As 2020 comes to a close, The A.V. Club applies our hindsight to the year in TV, finding common themes among seemingly disparate shows.
Warning: Spoilers for season two of Harley Quinn and season four of 3% are below.
To rebel is a fundamentally dramatic act, which is why it’s such a staple of narrative storytelling. Going on the offensive makes for exhilarating drama: watching Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star, seeing Neo shatter the machines’ vise-like control of the Matrix. There’s even catharsis in failure, as anyone who’s ever watched hundreds of men fiercely pronouncing, “I am Spartacus,” in Kubrick’s film can attest. But much like the “happily ever after” of fairy tales, these stories tend to end at the moment of triumph. No one wants the slow deflation of excitement after an adrenaline spike—at least, not when you’re in the mood for a rousing good time.
Which is why explorations of the after-effects of destructive events hold promise for layered, ambiguous storytelling. It’s what made season two of Harley Quinn, along with the fourth and final season of Netflix’s 3%, such intriguing drama this year. The ongoing narrative possibilities of TV have long been fertile ground for the question, “What now?” And in exploring the comedown from cathartic anger and destructive liberation—albeit in very different ways—these two genre shows managed to say remarkably fecund things about the psychological impetus for going on the offensive, and more importantly, what to do once it’s gone.
After the first season of DC’s animated delight Harley Quinn ended with the destruction of Gotham, it would have been understandable if this year had seen the exuberant antihero essentially kill time by playing around in the lawless sandbox of her own making. Instead, the show moved inexorably toward the question of what to do once you’re no longer angry enough to try and burn it all down? There are plenty of stories that explore the old psychological saw of “you only want something until you have it, then you don’t want it anymore,” but Harley Quinn found a unique take. Harley’s increasingly reckless behavior in the first half of the season was driven by a vengeful desire to exact punishment on the Injustice League—the men who had sidelined and marginalized her as a villain—but in a surprising turn of events, she handily defeats them and winds up on top, with no less a personage than the U.S. President demanding her capture. Supervillain status unlocked.
Unfortunately, it’s not what she really wanted. It never fails to sound saccharine and reductive when said out loud, but that doesn’t make it not true: The main character wants love. Harley has bottled up her feelings for best friend Poison Ivy, and in doing so, she’s deflecting her own feelings, funneling that frustration into a bloodthirsty vendetta that sees her exercising such force and violence that even her own crew opposes her actions. (“Feels like you’re overcompensating for something,” James Gordon notes when Harley summons an army of parademons from a hell dimension to begin killing all of Gotham’s remaining cops. “Why is everybody up my ass about that?!” she fumes.) Blinded by her own refusal to admit her affection, Harley allows officers and innocent civilians alike to be ripped apart, until she’s forced to confront the truth that she doesn’t really want all this devastation. What she wants is the contentment and happiness borne of a genuine relationship with the person she loves and can’t have. Yes, it’s an old story—anger and dominance, the argument goes, only rush in to fill a vacuum left by the absence of emotional fulfillment and maturity—but the show has refashioned it in a gleefully colorful and foulmouthed fashion that affirms its timeless nature. It’s maybe the most artfully succinct retelling of such a narrative during a television season that offered multiple examples.
But if Harley Quinn reflects the individual, emotional hollowness that follows the catharsis of destruction, 3% captures the sociopolitical version of the same. For three seasons, Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi thriller made pulpy, addictive drama out of the struggle of a group of young revolutionaries to overthrow a caste system in which a rigorous trial separated out 3% of the population to live on the Offshore, an island paradise with advanced technology, ruling over the denizens of the poor and decaying Inland. This year, they finally achieved that goal: A group of five rebels made their way to the Offshore, where they detonated an EMP, which not only took out the elite sanctuary’s much-vaunted technology, but an ensuing radiation leak also rendered the entire place uninhabitable, forcing the 3% back to the Inland to live alongside the masses. Everyone was finally in the same boat, with a shared destiny in which everyone would live or die by the same rules and material existence. The resistance’s long-dreamt revolution had been realized.
And then, the unrest began. Resentful Inlanders began hunting down and murdering the newly arrived citizens; some elites, unwilling to give up their privileged status, seized territory and proclaimed themselves the new rulers of the Inland; others longed for a return to the unequal but predictable status quo. As victories go, this one was pyrrhic, indeed. It forced our protagonists to take a hard look at their own assumptions, their blinders to what would come after the angry part was done and they had no clear us-vs.-them struggle on which to base their identities. “What did you think was going to happen?” asks Natalia, one of the rebels, to her zealously ferocious girlfriend, Joana. “I don’t know,” Joana admits. “After we destroyed the Offshore, I thought we would have those huge meetings, like we used to have in the Shell, with everybody. And in that meeting, everyone would speak up, and we’d solve the problem together.” Being a crowd-pleasing slice of populist entertainment, the show ends on a deus ex machina of optimism, but the far knottier reality has already been acknowledged. Ideological division and violence don’t end when one side declares victory, especially not when that side has demolished the status quo, leaving a Wild West of indeterminate authority and uncertain future.
Much like the Hunger Games it occasionally resembled, 3% doesn’t offer its audience a simplistic answer to an open-ended question. For all the difficulty of actually enacting dramatic change, the hardest work is always to be found afterwards—and it doesn’t end. Just as Harley Quinn didn’t offer resolution or a “happily ever after” to Harley and Ivy, instead suggesting that nothing short of ongoing effort could offer them a glimmer of the happiness they sought, 3% offered only the promise of a way forward, earned through unyielding commitment to something better, but far more challenging, than the simple dividing lines of an attempt to topple the existing state of affairs.
Many of us tend to stake our hopes on elected officials—the past year was nothing if not a steady drumbeat of “we have to win in November, or else” with (understandably) much less thought to what might come after that mass purging of emotion via the ballot. But these shows are a reminder of the way the world spins on after even the most momentous of events. Anger, both series convey, will only take you so far; it’s destructive, not creative, and in the wake of its dissipation, you need to be ready for what remains. It’s not the most cheerful message, but it’s a resonant one, and in a year that has seen anger of all kinds manifest throughout a brutal pandemic, it feels essential.