MTV's Sweet/Vicious kicked off an ambitious first season by confronting the realities of sexual assault on college campuses—through radical honesty, dark humor, and a healthy dose of vigilante justice doled out by two young women. The series started off strong and, over the course of ten episodes, grew even better by balancing a revenge story that was often told through brutal violence with a survivor's intimate story of navigating the aftereffects of her own rape and dealing with an administration that failed her.
The double-episode season finale, which aired last night, brought together multiple storylines that had been floating around all season, from Harris finding out about Ophelia's vigilante moonlighting to the cops arresting a (false) suspect for the accidental murder that occurred in the pilot. The strongest—and most affecting—storyline has always been Jules's reactions to her rape, which occurred before the series began but which lingers throughout every episode. It's especially persistent because her rapist, Nate, is a golden boy on campus—who also dates Jules's best friend and sorority sister, Kennedy.
The seventh episode, "Heartbreakers," provided viewers with an extended flashback to the fraternity party (it begins with a disclaimer warning that the episode will feature a sexual assault scene; it's not the only episode to start this way) and Jules's immediate reactions. In one telling scene, we see her start to search the internet for answers. At first, she begins to type "how do you know if you've been"—but then stops before completing the question. Instead, she decides on "someone had sex with me when I didn't want them to." It's a small moment, but it's weighty, revealing how Jules is hesitant—scared—to just type the word "rape" into her computer. It speaks volumes to how taboo that word still is, how so many women were raised to never talk about rape—even when it happens to them.
The episode also shows that Jules did go to the administration, but the Title IX counselor—a woman—gently discourages Jules from pursuing the case. She asks how much Jules was drinking, tells her that it sounds like it "was just a mistake." She even mentions that Nate is one of the college's most high-profile students and warns that if Jules goes forward, people will start going into her personal business and combing through her Facebook profile. The counselor basically lets Jules know that she can't trust the school to do something. Here, the series hammers home exactly why Jules started going over other men accused of sexual assault on campus: Jules knows that she can't prosecute her own rapist.
The failure of this administration—and the realities of being a known survivor on campus—are further depicted in the ninth episode, "An Innocent Man." Jules, newly emboldened after Kennedy learns of everything that happened, decides to officially report the rape to the Title IX office. From there, we see how poorly these situations can be handled: The Title IX counselors repeatedly ask students about alcohol, about drugs, about whether or not Jules went to the party with intentions to have sex. They strongly imply that maybe it's Jules's friends' fault for not doing more to take her home—anything to get the blame away from Nate. At one point, referring to a picture of Jules at the "Hos and CEOS"-themed party, a counselor quips, "I haven't met many CEOs dressed like that!"
It's frustrating, particularly when it begins to combine Jules and Nate's conflicting testimonies. While Jules says that she "could barely stand," Nate concedes, "She was a little drunk, sure." Jules said she explicitly told Nate "no." Nate claims she was moaning and saying his name. And the whole time, while Jules tries to remain strong, Nate's demeanor is more exasperated, as if he's annoyed something so small is taking up his time. It's a rough scene because it mirrors so many real survivors' accounts—the creator and showrunner did their research, according to interviews with BuzzFeed, where they read Missoula, spoke with Title IX coordinators, talked to survivors, among other things. For a second, there's a brief flurry of hope—Nate is found guilty. But it disappears just as quickly as it arrives: The university president overturns the verdict, without even hearing Jules's account. Once again, Jules has to find a way to help herself, because her school won't.
Throughout this stellar first season, Sweet/Vicious didn't back away from any plot: One episode centered on an Uber-like driver assaulting drunk passengers; the finale touched on how wealthy families can buy someone's innocence; we witness the reaction of Nate's fans, who thinks Jules is trying to ruin his life ("I'd love to get raped by Nate," says one clueless student, while Jules is in earshot); one twist showed 26 assault cases that were dismissed or mishandled by the DA's office—setting up a new plot for the second season, should MTV renew it.
And MTV should renew the series. Sweet/Vicious slowly became one of the best shows on television dedicated to portraying and dissecting sexual assault. It's clear that Sweet/Vicious doesn't want to use rape as a dramatic and traumatic plot device, like so many other shows. It wants to pick apart everything associated with it, right down to how often campus and law officials fail survivors. It's a show that provides a rare in-depth look into sexual assault, but a necessary one.
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