International Women’s Day 2021

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, I thought I’d share fifteen awesome fictional women that have inspired me or empowered me or made me feel seen in a world where I often feel invisible. Originally I thought I’d do a list of awesome women from real life but with everything I’ve got on my plate right now, I didn’t feel that I could do a good enough job in time. And given that these would be real people who just might see what I’d written (unlikely, yes, but still possible), I’d hate to do a rush job; I’d want to be able to dedicate some serious time to it to make sure I did these women justice.

This post will involve spoilers for the characters and the books or TV shows they’re a part of so if you don’t want to have a story spoiled, please skip the character and move on to the next character!


1. Sephy Hadley (Nought & Crosses, Knife Edge, and Checkmate by Malorie Blackman) – The story of the Noughts & Crosses trilogy (now a series) takes place in a world where the dark skinned Crosses are revered and the light skinned Noughts are reviled. Sephy is the younger daughter in a prominent, privileged Cross family and, naïve to the racism she’s been largely sheltered from, she’s confused and frustrated when her childhood friend, Callum – a Nought whose family lives on the poverty line – starts pulling away and taking his frustration with the way he and all Noughts are treated out on her. As much as she loves him, their conflict and her difficult home life result in her escape to a boarding school, where she becomes involved in politics and the fight for equality, becoming a Noughts Right activist. But all of her plans are destroyed when she is kidnapped by the Liberation Militia, a terrorist organisation that Callum joined after she left for boarding school. Despite (and sometimes due to) her privilege, she suffers deeply, both due to her own destructive decisions and the destructive decisions of others. She struggles with her mental health, with the guilt over certain choices she makes and the resulting consequences, and how to prevent past mistakes from irreparably damaging the future. Forced to grow up fast and face some major challenges, she does deal with a lot of insecurity but it all comes from a place of such deep, unconditional love: for Callum and for their daughter, Callie Rose. Pretty much everything she does is due to her desire to protect Callie Rose but past trauma causes her to make mistakes, often making their relationship a contentious one. It’s been a long time since I read the books but I always felt for Sephy, admired just how vast her love for Callum and Callie Rose was even when she wasn’t good at showing it and I empathised with how she was constantly trying only to make things worse. The conversation where she finally manages to make things right feels just as special and cathartic as if you, the reader, are experiencing that redemption yourself.

2. Ros Myers (Spooks) – Ros was one of the first TV characters that I fell in love with and whose storyline I found myself seriously invested in. After playing a vital role in foiling a coup against the Prime Minister led by her boss and funded by her father, a prominent figure in the government, she transfers from MI6 to Section D of MI5 (the unit the show follows). Given that she makes no effort to connect with the rest of the team (earning her the reputation of ‘the ice queen’), it takes a while for her to find her place there but eventually her impressive skills and unwavering loyalty (especially to Harry, the head of the unit) win her the trust of the team and eventually the position of Section Chief. She’s not a straightforward character and that was something I always found fascinating about her. Her willingness to sacrifice anything and everything to protect her country is beyond admirable but it did, on several occasions, conflict with her other most dominant trait: her loyalty. At one point, she betrays the team because she thinks she sees a better solution to the problem they’re facing and at another, she is forced to sacrifice the life of a teammate to protect a room full of people the world probably couldn’t function without, even though many of them are pretty awful human beings. Plus she frequently puts herself in serious danger without a hint of fear or doubt. Her dedication, her loyalty, and her strength… they’re all traits I hold in the highest regard. She also has this unshakable sense of purpose, this absolute certainty in what she does; that’s definitely something I’d like to find (or build, if that’s the way it works) at some point in my life.

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3. Emily Prentiss (Criminal Minds) – Criminal Minds follows the BAU, the Behavioural Analysis Unit, a team that use psychological profiling to track down and catch criminals, most commonly serial killers. Despite arriving under somewhat of a cloud, Emily becomes an integral, irreplaceable part of the team (one of the things that’s really nice about the show is that each of the team have slightly different relationships with one another and Emily is no different in that regard; each of her relationships with the team is unique and I could delve into the details of each one and why they are the way they are because I find that really interesting but I won’t – otherwise we’ll be here forever). She’s tough and stubborn and positively allergic to bullshit, willing and definitely able to defy those in power or positions of authority when necessary; she’s a force to be reckoned with. Bonus points for being hilariously sarcastic. She’s incredibly intelligent and a brilliant profiler, but she also cares as deeply as she thinks. She’s compassionate, both with her team members and the victims they work with, and she clearly feels things very intensely, from long ago traumas to the haunting outcomes of many of their cases; while she prides herself on her professionalism and her ability to compartmentalise, she isn’t afraid to be vulnerable with the people she trusts. Despite some fairly wonky writing at times, she’s an interesting and multifaceted character, one that we see grow a hell of a lot over her time on the show: we see her go from an awkward and insecure new agent to a highly respected agent and eventually to Unit Chief, something that, for me at least, felt particularly satisfying given her loyalty to the team and her commitment to what they do. And as much as I love her for all of these things, I think what I love and admire most about her is her absolute, unwavering loyalty to her team. For example, one of my favourite storylines involves an enemy from her past reappearing and threatening the team to punish her for her part in what happened to him. Instead of telling the team and putting them in even more danger, she goes rogue and attempts to take him down herself with dire consequences.

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4. Helen Magnus (Sanctuary) – I’m honestly not quite sure how to sum up Helen Magnus (played by Amanda Tapping) in one paragraph. At the beginning of the show, we know that she was born in England during the Victorian Era and is 157 years old due to a dangerous biological experiment she and her Oxford colleagues conducted on themselves (while they were in their thirties). As well as being an M.D., she has doctorates in Teratology, Cryptozoology, Xenobiology, and Biology, and is the Head of the Global Sanctuary Network, a series of facilities that tracks down, protects, and learns from the unknown and extraordinary creatures and people that inhabit the world, described in the show as Abnormals. She heads the Sanctuary in Old City which, in addition to its scientific functions, both serves as a permanent and temporary residence for many Abnormals. Despite being born in an era where women were at a distinct disadvantage, Magnus was always strong-willed and forthright. She’s beautiful, enigmatic, and incredibly intelligent (an expert on multiple subjects, fluent in several languages, and the foremost authority on Abnormals, just for starters); she’s also an excellent diplomat and commands the attention of every room she walks into. She is or was personally acquainted with multiple famous historic figures, including multiple world leaders, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and Dr Martin Luther Kind Jr. Louis Pasteur was a close friend of her father and was her godfather. She’s at ease and confident in high pressure social situations, comfortable taking charge with a no-nonsense approach that most likely stems from her Victorian upbringing. She’s also well trained when out in the field, extremely competent at multiple forms of hand to hand combat, comfortable with a wide variety of weaponry, a skilled pilot, and technologically savvy. While she stays true (and proudly so) to her traditional English heritage (a dedicated tea drinker with great distain for coffee, her preference for staying busy, and so on), she is driven by her desire to learn, about anything and everything, in order to help and protect Abnormals. Her longevity has been a real asset in that regard, not that she ever takes a break; she frequently works through the night, entirely dedicated to the task at hand. But despite the advantages of her longevity, she has long considered it a curse as it ultimately means she will outlive everyone she knows, everyone she loves. This has caused her immeasurable pain and explains her guardedness (although that likely originated from her Victorian upbringing). But she never gives up; she never stops fighting or looking for a solution. She was one of the first television characters that I saw as a role model: I deeply admire her, her passion for knowledge, her drive to help people… She makes me want to be the best possible version of myself and to help and give the most I can. (I have actually met Amanda Tapping briefly and I did try to thank her the impact Magnus has had on my life but I was so overwhelmed that I don’t think I did a very good job; all being well, I do have another opportunity coming up, pandemic permitting, so hopefully I’ll be able to make actual, eloquent sentences this time.)

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5. Alexandra Udinov (Nikita) – As hard as it was to choose between Alex and Nikita herself (if I included every awesome female character I love, this list would’ve had us all running for the hills due to it’s length so, at the very least, I tried to stick to one character per show/book/etc), Alex just won. I love them both but I think I connected to Alex in a way that I never quite did with Nikita, even when I didn’t agree with her actions. Anyway, context… After the murder of her prominent Russian family when she’s only thirteen, Alex ends up a victim of human trafficking and a drug addict in the US where Nikita tracks her down and gets her clean. In an attempt to give Alex a reason to live, Nikita reveals that the rogue Black Ops division that trained her were behind Alex’s parents’ death and together they attempt to bring the unit down. But it’s obviously far more complicated than that. Alex is a really interesting character because she’s gone through so much and yet she’s still so young; she’s always been defined by others and never been able to figure out who she is on her own terms. Hiding all of her vulnerability behind a tough exterior as both a coping mechanism and a form of protection, she comes to define herself by her pain (of which there is a significant amount) but the more she learns about her parents and her childhood as well as the best and worst of the people around her, the more she starts to realise that that isn’t a sustainable way to live and how it’s preventing her from moving forward in her life. And so she has to learn how to fight through and process her trauma, learn to let go of the parts that are damaging and how to use her experience to find her place in the world.

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6. Samantha Carter (Stargate SG-1) – A member of SG-1, the front line team for the US Air Force classified organisation Stargate Command, Samantha Carter (also played by Amanda Tapping; this was pre Sanctuary and Helen Magnus) is the resident genius, an astrophysicist and Air Force Officer who progresses from Captain to Colonel during the timeline of the franchise. Stargate Command has multiple SG teams travelling to other planets using a device known as a Stargate, which creates a wormhole that connects to the Stargates on other planets, to form alliances and attain whatever technology they can to defend themselves against the dominant, malicious species in the galaxy, determined to control as many planets as possible. Carter is usually the one to save them – the team, the SGC, the planet – whenever they get into trouble, something that happens to them relatively often as the flagship team. She’s often forced to choose between the two sides of herself: she’s incredibly intelligent, curious and keen to explore and learn, but she’s also an impressive soldier and pilot, more than competent with weapons and in hand to hand combat. This combination quickly earns her great respect among those involved in the Stargate project, although it does cause conflict on occasion. She’s also intensely compassionate – her first instinct to be kind and to help. She very close to her three teammates and would do anything for them. One of the ongoing storylines revolves around her relationship with her commanding officer, Col. Jack O’Neill: they slowly develop feelings for each other but when they’re eventually confronted about them, they agree to ignore them to keep the team together (the Air Force would never allow them to have a relationship and remain on the same team) and continue doing the jobs they do so well. However, that’s easier said than done, especially when they repeatedly meet parallel universe versions of themselves who are together, who didn’t have the Air Force regulations standing in their way. Sam Carter has always meant a lot to me, with her core drives to learn and to help being the same as mine. She’s also always inspired me, inspired me to be the absolute best that I can be (she actually inspired me to study Physics when, until then, it had just been a hobby) and to remember that there’s a solution to every problem, even if it’s not always easy to find.

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7. Ellie Linton (Tomorrow Series by John Marsden) – The series begins when a group of teenagers go on a camping trip in the Australian bush and come home to find that their country has been invaded. Everyone they know and love has been captured and the only safe place for them is their camping hideaway, locally known as ‘Hell.’ It has the potential to be a bit of a cliché – kids forced to be heroes – but with such a focus on how emotionally complicated and morally complex the situation is, it never feels predictable or stale. The story is narrated by Ellie as she writes down everything that happens to them, an idea they quickly adopt so that, maybe, what they go through and sacrifice won’t be forgotten or lost in the chaos of it all. She documents everything from her emotional turmoil, and the conflicts within the group to their attacks on the enemy, the losses of people they love, and the devastation over what’s happening. She feels everything incredibly deeply and although there are, of course, periods of time where she has to shove her emotions aside, she is profoundly affected by what she is forced to do and what happens to her throughout the war. It’s never explicitly stated but it’s clear that she’s dealing with a serious amount of trauma. Fortunately for her, she’s strong willed and determined despite the often overwhelming fear and uncertainty; she never, ever gives up, even when it seems that there is nothing left to do. Regardless of the almost inconceivable odds against them, she still believes (or forces herself to believe) that she and her friends can make a difference and that’s more than a little inspiring to me.

8. Olivia Dunham (Fringe) – FBI Agent Olivia Dunham begins working in a new, highly classified unit after a series of strange, science or technology based events start happening, many of them fatal for the people involved. She works with Agent Astrid Farnsworth, Dr Walter Bishop (a genius but mentally unstable scientist specialising in fringe science who, until ‘the pattern’ started, had been institutionalised for nearly two decades), and Peter Bishop, Walter’s estranged son, who is brought in as a civilian consultant by Olivia to essentially look after his father, although he proves his intelligence and wide range of skills, making him just as valuable to the team as his father. Olivia is driven by a strong sense of justice, working relentlessly to solve every case and while she keeps her own emotions tightly under wraps, she is compassionate with victims and loving with her sister and young niece. Throughout the seasons, we learn about her traumatic childhood and how that has informed who she is and through alternate timelines and parallel universes, we see how things might’ve been different. This also gives Olivia a chance to re-evaluate her life and what she really wants. This show is so complicated that it would take thousands of words to properly explore her character but I loved Olivia from the start because of her strong sense of right and wrong and because of how unbelievably hard she worked because getting justice for the victims of the fringe events mattered, even if no one would ever know the truth due to the classified nature of the work. It was never about credit; it was always about the people and how every single one mattered, regardless of who they were or how important society believed them to be. They were all important to her. But beyond that, I loved watching her evolve over the course of the show. Fundamentally, she was the same person with the same core values but slowly, she became more open, more trusting, more loving. Having been pretty much alone and self reliant up to becoming part of the Fringe team, it was actually quite emotional to see her lower her guard and let people be a real part of her life, even if there were some (serious) bumps in the road. At the beginning of the show, she didn’t really have anyone and by the end, she had so much more than I think she ever thought possible. There was something really beautiful about that, about how much life can change and change you, often for the better.

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9. Olivia Benson (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) – After twenty two seasons of Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay), it’s hard to know how to sum her up. From a Detective in the Manhattan Special Victims Unit (that primarily investigates sexual offences), she rises through the ranks to where she is now, the Captain and Commanding Officer of the unit. Watching her become Captain was incredibly satisfying and emotional because she gone through so much and worked so damn hard; she’s come so far and she’s earned it beyond a shadow of a doubt. She’s grown so much and become so self assured, so confident in her abilities. It’s been an amazing journey to watch. She’s incredibly strong, determined, and resourceful, probably a combination of a painful childhood and everything that’s happened to her while she’s been on the job; she’s been in more dangerous, traumatising situations than one can count. Having said that, the show and Mariska’s performances do a good job of normalising therapy and showing the positive effects it can have. Olivia is also very intelligent (for example, she speaks multiple languages including Italian, Russian, as well some French and Spanish) and has become very skilled at dealing with people within the Justice system, has the respect and reputation and knows how to wield them to get the best outcome for the people they’re trying to help. She’s deeply empathetic and she’s always been good with the victims of their cases, gentle but empowering, helping them to regain their confidence and agency. At her very core, she’s driven to help people – I’m not sure what she’d do if she couldn’t help people – and I think that’s why she’s lasted so long in a job that often burns people out in just a few years. She’s been a big inspiration to me ever since I started following the show, for all the characteristics I’ve just mentioned. If I can be half as good a person as she is and do half the good that she does, then I’ll be happy.

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10. Daisy Johnson (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) – As I said in my post about Daisy, I could write a thesis on her and her character arc (if you want to read my mini-thesis, head to that post). I loved her right from the beginning. She’s funny and smart and tough but she also feels her emotions deeply and is incredibly driven, often by those deep emotions and her sense of what’s right and wrong. From a hacktivist living in a van to a loyal, dedicated agent and superpowered hero (she’s able to manipulate vibrations, to the extent that she’s caused earthquakes as a result of losing control of her emotions), she grows up and goes through a lot but in the end, she finds family in her team and a place to belong in SHIELD, two things she’s spent her whole life searching for. To quote myself from my previous post: “She’s not perfect, of course – she makes her fair share of mistakes and bad decisions. Sometimes she hurts the people she loves. But while every blunder becomes a part of her, she doesn’t allow them to define her. She’s defined by the future, by what she does next. She inspires me to be the same. And above all else, her motivation is to help people and that’s something that’s never changed; it’s something that’s at the very core of her and I find that really inspiring too.”

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11. Cassie Stuart (Unforgotten) – I’ve loved Nicola Walker for years, loved the various characters I’ve seen her play, but I think DCI Cassie Stuart is my favourite. She heads a team within the Metropolitan Police Service that we’ve now watched investigate multiple cold cases (although this seems to be more of a coincidence than by design, i.e. they’re not a cold case unit but the cases featured have involved crimes committed decades previously). These cases are not only difficult due to the loss of evidence over time, the deaths of people involved, and so on, but also because they’re often interviewing family and friends who have been grieving (or, maybe worse, hoping) for years, which is obviously a lot of emotion to be on the receiving end of. Cassie is a fantastic detective, smart and experienced, but she’s also extremely compassionate: she feels it all and that makes these cases unbearable at times. There’s so much more I could say about her but that’s the thing I admire most about her, how compassionate she remains in the face of such pain and distress, both because that’s what the other person needs and because that’s just who she is. She cares about people and while that makes her who she is, it isn’t an easy burden to carry. I relate to that on a visceral level, as a person who has always cared deeply about others, sometimes to my detriment. But having said that, I wouldn’t change it. Nor, I think, would Cassie, not really. It takes a lot of strength but caring that much, it makes the world so much bigger and so much more vivid and real in a way it could never be if you didn’t.

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12. Aza Holmes (Turtles All The Way Down by John Green) – I was so excited when I learned that John Green was writing a book with a main character struggling with OCD and I absolutely loved it, loved Aza and really related to her, to how she thinks and how she processes the world. Aza is sixteen years old, trying to manage school, friends, and life in general, while desperately struggling with constant anxiety about bacteria, infection, and dying from Clostridium Difficile Infection (also known as C. diff). She describes the anxiety as ‘thought spirals’ or ‘invasive thoughts,’ over which she has no control. The only way she’s able to manage it is to check and clean a permanently open cut on her finger, proving to herself that she doesn’t have C. diff. We struggle with a lot of the same things, from the littlest things to the biggest things: with ‘thought spirals’; with her sense of identity (she describes her search for her self as opening Russian dolls, looking for the final solid one but never finding it; with relationships (“I can’t have a normal life if I can’t kiss someone without freaking out.”), which is actually pretty comforting since there are so many stories where a relationship is the thing that makes a person’s mental health better; with the loss of her father and how much it affects her, even years later (“And the thing is, when you lose someone, you realize you’ll eventually lose everyone,” “I remember after my Dad died, for a while, it was both true and not true in my mind… My father died suddenly, but also across the years. He was still dying really – which meant, I guess, that he was still living too,” and how she imagines the moments they should’ve had, so clearly that sometimes she forgets that they didn’t happen), which is so painfully real for me. I was deeply affected by the breakdown of Aza’s mental health, having experienced similar downward spirals myself, where my mental illness has me doing things I would never rationally do. And the climb back up was similarly moving because it was so agonisingly relatable: “Everyone wanted me to feed them that story – darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it too.” She feels so fragile after everything she’s been through and her thought spirals are still there, her life suffocated by her anxiety. At one point, she says, “I could never become a functioning grown up like this; it was inconceivable that I’d ever have a career,” and that is one of the hardest and scariest parts for me when it comes to managing mental illness and disability. But over time, Ava starts to accept the reality of her mental health (“I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon, because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life,”) and slowly, things start to improve, which we notice in the way she thinks about herself and her life: “You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.” Real progress is often slow and subtle and we don’t even necessarily notice it at the time but it is progress. And seeing the progress she makes gives me hope. I’m pretty sure this paragraph is a bit more chaotic than the others but that is just because I relate to Aza and her experiences so strongly, even if the actual events aren’t that similar. But it was like my thoughts and feelings were being put into words and that was such a profound experience. I don’t think you can really know how important it is to have a character you relate to until you can’t find one. Reading the book made me feel less alone. It made me feel seen. It made me feel understood. And I’m so, so grateful for that.

13. Ginny Weasley (The Changeling by Annerb, a Harry Potter series fanfiction) – In the original books, I preferred Hermione to Ginny but then we obviously saw a lot more of the former. While rereading old favourites from my fanfiction days (I both read and wrote it during my teenage years but revisited it a few years ago as a relaxation strategy), I discovered this story, where Ginny is sorted into Slytherin instead of Gryffindor. The story creates real depth around the houses and the traits that define those within them: for example, we learn about what ambition, loyalty, conflict, and rules mean to Slytherins, from both positive and negative perspectives. This life-altering moment, this complete change in how she’d expected her life to pan out, obviously has a dramatic effect on her development as a person and how she experiences the events described in the series. She’s strong willed and reserved: she knows the value of secrets, knows it so well that she becomes an incredibly skilled Occlumens and Legilimens. But she’s also deeply loyal and takes her responsibility for others very seriously, sometimes to her own detriment: that’s one of her consistent qualities, that she always puts others ahead of herself. She can think twenty steps ahead in every direction so she’s prepared for any possible circumstance and outcome, a skill that saves multiple lives throughout the story. She’s also beyond passionate about quidditch, the one thing that seems to make her feel completely in sync with the world and with herself. That’s another one of her consistent qualities: she gives her all to everything she does. This, I think, is what I admire most in her and something that I try to emulate whenever and wherever possible.

14. Marisa Coulter (His Dark Materials) – It’s been years since I read the books and if I’m honest, I don’t remember them well (I mean, I did read all three in four days). And when the TV show was announced, I wanted to give it a fair chance where I wasn’t constantly comparing between the show and the books so I didn’t reread them beforehand. Set in a world world where all humans’ souls manifest as animal companions called daemons, Lyra, an orphan living at Jordan College in Oxford, sets serious change in motion when she goes in search of her missing friend. Given the complicated nature of the His Dark Materials trilogy, there is so much more context that I could include here but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it there as this post is about characters more than the fictional worlds they live in (unless it’s absolutely necessary to include extra context for my thoughts to make sense). As much as I love Lyra in the TV adaptation, there is just something (many somethings) about Mrs Coulter (Lyra’s absent mother) that are just utterly fascinating, that have completely captivated me from the beginning. I swear, I finish every episode and say, “Ruth Wilson should’ve won an award for that episode.” She might be a villain but to call her something so commonplace is almost insulting for she is far more nuanced than that. She’s exceedingly intelligent, beautiful, and enigmatic, effortlessly commanding the attention of every room she enters. To anyone watching, she seems utterly composed and yet, under the surface, she is, without a doubt seethingly dangerous. She is ruthless in her pursuit of power, whether that be political or over a single person. Control is everything. She retains fierce control over her emotions and on the few occasions her control has slipped, the explosions of repressed emotion are almost painful to witness (something I think we can put down to Ruth Wilson’s incredible acting skills). She has even managed to exercise all but complete control over her daemon, a golden monkey, which is to say that she has all but complete control over her own soul, something no other human seems capable of without unbearable pain and distress. In the present, she presents as unconcerned by the separation from her daemon but, with such a tight grip on her emotions, who knows what she truly feels and one has to wonder what she experiences every time she punishes her daemon for offering affection. Why does she do it? What does it say about how she feels about herself? Is she punishing herself for giving into the temptation and sin that result in Lyra and her own ruined reputation or is she doing all that she can to suppress any expression of emotion in order to succeed in their brutally patriarchal society? Is it both? How did she even manage it? There are so many questions and so few answers. We know she had an awful childhood, we know her affair with Lord Asriel (Lyra’s father) damaged her reputation possibly beyond repair, we know she’s had to fight for everything she has, even the things that people think they’ve given her… This obviously doesn’t excuse the terrible things she’s done but make for a fascinating character and for fascinating discussions around what makes people who they are and do what they do. Clearly, she’s not a role model but she is a pretty incredible example of the complexity of human beings, of the damage sexism, discrimination, guilt, and self hatred can do, of how people choose to wield the power they have (and if we didn’t know she was powerful before, her display of controlling the soul consuming spectres – something that was previously unheard of and yet something she seems to do effortlessly – has proven that), and how far someone will go to get what they want. She’s a character I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, one so complex that she may be impossible to completely unravel. I think her self control is what I think most about, what that must be like – not that I’d ever want to emulate it. If she can control her emotions so fully – control her soul so fully – what does that make her? What does she feel? Does she feel at all, apart from those rare moments where her emotions seems to erupt out of her like lethal molten lava? What does that do to a person? Are they even a person anymore? I would’ve thought it would make a person feel powerful, would feel satisfying to have that much power over yourself, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a safe road to head down. For how long can you follow it before you can’t turn back? As I said, a complex character and so, so many questions. But I think that’s good. We need characters that challenge us and challenge our thinking. That’s one of the great gifts of art, in whatever form it comes.

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I just had to include this quote because I think it sums up Mrs Coulter so well: “She’s also a deeply intelligent complex woman in her own right, and her suppressed rage and cruelty clearly stem, in large part, from her own history and experiences. Her hard exterior is clearly a necessary result of a life lived in a deeply patriarchal society—the only way she gains any modicum of respect and power for herself is to behave, at all times, as though she were a man. Her iron-like self-control and vicious repression of her emotions are all clearly a means to an end, and the few moments when her icy veneer breaks are all the more terrifying for both their violence and their rarity. Even her relationship with her daemon is different. Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey is the one daemon in His Dark Materials that doesn’t speak or have a name, and often functions as the id that reveals the hidden cost of her iron control over her own demeanor. (And its loving interaction with Lord Asriel’s leopard Stelmaria in the first season’s final episode is an admission of an entirely different type.) It’s the constant visual evidence that she’s not as removed or in control as she seems. Externally, she knows the façade she needs to present to the Magisterium, Asriel and everyone else around her. Internally, she’s often barely hanging on, as evidenced by her violence toward her monkey—and by extension herself. Mrs. Coulter has even trained herself and her daemon (after what must have been years of nightmarish experimentation) to push through the pain of separation, so much so that they can now both function at great distances from one another. Since HBO’s His Dark Materials has largely underplayed the primacy of the human-daemon connection in the name of budgetary restrictions, this ability (and the constant suffering it entails) perhaps does not seem as big of a deal as it ought to. But it really is. This is a woman willing to put herself and her very soul through tremendous torment in the name of getting what she wants.” (x)

15. Emily Byrne (Absentia) – The TV show, Absentia, was one of my 2020 discoveries and I instantly found myself invested in Emily and her story. An FBI Agent with a husband (also FBI) and young son, she goes missing while tracking a serial killer and is eventually declared dead in absentia. However, six years later, she’s found alive, having been tortured but with almost no memory of who abducted her or what happened to her. She’s deeply traumatised and reuniting with her family is emotional and painful: her husband has remarried, her son has no memory of her, and she and her brother had serious issues between them that aren’t magically solved by his relief that she’s alive. The FBI relaunch their investigation into her abduction while she struggles to regain some sense of normality (side note: it’s one of the only shows I’ve seen that is truly invested in representing a character’s mental health, showing the effects of her trauma, the triggers both expected and unexpected, the steps forward, the slips back). When the investigation starts to suggest that Emily kidnapped herself and was the accomplice of the serial killer she’d been chasing when she disappeared, she goes on the run in an attempt to find out the truth and consequently prove her innocence. Stana Katic is incredible in the role: Emily is tough and determined and doesn’t give up for anything; she’s relentless. She’s stubborn and more than a little reckless, a trait I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she possessed before she was abducted but one that I’m sure was heightened by what she went through. She’s also incredibly resourceful, sometimes unbelievably so. But despite the fierceness she presents to the world, she’s still a gentle person at heart. She loves Flynn, her son, more than anything and would do anything for him; as they reconnect, you can see how much pure joy she gets just from seeing him. On a related note, we see such a range of emotions from Emily: most likely due to her trauma still being so fresh, her emotions are unbearably raw and right on the surface all the time. She ricochets between them with alarming speed. But despite said emotions, she’s still strong enough to fight her way through it all, face her triggers, evade the FBI manhunt, and begin to unravel the mystery of what happened to her. I can’t say that I relate to her because I’ve never been through that sort of trauma but I have been through some shit and her strength really inspires me. Her ability to balance being tough and being gentle, her willingness to do anything for the people she loves, the willpower she possesses to move forward with her life despite everything that’s happened to her… I just really respect the hell out of her.

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So that turned out far longer than I’d expected or intended it to be but I hope it was interesting. There are many more amazing female characters that I could’ve included but given how long this post became, I thought I’d stop at fifteen. But it’s awesome that there are so many great women in the media for us to look up to, to inspire us and motivate us and make us feel seen. There’s a way to go – marginalised groups are still very much underrepresented in fiction, especially mainstream fiction – but things are improving and I’m hopeful. And I’m grateful for the wonderful characters we currently have.

Books, Film, and TV of 2020

Funnily enough, one of my goals for this year was to consume more new media, to experience new stories, expand my creativity, and just for fun. The first semester of the year didn’t really allow for that very much but then lockdown happened. Initially, my anxiety was so high that all I could do was watch comfortable, familiar, and safe stories, but slowly I started adding in new ones as a means of escape. This basically revolved around film and TV as I just didn’t have the brain space to read with all of the fear and anxiety taking up so much space. But I really started to get into watching new things and enjoyed it more and more; I think I’d gotten stuck in a bit of a rut of rewatching old things because it allowed me to do other things at the same time, namely my constant (and desperate) attempts to keep up with my OCD-induced diary. But with so little going on, I really only had to write about the new things I was watching. Back at university, there’s been less time but I have still managed the odd new thing here and there.

I haven’t included everything in this post – for obvious reasons. I’ve just written about the ones I thought were really good or had something specific that I wanted to say about them. Please don’t feel that you have to read the whole thing in detail; feel free to skim or just look at one section for example. Hopefully there will be something in here that you walk away thinking, “oh, I want to read/watch that…” Fair warning, there will be some spoilers but I will try and mark them clearly.


BOOKS

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy – My therapist gave me this book just before lockdown and I absolutely adore it. I love the beauty and simplicity of it, of the drawings, of the words, of the characters and the little conversations between them, about everything from cake to fear of the future… I can completely understand it not being for everyone – it is a very specific style of book and approach to life – but  I loved it and found great comfort in it. I still do. It’s permanently by my bed so that I can just open it at random and read a few passages.

I Would Leave Me If I Could by Halsey – Halsey’s first collection of poetry is described as “In this debut collection, Halsey bares her soul. Bringing the same artistry found in her lyrics, Halsey’s poems delve into the highs and lows of doomed relationships, family ties, sexuality, and mental illness. More hand grenades than confessions, these autobiographical poems explore and dismantle conventional notions of what it means to be a feminist in search of power. Masterful as it is raw, passionate, and profound, ‘I Would Leave Me If I Could’ signals the arrival of an essential voice.” It’s definitely true that she bares her soul: some of the poems are uncomfortably honest, giving you the sensation of reading a person’s diary. She’s sharing things she’s never shared before and she’s never been one to hide the ugly from the ugly sides of life. (It’s worth noting that some of the poems have graphic descriptions in them and she does discuss some really difficult subjects like abuse and sexual assault so if those things are likely to trigger you, it may be important to have a conversation with yourself about whether you’re in the right place to read the book.) Some of the ones I found most powerful were Due Date, Battles, Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 1, Wish You The Best, Eight, With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, American Woman, Telltale, Tornado, Lighthouse, The Painter, High-Five Kids, A Story Like Mine, I Would Leave Me If I Could, Something For Them, and Seventeen. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’ because some of them are practically painful to read, knowing that she has gone through these experiences. But these are some of the ones that gave me that gut-punch feeling, ones that felt so important to the collection. I have such respect and admiration for her in sharing these stories; it’s one of the bravest pieces of personal writing I’ve ever seen. You can feel her passion and her sincerity and her emotions pouring off the page and I think that is what most drew me into this book. Yes, I loved the writing but the emotion was what made it so powerful. The closing lines to Ordinary Boys, I think, sums up the book really well: “You write to calm the craving. / To corner them in fiction / And say / Finally, / I have conquered you.

(I also read chapters and excerpts of multiple music and songwriting books for my course but as they weren’t for the sake of just reading and I didn’t always read the complete book each time, it didn’t feel right to include them here.)

I would’ve loved to have read more this year and I had so many plans but between my mental health struggles and university commitments, I just haven’t been able to. Hopefully next year will be a better reading year.


FILM

What Happened To Monday – In a dystopian future where every family is only allowed one child, septuplets, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday must remain hidden by assuming the singular identity of Karen Settman. They each go out one day a week – the day they were named after – and until the age of thirty, they manage to go unnoticed. But then Monday doesn’t come home and the sisters fear their secret has been discovered. It’s a really great action film (although, be warned, it doesn’t shy away from fairly graphic violence) and Noomi Rapace is incredible, playing seven distinct women, each with their own personalities, their own struggles, and their own emotional reactions (I’ve seen some people call the different personalities less than subtle but, if you’re only real existence isn’t really who you are or want to be, I wouldn’t be surprised by a need to defiantly distinguish yourself from the people ‘sharing’ your identity). From the emotional scenes to the action sequences, she was fantastic and I found myself connecting to each of the sisters in different ways, although I think Friday was my favourite. Despite being an action film, the emotional storyline is what really carries the film, getting more and more intense as the minutes pass. And the ending is really, really interesting but I won’t give it away. I thought the aesthetic was perfect for the story and really effective in elevating the emotions of the story. With the complicated moral debate that the film is based on, the multiple characters, the relationships between them, and the challenges they face, it really is a multi-layered movie, leaving you with a lot to think about after it ends.

(I kind of wish they would make a sequel of sorts because the underlying problem – the rapidly growing population and society’s inability to cope with that – isn’t solved. It wouldn’t have to involve the main characters, apart from maybe a cameo or two to bridge the films, and it could be shot like a documentary, like the ‘The Truth Behind The Child Allocation Act’ (the law that enforces the one child per family policy). Half of it could tell the story of how the Settman sisters revealed that truth (which could be where the cameos come in, the use of ‘crowd footage’ of certain moments, and interviews with scientists, etc) and then the other half of it could be about the committees put in place to find a better solution to the population problem. I think that could be a really interesting way to build on an already existing universe but without it needing to be a direct sequel but more an expansion of that world.)

Isn’t It Romantic – Romantic comedies aren’t usually my thing and I’ve never seen Rebel Wilson in something I enjoyed so I wasn’t expecting to like this film when a friend picked it for a Netflix Party but I ended up LOVING it. I loved how it made fun of romantic comedies (as well as challenging the toxic elements that can appear in them); I thought Rebel Wilson was hilarious; the musical numbers were great; and it was just such a joyful, feel good film. I’ve watched it multiple films since my first viewing and it always cheers me up.

Ocean’s 8 – I really enjoyed this film. Probably more than the original trilogy. I loved all of the main characters and how different they all were and yet, they became this great team. I loved the dynamics between them, even if many of them weren’t given the time or opportunity to be properly fleshed out (it was a big cast so that’s not exactly surprising). There were so many awesome people in the cast, even the cameo parts. Helena Bonham Carter was brilliant and I adored both Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. They were gorgeous and hilarious and they had great chemistry; I wanted them to have their own spin off adventures, just the two of them. I’m not sure if I ship them in the conventional sense (as I know many people do) but there’s definitely a relationship there that would be really cool to see explored. Anyway. I loved the multiple twists and the comedy was right up my alley (most of the time – there were a few moments that made me cringe but that’s still quite impressive since comedy isn’t really my genre). And the ending was just perfect.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky – I love so many of the Studio Ghibli films and during lockdown, a group of friends and I watched a few of them. I hadn’t seen this one before and although it felt quite similar to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in terms of themes and general storyline, I did really enjoy it. It follows a young girl and her friend in their attempts to keep a magic crystal safe from the power-hungry military and find a mythical floating castle. But the biggest thing for me was how beautiful it was: the design of the castle, the abandoned gardens with all the greenery growing freely, the big, glass rooms… it was just utterly stunning. It was definitely the most beautiful Studio Ghibli I’ve seen.

Fantasy Island – When a group of competition winners land on Fantasy Island, they are given the opportunity to have their greatest fantasy fulfilled. But slowly the fantasies start to spiral out of control, becoming much darker than originally intended. When they start to overlap, the group start to get suspicious that maybe these aren’t their fantasies at all, that they might be in the fantasy of someone else altogether. I was drawn in by the idea of fantasies being fulfilled and because I’m a fan of Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, and Michael Peña. It wasn’t a life-altering film but I enjoyed it and thought it threw out some interesting stuff about the things we fantasise about, whether they’d actually play out that way if they happened in real life, and who we’d be if they did happen. So, yeah, I felt like it was an afternoon well spent.

The Half of It – Solitary, introverted Ellie Chu lives in a small town, practically taking care of her widowed father and making extra money by writing homework assignments for her classmates. When the less than eloquent, dorky football player, Paul Munsky asks her to write a love letter for Aster Flores, a girl who goes to their school, she initially refuses, secretly in love with Aster herself. But when the power company threatens to cut off her house’s electricity, she accepts in order to make the payment. One letter turns into more and Ellie and Aster connect over their shared love of art and literature, although Aster believes it’s Paul she’s connecting with. Ellie and Paul also start to bond over the experience. I won’t say more than that because the story unfolds so beautifully that I don’t want to ruin it. It’s a funny, gentle, and “quietly revolutionary” (as I believe Rolling Stone described it) coming of age story. I’m sure there will be those who find it too whimsical or too Fault-In-Our-Stars-esque but there’s so much more too it than that. I loved it. I loved the characters and I loved the different relationships between them. I loved the ideas they discussed: about longing, about love, about art, about identity, about life… And the ending is perfect. Utterly perfect.

Official Secrets – This is a docu-drama based on Katharine Gunn, a GCHQ analyst, who leaked a confidential memo that exposed an illegal spying operation by American and British intelligence services to potentially blackmail members of the UN into voting for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is eventually published but immediately discredited due to someone at the paper accidentally correcting American grammar to British grammar. Meanwhile an investigation is launched at GCHQ and eventually Katharine confesses to what she’s done. War breaks out in Iraq and Katharine seeks help from Liberty, an advocacy group which campaigns to challenge injustice, protect civil liberties and promote human rights. Even though this is about a historical event, I don’t want to give too much away because it’s a really fascinating film and I don’t want to ruin that experience if you’re not familiar with the events. It was a very strange experience to watch because I was alive at the time but far too young to be aware of the politics behind it all. I was aware of the war and went to the protest marches with my parents (so, somewhere, I’m potentially in the march footage that they used) but I didn’t know the details, like the story of Katharine Gunn. So it was a really interesting experience to watch it now and learning about what happened (I researched it more after finishing it) and putting that in the context of the few memories I do have of that time.

The Accountant – I have to admit that I didn’t like this film much, didn’t like how baldly stereotypical the portrayal of Autism was (as an autistic person, I found it so cringe-worthy that I could barely finish it) but there was a moment at the end that I thought was important and so I wanted to include it in this list. A family with an autistic son are being shown around a facility for people with Autism (not hospital or lab like at all though; more like this huge, beautiful country house) where some spend short periods and some live full time. The doctor says something that I think is really important, especially after such a traditional and unchallenging (and, in some ways, harmful) representation of Autism…

NEUROLOGIST: 1 in 68 children in [the US] are diagnosed with a form of Autism. But if you can put aside for a moment what your pediatrician and all the other NT’s have said about your son…

AUTISTIC BOY’S FATHER: ‘NT’s?

NEUROLOGIST: Neurotypicals. The rest of us. What if we’re wrong? What if we’ve been using the wrong tests to quantify intelligence in children with Autism? Your son’s not less than. He’s different. Now, your expectations for your son may change over time, they might include marriage, children, self-sufficiency. They might not. But I guarantee you, if we let the world set expectations for our children, they’ll start low, and they’ll stay there. And maybe… Just maybe… He doesn’t understand how to tell us. Or… we haven’t yet learned how to listen.

Searching – The really interesting thing about this film is how the viewer sees the story entirely through screens: homemade videos, computer screens, FaceTime, news footage, etc. It was really cool, but I can’t imagine that it would work again without feeling like a gimmick. Anyway, for this film, it was a really interesting way of telling the story, what could otherwise be a normal mystery film, albeit one full of unexpected twists. It follows David Kim’s search for his missing daughter, Margot, through which he learns that his daughter was going through much more than he’d realised after his wife and her mother’s death a few years (approximately) earlier. The police come up with multiple theories but continue to hit dead ends but David refuses to give up, leading to some confusing and shocking discoveries.

Enola Holmes – I was really excited for this film and I wasn’t disappointed; I really, really enjoyed it. I never quite got into Stranger Things but I did think Milly Bobby Brown was great from what I did see of it. I absolutely loved her in this role though: the incredibly smart, resourceful, and loyal younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. She had great, effortless chemistry with so many of the characters, including Sherlock himself, her mother (played beautifully and hilariously by Helena Bonham Carter), and the young Viscount Tewkesbury, whose story she accidentally falls into and becomes a part of whilst on her own quest. I loved the story, beginning when Enola’s mother mysteriously disappears, and I loved how it was constantly evolving, starting as one thing and then turning into another and then another. It felt really cohesive and flowed really well as a film: I loved the motifs that kept reappearing throughout, like the meanings of different flowers and Enola paying people to change clothes with her as just two examples. I also really loved how they broke the fourth wall with Enola speaking directly to the audience, looking right at the camera; I think it was a really effective storytelling technique. I really loved it and have watched it several times since my first viewing. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking film while still retaining that feel good factor that makes it so enjoyable to watch over and over again, especially when I’m having a bad day.

Legally Blonde*Spoilers* It was good fun and I loved that it challenged societal norms: that we should fit in and conform, that others can tell you who you are and who you should be, that your interests determine your intelligence, your character, or your value… It was great to see a film with a demographic of (probably) mainly young girls, pushing back against these ideas. I loved how Elle used her own expertise to her advantage and how it allowed her to draw conclusions that the others wouldn’t have come to (although I’m not sure that her knowledge of fashion and style would win her many cases). I loved how accepting she was and how willing to forgive she was, with Vivian for example. I did struggle with some of the stereotypes portrayed, like gay men knowing fashion, the sleazy professor trying to sleep with his student, and so on but it was made almost twenty years ago; I have to hope that things are better now. Having said that, they did publicly out a gay man (technically they tricked him into outing himself but is it really any different if they were planning on that exact outcome?), which is beyond problematic. And then to have the whole thing treated as so hilarious and outrageous makes it seem like no big deal when it is. Outing someone is not only cruel but potentially dangerous. It’s not something to joke about. So as much as I enjoyed the rest of the film and appreciated the positive messages it focussed on, ultimately it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Close – Noomi Rapace as an action hero with a complicated backstory? Count me in. Close follows Sam, a highly experienced Close Protection Officer, who is assigned to protect Zoe, the young and entitled heiress, after her father’s sudden death when she and her stepmother travel to Morocco to secure the future of the family mining empire. But while there, the house is attacked in an attempt to kill Zoe and prevent her from becoming a powerful figure in the company. It seems that the stepmother is trying to eliminate her competition and ultimately it’s left to Sam to protect Zoe (and to an extent, teach her to protect herself) and both get them to safety and find out what’s really going on. While it might not be a life altering movie, I really enjoyed it. I love Noomi Rapace and thought she did an awesome job as Sam. I thought she brought a lot to what could’ve potentially been quite a one-dimensional role: she shows an incredible control, calm and quick-thinking under pressure, but she also has deeply emotional reactions to some of the events that happen throughout the film. Apparently she did all her own stunts and was trained by Jacquie Davis, the UK’s first female bodyguard, whom the character of Sam was actually based on. I just loved her as a character and the conflict she finds herself in protecting Zoe, even when it’s no longer her job. The relationship between them grows as they have to depend on each other and it’s messy and complicated but they ultimately develop genuine affection for each other, which is particularly heartwarming when both of them have had such a hard time trusting others. So, overall, a film I really enjoyed and a greatly appreciated ninety minutes of escapism.


TV

Cheer – I wasn’t sure that this would be something I would enjoy but multiple people that I like and respect recommended it so I thought I’d give it a go and absolutely loved it from the first episode. I already had a hypothetical understanding of how physical and intense and skilled cheerleading is but to actually see it (and see the process of learning a routine, practicing it over and over, and then taking it to the biggest of competitions) gave me a completely new insight and respect for it, in a way that I don’t think I could’ve had had I only had that theoretical knowledge of it. I got so invested in so many of the team members (Morgan especially – I think I related to her the most and her journey had the biggest impact on me) and I finished almost every episode in tears because I was so moved by their stories and their passion and then where they had ended up when the series finished. It’s not an obvious choice for those without an interest in cheerleading or sports but I thought it was really, really good and highly recommend it.

Noughts + Crosses – I loved the books so I’ll admit I was worried that that would affect how I felt about the show or if the show would affect how I felt about the books. But they were quite different (Callum going to Police Training rather than Sephy’s school, Yaro’s appearance in the story, etc), which actually made the series much easier to sink into: I wasn’t constantly comparing them because the difference in the stories felt so significant. It wasn’t hard to love them both and feel emotional about how the events played out in each version. The show had a much darker vibe than the books but then, in the books, we see this society through the eyes of teenagers. However that’s not possible in television: we see the whole picture. Quite literally. We also see different plot lines from characters we saw very little of in the books as the story was told in first person, either from Sephy or Callum’s point of view.

As challenging and upsetting as many of the scenes were, there were so many things I loved about it as a show. I loved the casting and portrayal of the characters, especially when it came to Callum and Sephy. They had such great chemistry that their relationship felt so natural. The acting – all of the acting – was fantastic and you really felt the emotions of the characters as they went through them. I also thought the two families were portrayed so well; the dynamics were so complex, so layered and nuanced. I also loved how visually rich it was: even in the intentionally grim areas, like the industrial areas and the roof of Callum’s house, which I think is ultimately due to the incredible attention to detail that you don’t really get in the books. But in the show, you can really see the cultural influence in every aspect of life (stemming from an African Empire that colonised Europe hundreds of years prior): clothing styles, hair styles, architecture, interior design, advertising, language (slang, pleasantries, terms of endearment, etc), and so on.

I don’t know if I feel educated enough to make an assessment of the representation, especially considering the race reversal and the fact that certain things don’t line up with the present (in the UK at least, which is where it’s set), such as an inter-racial couple being arrested and the death penalty as a potential punishment. It’s not a straightforward comparison. But having said that, it does very effectively and powerfully highlight a multitude of issues around race and class. “Josh Lee [of The Guardian] gave the television series four out of five stars, describing it as a ‘reverse-race love story that is vital viewing.’ Lee praised the series for highlighting the challenges that working-class white people and people of colour share in the real world through its depiction of racism in an alternate world dominated by African supremacy.”

Criminal Minds (Season 15)*SPOILERS* It feels so strange to me that this show is over. I started watching it in mid 2009, in the gap between seasons three and four and now it’s over. I can’t believe I’ve been watching this show for eleven years; that just seems so odd to me. Anyway. I must admit that I’ve been expecting someone to pull the plug on Criminal Minds for a while now. I’m not convinced it’s been consistently good since season seven, although there have been good episodes and story arcs since then; it just felt like they were running out of ideas, reusing old stories and villains, or using ideas that in earlier seasons they would’ve considered too ridiculous or traumatising to make episodes out of. I was endlessly happy to have Emily Prentiss back and that’s ultimately what got me back into the show when I was losing interest, especially with her in the position of Unit Chief; I feel like that was a very natural arc and development of here character. Anyway, back to season fifteen. I hated the cliffhanger to season fourteen and was very relieved to see JJ and Reid recover their friendship and I really liked Reid’s relationship with Max; she seemed like a good fit for him. I wasn’t particularly drawn in by any of the episodes, story wise, and I found Everett Lynch to be a pretty uninteresting nemesis, certainly nothing compared to George Foyet or Ian Doyle. But I liked the more character focussed moments throughout the season. The show was obviously coming to a conclusion and they were muddying the waters of who would be leaving the team, creating new paths for multiple characters. While I would’ve loved to see Emily as FBI Director (not exactly likely given all of the trouble the BAU cause), I think it was fitting that Garcia was the one to leave. She struggled with the darkness of it all and going to work for a non-profit seems like something that would’ve been a really positive place for her to be. As much as I was ready for the show to be over, I found those last few minutes really heartbreaking and I definitely cried when she waved them off, everyone aware that she wouldn’t be there when they got back.

Little Fires Everywhere – As soon as I saw the trailer for this show, I wanted to watch it. The mini series begins with Elena Richardson (played by Reese Witherspoon) watching as her big, beautiful home burns down in front of her and I was instantly invested. We jump back four months and the rest of the series is devoted to finding out what led up to that moment. Set in the late 1990s in the midwest town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, two very different families collide: the Richardson family are privileged, wealthy, and white, while the Warren family are transient, artistic, black, and rarely have money to spare. The children become friends, Pearl Warren drawn to the stability of the Richardson home and developing a crush on the oldest son, Trip, while Izzy Richardson identifies with Pearl’s mother, Mia Warren (played by Kerry Washington), as an artist and outsider. Their relationships bring the mothers closer together with disastrous consequences for all. It’s hard to describe the show without giving anything away, which I don’t really want to do with this one; the show does a much better job than I will. I’m still hoping to read the book but something that I found really interesting was that the author had pictured the Warrens as people of colour because she wanted to talk about how intertwined race and class are but hadn’t felt like she was the right person, as an Asian-American, to talk about a black woman’s experience. But then, when Kerry Washington joined the cast and became an executive producer, the showrunner decided to bring race to the forefront of the story and filled the writer’s room “with creatives who could relate to Mia’s kind of Blackness,” a decision the author was happy with. (x) It was also really interesting to watch how the characters developed and changed due to these relationships and how that affected you, as the person watching, and your feelings about the characters. Everyone I’ve talked to about the show has said the same, that their favourite characters at the beginning of the show weren’t the same as their favourites by the end. But overall, I loved Izzy and I particularly loved the scenes between Izzy and Mia. I thought they were particularly powerful. Having said that, the series is packed with incredibly powerful moments.

Absentia (Seasons 1-3) – Six years after disappearing on the hunt for a serial killer, having been assumed dead, FBI Emily Byrne is found in a cabin in the woods, barely alive and with almost no memory of the years she was missing. Recovering in hospital, she learns that her husband has remarried and that he and his new wife are raising her son. Her former colleagues at the FBI investigate her disappearance again but when they start to find evidence that Emily may have faked her abduction, Emily launches her own investigation and it becomes a race. Will Emily find out the truth before the FBI reach the end of the path they’re being led down? I loved this show. It’s one of my favourites of the year and I may very well rewatch it over the Christmas holidays. I just fell in love with the character of Emily Byrne (played by Stana Katic) – she’s a really well developed character and a total badass – and I was just blown away by how the show portrayed the trauma of what had happened to her, consistently and realistically and with the gravitas it deserved. I also thought it was great that they explored the psychological effects that her disappearance had had on her family and her relationships and how, even though they were incredibly grateful to have her back, their previous issues and their issues stemming from her disappearance didn’t go away and had to be dealt with. So there was a lot of interesting character development throughout the whole show, not just the first season. Fair warning, there’s some serious violence so if that’s not your thing, then you won’t enjoy this. But it’s an incredible psychological-thriller-mystery-drama with great characters. And while I don’t want to talk about the later seasons because that would give away the end of Season 1, I do want to shout out the introduction of the character of Cal Isaac. He’s a really interesting character and I really liked him straight away. The development of his relationship with Emily is done really well too. Anyway, I’m gonna stop here. It’s great. I love it. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Broadchurch (Series 1-3) – Broadchurch follows the partnership of the mysterious and grumpy DI Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant) and the bright and cheerful DS Ellie Miller (played by Olivia Colman) as they attempt to solve cases (one per series) in the small, seaside town of Broadchurch. It was incredibly gripping and the cliffhangers at the end of each episode were almost unbearable. We watched all three series very quickly because we kept finding ourselves watching almost a whole series in one night. Looking back at it though, I’m not sure I could rewatch it: the stories were so painful and emotional that I’m not sure I could bear to, although I guess that’s a testament to how fantastic the acting is. But I absolutely adored Hardy and Ellie’s relationship; the contrast between their personalities was utterly hilarious but their shared commitment to the job and finding the truth made them a remarkable, if unusual, pair.

Agents of Shield (Season 7)*SPOILERS* I was so upset when I learnt that this year’s season was going to be the last (I legitimately called my Mum in tears when I heard the news) but if there had to be a last, this was the best possible last. It was just incredible, from start to finish. I was a bit wary about it, with the previous season ending with them in the past but then, as they moved towards the present, episode by episode, I really got into it and I loved watching the new timeline develop, story by story. Every episode was excellent but a handful of them were real standouts, not just of the season but of the whole show (7×09 is probably my absolute favourite episode). I loved the references to previous seasons and I loved seeing old characters return as we got closer to the present. I also loved the development of the characters: Coulson, May, and Yoyo all had particularly interesting journeys that I found myself very invested in. And of course, I loved Daisy’s storyline throughout the season. I wasn’t sure a love interest was a good move but they handled it so intuitively that the way it played out felt very natural. And I loved the return to her earlier focus on family and where she came from and what that meant for who she ended up becoming. She was already a powerful figure (powers aside) but she really came into herself in this season and I wouldn’t have thought I could love her more but I did. But then Daisy Johnson is my hero and I will love her forever. I also loved that she was the voice of the audience in the sense of her grief over the team’s story ending; that felt really important and special. And despite it being the end. I loved the ending. It was just absolutely perfect. I sobbed through the last few episodes because it was so powerful and so emotional. A part of me will always want more but I don’t think they could have created a better ending. So I’ll be grateful for what an amazing seven seasons and for all the show has given me. I think it’ll probably be important to me for the rest of my life.

The Fix – I was so happy to have Robin Tunney back on my screen, especially as a main character. I thought her acting, especially when it came to the emotions she was experiencing (or when she had to shut off those emotions), was fantastic. I really enjoyed that the series followed one legal case, allowing the show to really delve into the details and the relationships between all of  the characters, as well as side stories that fleshed out the bigger picture. It might not reinvent the wheel but I really did enjoy it and as I said, it was such a delight to see Robin Tunney again, especially in such a beautiful nuanced and complex role.

Lucifer (Season 5: Part 1)*Spoilers* I love Lucifer and this season certainly didn’t disappoint. I love how much work goes into evolving the characters and their own personal journeys. No one in the ensemble feels like a side character; they’re all beautifully fleshed out, more and more as time goes on. I also thought there were some really great storylines in this season. Michael’s introduction was certainly interesting, although I was glad when he was outed as Michael and not Lucifer so quickly as the idea of Chloe starting a relationship with him, thinking he was Lucifer, made me feel seriously uncomfortable. Both Maze and Dan have really powerful storylines and I felt for them so deeply, even though I hadn’t initially liked Dan. I just wanted to hug Maze the whole time. I also thought the ongoing story of Ella and her boyfriend was a really cool addition. But with so many storylines going on at once, I never felt like the show was unbalanced or that any of stories were treated as filler. And yet it never felt too busy.

There were so many amazing scenes but there were a few that really topped the list. One of them was in the first episode when Maze destroys Lucifer’s piano because she feels so hurt and so angry that Lucifer abandoned her for Hell. Lesley-Ann Brandt’s acting is just incredible; I swear I could feel everything she was feeling. And I’m also really freaking curious how the show made the scene possible, what they did to make it possible for her to tear a piano into pieces. My other favourite is the final fight scene, in episode eight. The choreography is awesome and the special effects, particularly Maze throwing Lucifer through a glass wall while time is frozen, are stunning. The glass seems to hang rather than falling to the floor but they can still sweep it aside. It’s beautiful.

And that cliffhanger. Oh my god.

Away*Spoilers* This is a ten episode season about a group of astronauts on the first manned mission to Mars. I’m a sucker for anything about space and I’ve always really liked Hilary Swank so I was excited when it popped up on Netflix one day. I felt like it started a little awkwardly but I thought the cast were fantastic and I loved the characters, especially the astronauts. I found them all really interesting and complex and I loved seeing how their lives had lead them to that point and I loved the relationships between them, as a group and in the various combinations. I don’t know if that many disasters is realistic or not but I think they conveyed the emotions of the characters really well. I was crying by the end of every episode, if not before. My favourite part without a doubt was the end when, in the last episode, they land on Mars and everything that’s been building through the show (the relationships between the astronauts, their evolving emotions about the mission, the complicated concept of duty, their relationships with their friends and family on Earth) all come to a head. It’s a stunning end and I was just sobbing. Even my Mum, who’d only seen snatches of it as she came and went, found it emotional.

Dare Me*SPOILERS* I’ve been finding this one really difficult to write about, I think because there are so many layers to the story and the relationships between the characters are so complicated. The story follows best friends, Beth and Addy, who’ve been inseparable for years until the new cheerleading coach Colette French arrives, removing Beth’s captainship and completely shaking up the team. Beth, a wild and reckless but ultimately lonely girl, distrusts her immediately while Addy, the loyal follower and peacekeeper, becomes more and more infatuated by Coach French, something that drives a wedge between the two friends. The storyline requires some suspension of disbelief (I doubt a real cheerleading coach would encourage parties and underage drinking in her own home but then, given that she’s bringing positive attention to the cheerleaders and therefore the pretty fucked up little town they’re living in, who knows…) but it’s definitely a wild ride from beginning to end. When I first finished it, I thought, “okay, cool, that was interesting,” but a week later, I realised that I was still thinking about it a lot, especially about the characters and their relationships. They were so complex and intriguing. I was fascinated. I even ended up writing a song based on the show.

The Queen’s Gambit*Spoilers* I know a lot of people found this show really gripping right from the start but it was more of a slow burn for me. I don’t think I absolutely fell for it until the last episode. Like an elastic band being pulled, it was almost like I got more and more frustrated with the show and then all of that tension was released in the final episode when I felt it all come together. I loved every second of that episode: her friends coming together to help her with her strategy, her win against Borgov and his grace over her victory, all of her people supporting and celebrating her, and then it ending with her walking the Russian park with all of the old men playing chess and how excited they were to meet her and honoured to play with her. It was fantastic. I do have my criticisms of it as a show but that final episode especially was so powerful that ultimately my experience of it was positive.

The Split (Series 2) – I started watching this back at the beginning of the year but then the pandemic derailed everything and I forgot about it. But recently I found it on BBC iPlayer and had to finish it. I love Nicola Walker and while the whole cast was great, she just delivered incredible performance after incredible performance. The dual storylines of the legal case her character, Hannah, was working and the difficulties in her personal life were balanced beautifully and they informed each other in a powerful but still realistic way. I loved Series 1 but this series really upped the emotional intensity and Nicola Walker’s acting – the subtlety of the emotional spiral – as the pressure mounted and her life started coming apart around her was just breathtaking. And even though she wasn’t innocent, she also wasn’t the only guilty party and the complexity of the story, the emotions experienced, and the relationships between the characters felt very true to life. The pain that Hannah was going through by the end was completely and utterly heartbreaking and the final episodes had me in floods of tears. I just wanted to hug her. It was an absolute masterclass in acting and I only love Nicola Walker more after watching it. I really, really hope there’s another series and I can’t wait to have her back on my screen, whether in a third series or when Series 4 of Unforgotten airs. She’s fantastic in that too.

Little Voice – I didn’t watch this straight away; the idea of watching a TV show about a struggling singersongwriter felt a little too close to home when I was already struggling with my mental health. And the likelihood that it would probably have a really positive ending for her, music wise, just felt like more than I could handle. So I kept it on my ‘To Watch’ list; I mean, it was co-created by Sara Bareilles so I knew that, in the right frame of mind, I’d really enjoy it. But after hearing Sara’s album of the songs in the show and falling in love with so many of them, I had to watch it. And I did, I really did enjoy it.

*SPOILERS* I got really invested in lots of the characters, especially Bess, Prisha, and Samuel, and I loved the relationships between all of the characters; they all felt really different and natural, based on the characters personalities and experiences together. I especially loved Bess’ relationship with the other characters, particularly with her father, her brother, Prisha, Samuel, Benny, her boss at the bar, one of the elderly women at the senior centre she also works in, and so on. I felt like she had a really special way to connect with people. There were some really touching moments – watching Bess write songs, the first time she performs and it goes well, Bess and Ethan’s conversation about hope, etc – but then there were a handful of moments that made me cringe with secondhand embarrassment – Bess’ early stage banter, watching her father rant during her first studio experience, etc. Overall, it was a positive experience but when I cringed, I really cringed.

It was great to see such a diverse cast and for the show to have a disabled character who’s disability wasn’t brushed aside but also wasn’t his only character trait; he was pretty well developed (considering how many characters there were) with his own storyline, involving his relationship with Bess, his love of musical theatre, and his journey to be more independent, to which he had both positive and negative reactions. There were also some very relatable music industry experiences, like producers trying to mould a song to their own vision or telling you what you want to hear, industry people saying good things and then telling you all of the reasons why they can’t work with you, people making promises that never come to anything, and so on. I haven’t experienced all of these situations but I’ve definitely experienced some of them.

My only real issue with it was that I felt like there was just too much going on, too many storylines that ended up not getting the time they deserved. I loved so many of them that I don’t know which ones I would’ve cut but it was too much for nine episodes and what could’ve been really beautifully developed stories ended up being glossed over. I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to totally ruin it but I would recommend it if you have Apple TV+. I loved the music and I loved how well it matched the story and the characters. Oh, and I loved Sara Bareilles’ cameo and how Bess and Louis fangirled over meeting her.

His Dark Materials (Series 2)*SPOILERS* I loved series 1 so I was really, really excited for series 2 of His Dark Materials. I don’t want to give too much away since it’s literally just finished and so a lot of people may not have seen it yet but I thought it was excellent and looked forward to it every week. I thought the city in the ‘middle world,’ Cittàgazze, was really intriguing and so beautiful. And it was very cool to see characters from Lyra’s world in Will’s world (which I believe is also our, the reader’s, world?) and how they tried to fit in. Sometimes the jumps between worlds was a bit confusing or jarring but I loved how some elements matched up beautifully and how some were in such stark contrast. And that was just background as it was the strength of the characters and their relationships that really drove the show. I thought the chemistry between Lyra and Will (and Pan, of course) was great and I loved their friendship; even with only seven episodes to the series, we really saw it grow and develop as they got to know and trust each other. I also really liked Mary Malone and her relationship with Lyra (and the scenes with Lyra and Mary’s machine were incredible). As much as I love Lyra (Dafne Keen really was the perfect choice), I couldn’t help but be absolutely blown away by Ruth Wilson in every episode. Her performances as Marisa Coulter are just awesome. She’s such a complicated character (I’m desperate to understand how she can do what she can do and why her relationship with her dæmon is so different to everyone else’s: why he doesn’t speak, why she’s so cruel to him, how they can be so far apart – something that does seem to distress him but not her – and so on) and Ruth Wilson does such an amazing job playing her. I admit that a part of me was waiting throughout each episode for the moment where we saw how awesome she is, because there was one in pretty much all, if not all, of the episodes: her interrogation of Lee Scoresby (and the painful moment with her dæmon afterwards), the moment when Lyra sets Pan on her dæmon but she is able to fight off the affects – that whole scene is amazing, not to mention intriguing – her ability to control the spectres, the moment where she almost turns on her own dæmon… She’s a force of nature. I’m kind of obsessed with her because she’s such a fascinating character. I did feel like the end was quite rushed: they spent most of the series looking for Will’s father and then he’s just suddenly there, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the pandemic had played a part in that. It just felt like it was suddenly over and I was completely unprepared for that. I have just seen that it’s been renewed for the third and final series so I’m really looking forward to that, whenever it may come. This team and this cast have done such an incredible job with these stories so I’m really glad that they’ll be able to finish them.


OTHER

Miss Americana – I don’t know if I can sum up this documentary in just a paragraph or two but, between them, Taylor Swift and Lana Wilson created a beautifully honest and emotionally revealing documentary about Taylor’s life so far, the period of transformation she had found herself in, and what she wanted for her future. It shows footage and discusses the history and the fall out of everything with Kanye and the infamous phone call in 2016 (the full recording of which has since been revealed, proving that Taylor was telling the truth all along), the toxicity of social media and how the response to Kanye’s attacks on her continue to affect her, addressing her need to please and how damaging that had become, the harrowing experience of the sexual assault trial, her body image issues and eating disorder, the making of reputation, the reputation tour, her mother’s cancer, beginning to voice her political opinions and arguing with her father and management team about it, the making and release of Lover, the writing of ‘Only The Young,’ and basically her journey of growing as a person. There’s a lot in there and it was a real eye-opening experience, even for someone who considers themselves an avid Taylor fan. I loved her even more than I already did for putting out this documentary and deliberately including details that she knew would help people, like her previously unknown struggles with her body image and the experience of her sexual assault trial. She didn’t have to discuss these things but she did because she knew that there would be people who needed to hear her talk about it. I admire her so much for that. I would highly recommend watching it, fan or not.

City of Lover Concert (Taylor Swift Show) – I was gutted that I couldn’t be at this show when it happened so I was really excited that Taylor was putting it on Disney+. It wasn’t the same and the flow of it felt quite jerky as they had to cut around the songs caught up in the Masters situation (she can perform them but they can’t be recorded and distributed in a film like this one) but it was still really cool and a lovely tribute to the Lover album since we didn’t get a tour for the album (and probably never will since the release of folklore and evermore). You can feel the joy radiating off Taylor as she performed the then new songs and it’s hard not to smile, watching her do this thing that she loves so much. I still wish I could’ve been there for the actual show but I’m so grateful that we got this, especially with the pandemic and the resulting loss of live music.

Hamilton – I’d been planning to see the show in London but then the pandemic hit and obviously that plan was scuppered but then it went up on Disney+ just as my phone contract offered me a free subscription. The timing was beautiful. From the first note, I was absolutely entranced. I loved it. I loved the music, the acting, the set, how the actors interacted with the set… everything. I’ve watched it over and over and read so many articles explaining different aspects of it because I just find the whole production so fascinating. And as both a songwriter and a songwriting nerd, my mind was just exploding. It really is mind-blowing work and I’m sure there are still things I’m missing because it’s so clever and so layered. I could talk about the music for hours but I won’t, I promise. So, yeah, I found it really inspiring as a writer (and I did actually attempt to write a song in the style of it although I’m not sure it’ll ever see the light of day). It was amazing and I love it. I love it more every time I watch it.

folklore: long pond studio sessions – I loved this so much. I love Taylor Swift and I love the folklore album and in a time where we can’t have real concerts, I so appreciated that this film gave us the next best thing. The studio was gorgeous (I would love somewhere like that to write and record music one day) and the performances were stunning; Taylor’s vocals in particular were just breathtaking. She can convey so much emotion just through her eyes and I found watching the film a really emotional moving experience. I also loved getting to learn more about the songs, what they were about, the context in which they were written, and so on. We’ve been speculating and theorising for so long that it was so satisfying to find out where fans had guessed right and get some insight into the ones where we’d been so confused (‘hoax,’ for example). And the whole thing is so beautiful and intimate. It was just so good and I knew from the first watch that I’d be watching it over and over again.


So I hope that was of some interest and that you’re maybe even leaving with a few new things to read or watch. I’m quite proud of how many new things I discovered this year, after being stuck in a rut of just rewatching the same things. I definitely want to continue this approach into next year, although hopefully it will include more books. As I said, I just haven’t been able to concentrate enough to get into a novel. But having said that, I feel really good about pushing myself out of my comfort zone, exploring genres I don’t generally favour, and expanding my creative brain by filling it with new stories, new characters, and new ideas. So I’m proud of this list and I’m excited for the new discoveries that 2021 will bring.