Robert Watkins continues his discussion on autistic characters on tv. In this article, he shares his views of the autistic characters in Claws and Mr. Mercedes.
In last month’s article I wrote about Sam Gardner of Atypical and Shaun Murphy of The Good Doctor. Both characters are young, white men, still the most prevalent image of what autism looks like. Not deviating from what’s expected is the path of least resistance, but such conformity does nothing to dispel the stereotype that autism is limited to white males.
In this article I write about Dean Simms on TNT’s Claws, a middle-aged, black autistic man with noticeable impairments, and Holly Gibney on Audience Network’s Mr. Mercedes, a thirty-one year old white woman.
“Claws” Breaks Stereotypes but Misses Opportunities
Claws finished its first season this past summer as TNT’s number one show. The plot revolves around five women who work together at a nail salon and, through happenstance, get deeply involved in crime. The owner of the salon, Desna (Niecy Nash), has a brother, Dean (Harold Perrineau) who is autistic: a middle-aged, black, autistic man who has noticeable impairments.
This kind of diversity is fantastic, breaking from the stereotype upheld by Atypical and The Good Doctor of autistics being young, white males.
For numerous reasons (far too complex to delve into here), people of color, people of low socioeconomic status — people who aren’t young, white males — are largely bypassed by the systems and services that are in place to diagnose autism and treat the accompanying impairments. This is why the portrayal of Dean on Claws is such a disappointment.
Unfortunately, the writing on Claws is sloppy and the representation of autism suffers as a result.
There are many positive aspects to the way Dean is portrayed. He has abundant support, primarily from his worn out sister. He shows empathy and concern for others. In one episode he participates in a performance piece with others, unstated, but presumably neurotypical.
The show also raises a number of issues that will undoubtedly touch many in the autism community:
- sensory issues (touch, noise)
- dealing with uncertainty and sudden changes
- taking things literally
- sexuality, and even sexual abuse
Unfortunately, the writing on Claws is sloppy and the representation of Dean — the representation of autism — suffers as a result. The following clip is one of the better scenes: Dean cooks breakfast for everyone, revealing, without fanfare, that he does have some degree of independence, but also showing that he’s sensitive to loud noises as the girls scream with delight. Nonetheless, he is still very much in the background, supplementing rather than driving the plot.
There are huge holes in the plot where Dean is concerned. Dean’s sister, Desna, is clearly dedicated to caring for her brother. However, when Dean is invited to go to South Beach for a performance, there is no mention at all of who would go with him. It’s not as if it had been established that Dean is able, say, take public transportation by himself; the issue is simply not addressed. Then, at the last minute, one of the women from the nail salon, Virginia (Karrueche Tran), decides to accompany him. As if to emphasize Dean’s lack of independence, Desna admonishes Virginia with the imperative, “Don’t lose him!” Because the writers knew that Virginia would step in at the last moment, my guess is that they felt no need to establish what was going to happen had Virginia not decided to go with Dean.
It feels as if Dean is, at times, an inconvenience to the writers.
It feels as if Dean is, at times, an inconvenience to the writers. As the show’s main story lines proceed, it is left entirely up to the viewer to imagine what Dean might get up to during the day. Dean’s impairments are such that he definitely requires active support, but as far as I can tell, Dean is left to his own devices not only during the day, but also at night while Desna and her team get up to all sorts of shenanigans.
There are a number of times when Dean is in a particular scene but then disappears into thin air when the plot moves into a situation that would require greater complexity were Dean still on camera. At the funeral for Roller (Jack Kesy), for example, Dean is present at the service, but he is nowhere to be seen at the reception. Is he there but off camera? Did he go home? Alone? It’s as if Claws doesn’t really want the viewer to care enough about Dean to be concerned by the many plot holes.
At one point, Dean states explicitly that his IQ is 145, yet there is no demonstration of his high intelligence throughout the show. Dean is played, in my opinion, as too simple; his emotional delay overshadowing his purported intelligence.
In the last episode, Desna’s friends are tracking her cell phone so that they can rescue her from a dangerous situation. The well-worn moving-blip-on-digital-map is used, but when the crew arrive on scene and find Desna’s phone in her car, Dean can’t understand why Desna is not where the green dot indicates. Yes, Dean is anxious because his sister is in danger, but with an IQ of 145 he would know that the “green dot” indicates the location of Desna’s phone rather than her person.
In an interview, Harold Perrineau said that he, “did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people.” It appears to me as if the bulk of the research may have amounted to watching Rain Man a couple of times. In that same interview, he also says some things that do not indicate a sensitive, intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be autistic. Early in the interview he says, “I play [Desna’s] brother Dean, who suff… who is autistic.” Clearly he caught himself before saying “suffers from autism,” aware that it could be a contentious statement. Now, not all of my fellow autistics have embraced their autism the way I have; some do feel that they suffer from autism, whereas I am more of the mind that any suffering I endure is a result of the neurotypical world not knowing how to accept us. By the same token, though, I don’t want a neurotypical to tell me, or anyone else, that we suffer from autism: it is entirely up to the individual spectrumite to decide that for themselves.
Harold Perrineau also says, about playing Dean, “The realer (sic) it plays, the more hysterical it gets,” revealing more amusement in response to autistic behavior than empathy.
To me, it feels as if Claws thinks of Dean as a token autistic rather than a fully developed character. He is used mainly as a device to further Desna’s character development. In the following scene, Desna arrives home noticeably upset after disposing of the gun used to kill Roller. The entire conversation is focused on Desna’s state of mind, Dean merely providing the prompts for Desna to demonstrate her stalwart determination in the face of adversity. Dean, it seems, is really just another one of the complexities of Desna’s life.
There was such an opportunity in Claws, to portray, with sensitivity, a middle aged, black autistic man who requires support. That opportunity, unfortunately, has been missed. Fortunately, we still have Mr. Mercedes.
“Mr. Mercedes” Shows Us an Amazing Autistic Female
Okay, okay, let’s get this over with right now: I have never read anything by Stephen King. Because of that, I’d not heard of Detective Hodges, nor the first King book in which he appears, Mr. Mercedes. But I enjoy detective stories (read: problem solving) and I like the actor Brendan Gleeson, who plays Bill Hodges. So, when I came across the AT&T Audience Network show, Mr. Mercedes, I thought I’d give it a go.
Clearly the show stands on its own, as I continued to watch, but in episode six, along comes what is for me the most compelling part of the show: Holly Gibney, a woman who is as recognizably autistic to spectrumites as your reflection is recognizable to you.
Holly Gibney is played with more grace and subtlety than I had imagined possible.
What was that? An autistic woman on television?!? With measured prevalence rates revealing that boys are diagnosed four times as frequently as girls, it is too easily assumed that autism affects boys more than girls. I believe that this imbalance will begin to diminish as we get better at recognizing autism in girls.
Hats off to Stephen King for creating Holly Gibney, and to the stupendous Justine Lupe for playing her so incredibly well. She does so with more grace and subtlety than I had imagined possible at this point in the history of our representation.
While of course the ideal is for autistics to play autistics, I was frequently brought to tears in response to the profound understanding Lupe brings to her character, and the brilliance with which she pulls it off.
In the five episodes in which Holly Gibney appears in the first season of Mr. Mercedes, there is no mention of her being on the spectrum. To my mind that is an astute move. Yes, it could also have been done well had they dealt with autism by name, but that’s not the approach they took. This way, they are allowing viewers to focus on observed behaviors. If portrayals like this get neurotypicals to be more comfortable with, say, stimming in public, does it really matter that they necessarily know that you’re autistic? Do you really want stimming to be seen as okay only if the stimmer self declares as autistic?
Such unabashed, unceremonious acceptance is very rare.
When Holly first appears, she is at the hospital with her mother, Charlotte (Laila Robins), father, Art (Lindsay Ayliffe), and aunt, Janey (Mary-Louise Parker). They are waiting for news about Holly’s aunt, Elizabeth (Katharine Houghton) who has had a stroke. Holly’s mother is harsh and unsympathetic, having obviously made no attempt to either understand or accommodate her daughter’s autism. When Holly’s pen runs out she asks her mother for a new one, but Charlotte dismisses Holly’s request as unimportant, and Holly makes no attempt to hide her frustration, which has clearly built up over the years — and which will be familiar to many of us on the spectrum. The clip ends with Charlotte saying, contemptuously, “Someone needs to work on their emotional regulation skills,” failing to acknowledge the part she should have played in addressing this as Holly grew up. This scene highlights the all too frequent lack of support from family members.
My favorite clip from season one of Mr. Mercedes is the following, showing Holly Gibney and Detective Hodges’ first meeting, coming right after the clip above. Watch how Hodges simply responds to Holly as an individual; whatever her quirks may be, that’s just who she is. Such unabashed, unceremonious acceptance is very rare — and absolutely breathtaking to see depicted so sensitively and so smoothly.
In response to Holly looking in the other direction to ease her neck, it simply dawns on Hodges that the obvious thing to do is move to Holly’s other side so that they are once again facing each other. No judgment, just common sense and compassion. At one point, Hodges asks Holly, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” and, with perfect autistic logic, Holly responds, “Unfortunately, there’s just no way I can answer that without knowing what the question is.” Hodges just gets it. Throughout this scene Holly reveals her delight in such acceptance, using intricate facial expressions. At the very end, Holly lets out a sigh of relief, showing how relieved she is to be in the company of someone who, by merely accepting her as she is, provides a safe space where Holly can be herself — the diametric opposite of her mother’s attitude.
Although Detective Hodges is effortlessly compassionate with Holly, he is not one-dimensional. In episode nine, Holly shows up at Hodges’ place after dark, even though he has told Holly to stay away for her own safety. Hodges is concerned that the Mercedes killer, who has been harassing him, might try something at his home. Holly arrives as Hodges is feeding cabbage to his tortoise, and proceeds, in a marvelously autistic manner, to enumerate other foods that tortoises can eat. Hodges is clearly annoyed and he does not hide it. However, he isn’t annoyed because Holly went on about the dietary preferences of tortoises but because she ignored his admonishment to stay away. He doesn’t handle Holly with kid gloves, doesn’t treat her as “special” or indeed any differently than he treats anyone else he cares for.
After the tortoise is fed, Holly and Hodges go inside to talk in the kitchen, the scene of this next clip. While sipping on his beer, Hodges notices Holly hugging herself. Holly takes this opportunity to explain stimming to him, and the explanation just flows as part of the conversation — a far cry from the awkwardly inserted mini-lectures on autism that pervade both Analytical and The Good Doctor.
The conversation then moves to bullying when Holly mentions the name of a guy in high school who made fun of her, to her great embarrassment. The mention of the name comes right after Holly explains that she will sometimes mutter things as part of her stimming, which felt a little contrived, but the writing is so very good most of the time I can let that pass. The talk goes on, quite naturally, to mention institutionalization which, while certainly not as prevalent as it was in the past, is still something that far too many autistics face, all to often unnecessarily. Again, Justine Lupe’s spot-on performance gives Holly Gibney incredible depth.
Toward the end of the last episode of the first season, Holly is shown on the news receiving an award for her part in catching the Mercedes killer, and she signs the lease on her own apartment, thereby getting out from under her mother’s oppressive disdain.
Not only do we get to see ourselves on television, but we get to see ourselves achieve wonderful things!
Sam, in Atypical, gets a girlfriend; Shaun, in The Good Doctor, is, well, a doctor; Dean, in Claws, cooks by himself and demonstrates a degree of independence. These are joyous moments for our community.
It is wonderful to see at least some degree of diversity.
Last month’s article, “Why Atypical and The Good Doctor are Amazing and Flawed,” described two young, white, autistic men. Here we’ve discussed a middle-aged black man with obvious impairments and a grown white woman.
As unpolished as Dean’s portrayal is in Claws, it’s the only show to place the autistic character in a lower socioeconomic status. And although Holly, in Mr. Mercedes, is part of a family with means, that same family makes no attempt to understand or accept her and she has very little support. Privilege, even white privilege, has degrees. Even if most of the representations of autism are, at this point, still rather stilted and unrefined, it is wonderful to see at least some degree of diversity.
At some point down the road, when the majority of portrayals of autistic characters are as sensitive and redolent as Justine Lupe’s personification of Holly Gibney, it will signal a level of understanding and inclusion as yet only dreamed of. That day is coming.
Oh, and to all the shocked Stephen King fans who were aghast that I hadn’t read their favorite author: I’ve since bought all three Detective Hodges books. They are in the “to read” pile and Mr.. Mercedes is at the top.
If you liked this post, you may also like:
- 5 Ways “A Boy Called Po” Helps to #Activate4Autism Acceptance
- Holly Robinson Peete and the “Power of Possibilities”
*Images and video clips for “Claws” courtesy of TNT and images and video clips for “Mr. Mercedes” courtesy of AT&T Audience Network.