Shining Girls Finds a Method in Elisabeth Moss’ Madness

You’ve never lost my mind, at least as far as I know. But if my grasp on reality ever started to slip, I imagine it would feel much like the experience of watching Apple’s cerebral sci-fi crime drama Shining Girls. When we meet our protagonist Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss), she’s a timid Chicago Sun-TimesAn archivist living in an apartment shared with Amy Brenneman, her mother (punk-rocker), and a cat. Without warning, the reality changes abruptly. Kirby is shocked to discover that she now lives on the opposite floor from Chris Chalk, her husband. Kirby also remembers Chris Chalk only as a coworker. The twist is not explained, but the viewers are immersed in Kirby’s disorientation.

We do know that Kirby was on the right track to becoming a top reporter, before she narrowly survived a vicious assault. The facts about her life began to shift only after she was able to regain consciousness. Since then, she’s drifted through a series of realities, which arrive with no apparent rhyme or reason. When a murder occurs whose details match those of her attack—the assailant leaves objects in the bodies of his exclusively female victims—Kirby teams up with hardboiled reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to not just catch a potential serial killer, but also make sense of what’s happening to her. The ingredients of a typical male-misogyny, female-trauma narrative are all there in this adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ widely read 2013 novel. Yet Shining Girls, premiering April 29, doesn’t lecture. Like many recent series it doesn’t lecture. Instead, it makes use of genre conceits to position audiences in the view of a character who is forced to heal historical wounds.

Although suspense takes hold around the eight-episode season’s midpoint, the show moves slowly at first; as frustrating as that can be, it’s the only way to build a world that keeps mutating. The scenes are repeated without explanation. Setting, hairstyles, characters, and other elements can change quickly, sometimes very slightly. Instead of a single performance, Moss gives a cluster of them, finely calibrating Kirby’s posture, confidence, and anxiety level to reflect each new reality. From the beginning, Harper (Jamie Bell) is clearly visible to viewers. The mystery is his apparent omniscience and how it connects to Kirby’s crisis. We see her fragmented mind and how difficult it must be to survive.

Shining Girls showrunner Silka Luisa uses time travel as a mechanism of control and a way of demonstrating how one man’s violent impulses multiply across generations. It serves a similar purpose in the recent second season of Netflix’s Russian Doll, which makes the New York subway a conduit to Nadia Vulvokov’s (Natasha Lyonne) Jewish-immigrant forebears. HBO’s bloody motherhood farce The baby, Apple’s sci-fi reckoning with Jim Crow racism in Ptolemy Grey’s Last Days, and Starz’s haunted-housewife horror comedy Shining ValeAll of the films released in the last few months use genre tropes, to transport their audiences into characters whose pasts are leaking into the present.

From forced birth to lynching, the atrocities of earlier eras make viscerally terrifying fuel for psychological thrillers because they actually happened—and we still feel their reverberations today. This is not surprising as these characters are all women or people of color. For them, like their counterparts in a real world afflicted with virulent new strains of old hatreds, the return of society’s repressed bigotry represents the same existential threat that Harper poses to Kirby. It is possible to end history by confronting it on a show with deliberately bewildering twists that serve as metaphors for how the mental power they wield over the victims. This is, perhaps, the way in. Shining Girls’ madness.

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