I am really enjoying the series Mr. Mercedes. Despite the clichéd ingredients (retired small town detective, divorced, heavy drinker, haunted by a past case, serial killer, odd pet, antiestablishment and estranged from daughter etc.) the performances, combined with Stephen King’s careful weaving of supernatural elements, serve to elevate the material. The main thing Mr. Mercedes has going for it can be summed up in two words: Brendan Gleeson. He molds routine clay into a fascinating sculpture depicting all aspects of vintage manhood: grief, fear, remorse, anger, humour, stubborn pride, tenderness, frustration and excitement – sometimes all in one episode. While it’s obviously a great performance, I have developed considerable affection for another character with an interesting story arc: Holly Gibney, who I understand was a fan favourite in King’s books.
I haven’t read the books; I’m not sure how much the screen writers altered Holly’s move from page to screen, but I have come to identify with her character on a deep level. Based on my brief research into how she appeared in the books, I don’t think the basis for this character’s perceived “eccentricities” was clearly defined – or matches my personal observations. To the show’s credit, it never makes it obvious; clues are suggested, but it was up to me to make my own conclusions. I don’t blame Holly (as she is written), because I myself have trouble saying the word aloud these days. I certainly don’t go around announcing it. I myself have struggled to explain my behaviour and relate to others, much like she does. In the face of questions, I too can retreat, travel inward and/or become frustrated. Writing this blog has helped me come to terms with my autism. As a side effect, based upon my personal experiences with autism, I have some awareness (rightly or wrongly) of autistic traits in others; in particular, I am sensitive to cultural portrayals of autism. Thus, I conclude – with confidence – that Holly Gibney is autistic.
For me, this is an important conclusion. While it doesn’t appear anyone else agrees with me – based upon my limited research – it helps me cope with my own private autism. It is rare that I find a grounded, realistic, relatable portrayal that is very well written and considerate. It is even rarer that I am given time to get to know the character, to observe her in a variety of situations, allowing her behaviour to be slowly accepted over time. In particular, I have thoroughly enjoyed Holly’s trajectory. Much like me – an autistic person – it takes time to warm up to her; I’m often told that I’m “distant” and “hard to figure out”. It is so reassuring to see her slowly and surely get her life in order, overcoming hurdles with a sense of purpose and dignity, with a small group of friends who care about her. This is a slow, careful trajectory that is riddled with hurdles, meltdowns and misunderstandings; but with time and patience, she is able to carefully navigate the neurotypical world on her own terms – but taking onboard constructive criticism. I think this character sets a good example. This is autism portrayed properly.
On the other extreme – The Good Doctor. For me, that was “How NOT to Portray Autism”. It was so full on, overblown and obvious I found it equally absurd and excruciating. I could only watch 5 min of it. But my mother liked it.
Come to think of it, shows that portray autistic males, where their autism is made crystal clear from the get go, always disappoint me; Atypical is another example. In contrast, Mr. Robot succeeded by letting me draw my own conclusions. In recent films, I found the portrayal of male autism in The Predator to be lazy, immature, silly and deeply offensive. The Accountant was too farfetched – at times jarring – and I’m afraid gives the impression that quiet, stoic, autistic loners – like me – are macho powder kegs ready to go off at any time. I don’t feel Mr. Mercedes goes over the top with Holly’s “autism”. Many common attributes are peppered nicely throughout the series, instead of piled into the first few minutes and explained away in exposition or jarring edits.
Interestingly, when considering cultural portrayals of autism, it is often female characters I can relate to – on an autistic level, that is. This coincides with my personal theory: I am autistic first and white male comes a distant second and third (third and second?). Why is that? Well, with age, I’ve come to realise how very different my autism has made me. I just do not think like other people – and white males in particular. I sense the world differently, I think differently, I have different values and goals – I’m just plain different.
With a character like Holly, on the other hand, I can relate and fully understand – particularly her explanation of how she needs order and her fear of relationships (kudos to the screenwriters!). The Bridge is another good example; the only difference being we see Saga Norén (played by Sofia Helin) later in life, but still grappling with relationships and social communication issues; autism never goes away and, like Saga, age and experience have not improved my social communication skills. Like Mr. Mercedes, The Bridge does not come out and say the character is autistic; it lets the viewers decide. It’s also interesting that the thoughtful, nuanced portrayals of autism on the small screen are female characters in crime dramas – where their (implied) autism is a clear strength during investigations. Is this why I love watching police procedurals? Is it an autistic thing? I believe it is; yet another thing I have in common with these characters.
I have no idea how cultural portrayals of autism will appear in the future, but if the solid foundation set by The Bridge and Mr. Mercedes is any indication, I’m looking forward to it.