, Nancy Franklin of The New Yorker wrote: “(Tim) Minear and (Howard) Gordon have created a supposedly independent woman who is sought out for her skill, and yet in every one of the first three episodes she ends up being a damsel in distress, waiting for a knight in body armor to rescue her.” In one of these episodes that Franklin reviewed, “Pre-filer,” Rebecca has to make a choice: Get tied to a chair by a psychopath, or let the psychopath shoot her male partner in the back of the head. She puts herself in harm’s way to save her partner, but no one’s accusing him of being a damsel in distress. Franklin seems to be playing into a weird sexist trap: Women aren’t allowed to sacrifice themselves. They have to be perfect in everything they do in order to earn the title of “hero.” Sometimes Rebecca screws up. Sometimes she saves the day. Either way, she’s working her ass off to catch the bad guys, and what’s not heroic about that?

Rebecca waits for no one to rescue her. She’s no Rapunzel waiting in the tower. She’s usually halfway down the rope on her own before the cavalry shows up with a trampoline and a band-aid. She doesn’t know how to depend on anyone but herself. She was specifically chosen for her part of Web’s team because she wouldn’t wait for backup, she’d go into the woods alone, and because she has no concept of rescue. She’ll rush into the lion’s den every time, because she’s been there before and survived. So when she finds herself strapped to the railroad tracks by some sick bastard with mommy issues and bloodlust, no one is more surprised than Rebecca when the cavalry comes. She never breaks a sweat. She never buys into any sort of victim mentality for herself. In “Old Wounds,” she tells her new partner, Paul Ryan (Jay Harrington), who has just revealed he knows about her past and tries to get all Knight-in-Shining-Armor on her, “I’m a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau Of Investigation. I’m not a lost little girl. Don’t ever presume to treat me like one.”

Of course, Rebecca does get lost. On her first day of work she accidentally pulls a gun on her partner, almost pukes on a corpse, faints at a crime scene, gets fired, kidnapped at gun point by a serial killer, and witnesses a vigilante murder by the boss who just canned her. Considering she was never supposed to be a field agent, it’s a miracle she gets out of it all without so much as a bruise. “Sometimes I have bizarre dreams because of the subject matter,” Nichols says. “There’s an episode where Rob Hall (the makeup artist for Buffy, Angel) made a mold of my arm – painted it with the veins and everything. It was my arm. And then my wrist is cut. I couldn’t get it out of my head for a long time, because, it was my arm. It looked so real.”

But this is how I like my heroines. I love watching the journey of a young woman stumbling through extraordinary circumstances, sometimes landing on her ass in a puddle of bile, occasionally grasping and then losing grip on a brass ring that has been dipped in Crisco by The Man. These are the sorts of stories I love most, watching a character grow and change from a nondescript place, revealing complexities over time. This is what I adored about my favorite television heroine, Buffy. She was a girl exploited for her power, expected to reject friendships and family, a soulless warrior in the service of a dark council who didn’t necessarily have her best interests at heart. Watching Buffy Summers evolve from self-centered high school cheerleader to a bright young woman claiming her power with her eyes wide open was breathtaking.

Buffy had the quips and the clever turn of phrase that made the audience and critics cheer. Rebecca’s life is without humor. She is a girl interrupted, frozen at age ten. There’s a weird expectation that this young woman should maybe smile and emote more. It’s somehow disturbing that she’s so cold and almost robotic when it comes to dealing with people. Maybe it’s too realistic a portrayal of what happens to a person whose childhood was stolen and swallowed whole at the hands of an abuser. But knowing how heart-wrenching this story can be, how all that dark can weigh heavy on the viewer’s shoulders, we get stories about 900lb cannibals and gallows humor in the form of quips from Agent Melody Sims: “You pulled your gun on a ten-year-old? Awesome!” Like Sondheim, Minear can serve you a steaming plate of Your Neighbor’s New Baby Tartare and you’ll grin and ask for seconds.

As the season progresses, it’s a lovely experience as a viewer to watch Nichols’ Rebecca slowly inhale life, let it fill her a little. There are moments of inappropriately placed emotion, or lack thereof, that make you want to shake her and explain how relationships with other human beings work. And then sometimes the light starts to flicker. However large the piece of humanity stolen from her, some tiny seeds of who Rebecca may have become start taking hold like an inner-child Chia pet. Once you see that happen, you can’t help but grab onto those tiny seedlings and hope she’ll start becoming whole, again.

Rebecca isn’t a lost little girl anymore, she’s a lost young woman who doesn’t know how deeply affected she was by her past abuse until she’s confronted by it, forced to interact with victims, her team and psychopaths not unlike her abuser. There are points in the series where Rebecca collides violently with the little girl she once was and the woman she is now. It’s hard to tell if those collisions result in more damage or healing, but we start to see her soaking in empathy, filling in some of those parched, empty places in her soul with new perspectives, learning to relate to the people around her, to care about them and about herself.

The unknown variable is the darkly manipulative Web, who sometimes brings our girl closer to healing only to rip her down again. “It’s not in his interest that she get better, that she have a better life and find love, get married have kids,” says Nichols. “He believes all her abilities come from her pain.”

To Web’s credit, that’s probably true. Since Rebecca has no inner life of her own, it’s easy for her to slip into the skin of the monsters the team investigates, as well as the victims. She’s spent enough time living in someone else’s insanity to have some intuitive ability to crawl inside the mind of the beast. If Rebecca lets go of that past, her special skill may go as well.

Rebecca is a survivor who has made a choice to rip out the stitches on her broken mind to save others from the sort of twisted fuck who tore her up when she was small. More importantly, she keeps getting back up and fighting despite embarrassing and painful setbacks. For a character with Rebecca Locke’s past, just getting out of bed and making it through a 9-5 job is an act of heroism.

The critics holding their noses at this dark, twisted piece of grotesque noir need to find their inner Edward Gorey and enjoy the ride. As for Rebecca, my wish for her is that someday, she’ll cruise along the twists of Mulholland in a sunny yellow convertible with the top down, listening to Ani DiFranco and smirking devilishly at herself on her way to lunch with some crazy fun girlfriends. I’m in it for her journey.

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