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The Netflix original series Crazyhead (2016) feels made for me—it’s funny, smart, has witty, diverse, and complex women characters at its core, and manages to talk about the supernatural without dragging other cultures into it and being racist and/or sexist as all heck (I’m looking straight at you, Supernatural.) The brainchild of Misfits creator Howard Overman, the show centers around Amy (Cara Theobold) and Raquel (Susan Wokoma), young women whose specific circumstances allow them to see when demons are possessing humans. In the space of six episodes, they band together and, once they’ve overcome Amy’s misgivings, become demon hunters.

Despite the implications of the title Crazyhead, the central premise of the show is that neither Raquel nor Amy have a history of mental health issues requiring the treatment they’ve been given (though both present as neuroatypical); both have been misdiagnosed. In Amy’s case, the first episode shows her being weaned off medication by her psychotherapist as she believes the demonic visions are hallucinations, and her course of treatment has recently been completed. (Notably, the show does not specify the condition she has been diagnosed with, leaving this a generalised disorder to be assumed by the viewer.) However, Amy’s history of hallucinations is immediately contradicted by the events that follow in which, while trying to save Raquel (a self-trained demon hunter) from what she thinks is stalking or abuse by a man, Amy discovers that her hallucinations are actually an ability to perceive demons possessing humans. She is saved by Raquel who, once she realises Amy is able to see the demons too, goes on to explain the realities of the situation.

There are complications with this manner of navigating histories of mental health issues, especially for a show called Crazyhead. A review at Bleeding Cool by Rich Johnston says:

. . . when I asked about the mental health aspects of this show, I was told that the show is about battling inner demons, just externally. I think it’s more than that, [sic] intended or not, it shows a world where people have different views of reality, that these views can be useful and valid as others and demonstrates a greater acceptance and understanding of mental diversity.

While I think Johnston is right to note the value in recognising different views of reality, I think there are also complexities that play out beyond this. While we do see Amy’s original psychotherapist provide care for her in the first episode (reducing her medication while listing various unfortunate side effects she may face as a result), this is an extremely brief encounter, almost immediately overlaid by the primary face of psychiatry in the show: Callum (Tony Curran), a demon and the show’s Big Bad so far. Both Amy and Raquel appear to be struggling and evidently need support systems (which they build and provide for each other over the course of the show)—but which could be reinforced by therapeutic help, a fact so easily undermined in the show by Callum’s malevolent presence.

It’s hard to seek therapeutic help in general when struggling with mental health concerns, or to even acknowledge the need for professional help outside of the bounds of personal relationships (especially when aware that these relationships can grow strained and weary by the constant need for caregiving over time), and I have complicated feelings about the manner in which the show doesn’t offset the associated fears but feeds into them instead: the terrifying and insidious notion that your psychotherapist can’t be trusted, that they will use your revelations against you, that there is greater safety in not seeking this sort of help. In a world where the NHS in particular, and socialised healthcare more generally, is already under threat—and where people with mental illness often struggle to receive help because medical systems are straining under further budget cuts after a period of already evident underfunding—it’s hard to look at something like this without a jaundiced eye.

Given how often genuine mental health concerns are discounted with some sort of “keep calm and carry on” attitude, or denied as a legitimate reason for a person to seek additional support from government bodies or workplaces, it’s hard not to see problems with the idea that “crazy” in the show is just a false diagnosis shuttering an alternate world view—and potentially plays to ableist assumptions and fantasies. Even as Crazyhead shifts away from this trope, the fact that it evokes it at all becomes part of the problem—because it’s not so easy to leave those media-cultivated prejudices aside once they’ve been called to the forefront. In effect, it doesn’t so much offer the idea that people living with mental health issues contribute to society as suggest that both its protagonists are misdiagnosed, and medical treatment and therapy are a thin veneer for manipulation.

That said, I did like the fact that the show continued to attempt to engage with real world implications of all this: despite their choice to no longer take medication, both Raquel and Amy are aware of a need to check in with their doctor. We see the effect Amy’s previous breakdown (alluded to in the show) has had on her relationships, as she seems to be close only to her friend and roommate, Suzanne (Riann Steele); she tolerates—and eventually grows fond of—her manager, Jake (Lewis Reeves), at the local bowling alley where she works. Raquel doesn’t work, and the show acknowledges that she is at least partially supported by her brother, Tyler (Arinze Kene). There are subtle implications here about the sort of jobs that are available to both Amy and Raquel, and how Amy’s urge to cling to normalcy makes her a more likely candidate for a close-to-minimum-wage workforce compared to Raquel’s unwillingness to play to a public perception of who she should be. Amy’s willingness to put up with Jake, at least in the early episodes, made more sense to me when I took these factors into account, because walking away isn’t as easy an option when the sort of jobs you feel comfortable doing, or the willingness of people to hire you when you disclose your information (if you need to), hugely restricts the options on the table. In other words, despite disavowing the mental health concerns themselves (problematic), the narrative did engage with certain lived realities of what the situations they might occasion may require.

I found that Crazyhead often showed a lot of nuance, particularly when navigating well-established tropes such as Nice White Guy Friend™ and “the friendzone.” The show plays this out with Jake and his friendship with Amy, but is careful to depict the situation as more complex than simply the aggravating entitlement to a romantic encounter most shows (and MRAs) seem to expect. Jake is a revolting, if occasionally hilarious, mixture of Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Nathan Young from Misfits, a combination that put him fairly firmly in my “this is sometimes vaguely amusing on TV but I would hate this guy in real life” category. Given her relative isolation and the fact that he appears to be her manager and therefore boss, Jake’s insistence on them trying to date and his whining about being friendzoned is simultaneously worrying—because of his potential power over Amy’s future employment—as well as frustrating—since he doesn’t seem to know how to hear her refusal.

I was glad that Amy was fine with telling Jake that she wasn’t interested, or outright ignoring his various come-ons, while also accounting for the complexity of the situation. At the end of things, they also have a history of working together and being friends when Amy was otherwise isolated (outside of her friendship with Suzanne, and especially after Suzanne’s death) —and so abandoning their friendship over his assumption that he is somehow “owed” a romantic relationship with her isn’t necessarily her first response. Moreover, Jake is the only friend with a car who willingly shows up for Amy and Raquel’s various demon-related encounters, and that practicality is part of what drives their need to include him. It would be simple (and pleasing for me) to have Amy verbally smack Jake down hard rather than prolong this friendship, but there’s definitely a lot of realism in recognising that sometimes you forgive your friends for being assholes because you have the weight of a history and you know they love you enough to eventually stop being an asshat. It’s a less radical stance, admittedly, but one that I know I’ve taken in some of my own relationships sometimes, depending upon the situation and the person involved.

Additionally, I really enjoyed the way the show both metatextually engages with and dismisses expected storylines, such as when Sawyer (Luke Allen-Gale), who is clearly a demon, follows Raquel about in order to protect her, prompting both Amy and Tyler to speculate that Raquel and Sawyer were in some sort of forbidden relationship. There are deliberate shades of Buffy’s relationship with Angel here, as well as Sam’s relationship with Ruby in Supernatural: a question of whether demons can, in fact, care for humans, and the quickness with which this is presumed to be possible in (and often only in) a romantic relationship. In reality, Sawyer is Raquel’s father, which explains his protectiveness and her awkward (but never complete) rejection of him. Raquel is, then, half-demon, a rarity that would allow an explosion of her powers to open the gates of hell for other demons—a conceit that drives the remainder of the show.

This isn’t the only representation of a demon growing to care for and love a child in their charge. The demon and fixer, Mercy (Lu Corfield), has chosen to possess the body of a single mother, and the show makes a point of indicating how frustrating and complicated child-rearing as a single parent with no support system can be, even with supernatural powers. Carrying out schemes or ensuring demon victories becomes dependent on the willingness of Mercy’s babysitter to work late or abrupt hours, and walking the babysitter through locating where the right toy has accidentally hidden itself over the phone becomes a matter of importance as grave as any demonic assignment. It is love for her child, and her unwillingness to have him become possessed and consequently not care for her in the same way, that eventually drives Mercy to assist Amy and Raquel. There are multiple threads here—adoptive parents, single mothers, community support, the effects of single-parent childcare on a job, and systems of parenting—that manage to play out in ways that really pleased me. I loved that having both Sawyer and Mercy enact narratives of demon parents caring for their child, and rebelling on their behalf, didn’t play out or validate the gendered tropes in which these connections are solely the province of motherhood.

The creation of Raquel as half-demon engages with familiar plotlines such as BtVS’s revelation that Slayers are part-demon in the episode “Get It Done,” as well as Buffy and Dawn’s blood acting as a key for the interdimensional portal at the end of the show's fifth season. It’s interesting (at least for me) to see the manner in which the show updates this scenario, which in “Get It Done” invoked particularly racist tropes about a white North American feminist woman (Buffy) calling out black men (the Shadow Men), who are located potentially in Iraq (as the spell is in Sumerian) or in Africa amongst the Bantu people (as they speak Swahili), for their abuse of black women (Sineya, or the First Slayer). Notably, this occurs only when this same threat (of being infused with demon energy) is then magnified on the body of the white woman involved. Here, on the other hand, a black woman (Raquel) is in chains, and men attempt to use this to ensure their own power and protection. In the case of Crazyhead, however, the men in question aren’t othered in service of an “ancient but magical” orientalist racism that can be called out by white women; instead they’re almost exclusively white, middle-class or working-class men in suits who are exploiting the body of a young black woman.

Enough said.

Instead of this being a case where contributions by black women are repeatedly rejected while their power is supposedly claimed and modernised by white North American women (every depiction of Buffy and Sineya’s interaction in the older show), Raquel and Amy are a team: each of them contributes differently and they support each other (while occasionally fighting). And while this is a story that repeats, in Raquel’s betrayal by the demon Harry (Charlie Archer), the manner in which virginity and toxic masculinity play out in patriarchal tales (such as when Buffy and Angel’s first sexual encounter leads to her waking up to the soulless Angelus), Crazyhead doesn’t rely on Raquel coming to terms with this or being forced to deal with the consequences alone. And it is Amy’s declaration of love, and her kiss, that wakes her from this spell and the horror of the aftermath.

The creation of Raquel as half-demon also displays differences in her and Amy’s powers: while Raquel is able to perceive demons due to her half-demon blood, Amy seems to be some form of seer, whose dreams also portend forthcoming events. There are complicated issues with the narrative casting a black woman as half-demon while a white woman functions as a sort of visionary Christ figure in the season finale, dying to save Raquel and resurrected through her inadvertent survival; but I’d like to think that the show isn’t quite so straightforward. It made a difference to watch a show in which Raquel, as the woman of colour protagonist, wasn’t constantly sacrificing herself for her white counterpart—and in which her feelings, both powerful and fearful, were validated every step of the way. It made a difference that, when Amy is begging Raquel to come back to her, she invokes Beyoncé as a call to feminist arms. It matters that, towards the end of the season, Raquel’s story drove large parts of the narrative and she wasn’t simply a prop.

I may be reading all this too leniently, but I do genuinely think that the show is in this regard miles above most other offerings in this genre. I might wish that the show would do more with Tyler—as he seems so far to be largely a device to prevent viewers shipping Amy and Raquel after their kiss (Too late, Netflix! You’re not the boss of me!); but otherwise I have remarkably few complaints. Additionally, the show works with and around the idea of fridging women of colour through the character of Suzanne. With networks so often assuming more than one character of colour is too many to coexist on a show, I went into the first episode already aware that a few scenes might be all I get to see of Suzanne. Given that she was possessed after being depicted as a supportive friend who was sexually comfortable and willing, just to get it out of her system, to sleep with men whom she was fully aware were bad decisions (I love her!), and given that her absence would function as a means by which Amy and Raquel could be brought closer together, I somewhat emotionally washed my hands of her and resigned myself to the inevitable. So it was a wonderful surprise to have the show bring her back as a revenant, ensure that she was unkillable, and indicate that her love of and investment in Amy continues unabated.

While Crazyhead only has six episodes so far, and the storylines have mostly tied themselves off so as not to end on too much of a cliffhanger, I can only hope Netflix renews their contract. The show’s use of the supernatural genre, its emphasis on young women empowering themselves, its (occasionally scatological) humour, and its tongue-in-cheek references to other shows in these genres, make it a particularly fun watch. I honestly cannot wait for more!



Based in India, Samira spends most of her time explaining Nicolas Cage movies to her father and making bad puns. In her everyday life, she’s an academic. At night, she watches terrible TV and posts blurry pictures of her cat. It’s a life.
3 comments on “Crazyhead”

"You're not crazy, you have superpowers" is one of the most frustrating approaches possible to both mental illness and superpowers (for another recent take on this, see Legion). And I say this as someone who thinks that mental illness/chronic illness is probably the most fruitful way of approaching the superpower trope in a way that uses it to make progressive points (certainly more fruitful than "superheroes are a metaphor for black people/gays/Jews). But surely it's obvious that "you have a problem that needs to be addressed (and you deserve support from both your community and your government in doing so)" can coexist with "you have a unique perspective, and skills that are valuable and will allow you to contribute to society"?

Beyond your point, that replacing mental illness with superpowers can end up being a blind for the erosion of mental health services (because everything can be solved with yoga and a good attitude), it feels to me as if pretending that characters like this don't have a problem, just a misguided approach, makes them meaningless as an identification figure (though obviously that's me speaking as an outsider). How does a person who is struggling with mental illness - and perhaps also with indifferent or even hostile welfare and medical services - benefit from a fictional depiction in which those struggles just go away if they adopt a new attitude? Isn't that more alienating than seeing a character who, on the one hand, struggles with real problems, but on the other hand still has a lot to offer to the world?

Samira Nadkarni

[Forgive me; I'm going to post my response in section since the whole thing doesn't allow me to load this screen.] I can't speak for anyone else here (and I know this won't be a majority experience), but I do know how hard it was as a non-white, non-Global North international student to even consider going to the NHS for help, let alone help for mental health issues. I was scared because this might affect my visa status in the future (use of the NHS' resources is one of the things we have to indicate), and the associated stigma and embarrassment of being sick, of not being a "good" immigrant (because the lightest economic footprint and greatest assimilation is drummed into you), because I was worried about whether my therapist might report me (even if they weren't supposed to because racism and xenophobia iare rampant in the UK), that they might tell the Home Office/ my university and lead to issues with my funding possibilities or job options in the future (again, structural racism and xenophobia, plus now not being a "good" job candidate)—I had multiple and legitimate reasons I was afraid to seek help, over and above the issues with even admitting I might have a problem and need support.

Samira Nadkarni

[part 2] And this led to me downplaying my symptoms even when they were beginning to physically manifest because having periodic breakdowns as a postgraduate student is played as "normal" all the time. I ended up spending more mental resources hiding this than I did helping myself because we're already told the NHS is stretched thin and that we're "imposing." This wasn't just me; I have numerous friends in the UK, both locals and immigrants, who are also struggling silently with various mental health issues who can't or won't seek help for similar fears of adverse backlash. So the idea of an evil therapist aiming to hurt you, or that this help will likely be a misdiagnosis, pings a very specific fear for me that I had to work really hard to overcome when I did eventually seek help.

I want to think (and dearly hope) that the show does offer others with mental health issues a positive option and an escape—but for me it worked best when I consciously disengaged from the show's discussion of mental health so I could enjoy it.

 

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