Embracing the other side: Alison Mundy of “Afterlife”

The most memorable TV sci-fi and paranormal genre characters are those who have touched the hidden side of life and been convincingly affected by it. Whether that “hidden side” is aliens, the spirit world, or some great secret quest, the best characters need: a motive for seeking out the “weird”, difficulties in coping with the weird, and palpable battle scarring (physical, emotional or mental) from having touched it. These roles, when they’re done right, are usually awarded to male characters, possibly just because most interesting roles get assigned to men, but also possibly because men can be both “weird” and sexy (think Fox Mulder, Daniel Jackson), but sexiness in women is more narrowly defined than that.

This is where Alison Mundy of Afterlife shines. She’s a medium, but not the kind who invites the spirits in to please an audience or solve a crime or get a fee, then turns them away and forgets about it. She is harassed relentlessly by spirits until she gets them what they want. Usually, they want to communicate with a living loved one who doesn’t want to hear from them, and this puts Alison in the awkward and potentially illegal spot of having to harass a living person on behalf of a spirit.

She hits the trifecta for memorable paranormal/sci-fi characters:

  • Her “motive for seeking out the weird” is actually a lack of choice. She’s been institutionalized and drugged, and it didn’t make the spirits leave her alone. She’s tried meditation and other remedies for controlling her contact with them, but still they wake her up all hours of the night and interfere with her daily life anytime they like. But for the skeptical characters on the show who believe Alison is deluded, she also has a dysfunctional childhood background that could easily explain a fascination with mysticism.
  • Her “difficulties in coping with the weird” are a tangible personal toll. She can’t sleep when the spirits don’t want her to. She can rarely interact with people without their dead loved ones showing up to distract her. Sometimes the spirits are malignant, and Alison must still find a way to deal with them. More than once, she tries to escape her gift, but the spirits always find her.
  • Her “palpable scarring” is physical and emotional. Her body bears many scars from a terrible train accident in which she died and was resuscitated. The emotional scars manifest, frankly, in her personality.

In ordinary situations, Alison hunches her shoulders and doesn’t make eye contact. She dresses like a teenager who pulled random items out of the closet and threw them on, often as an unnecessarily complicated ensemble. Her hair is always down in her face. She wears harsh makeup. A superficial reading of the appearance she cultivates would be a lack of self-confidence.

But this reading is contradicted when Alison is in her element – when someone’s institutionalizing a boy she knows to be haunted rather than psychotic, or when spirits are trying to convey something the living don’t want to hear. In those situations, Alison is so sure of herself and her task that she is capable of getting in people’s faces and yelling at them. She knows this makes people think she’s mentally ill. It gets her ejected from homes and hospitals. But her sympathy lies with those who can’t speak for themselves, and she speaks for them.

Combining these two images of Alison, it’s clear she is not lacking in confidence. She just wants people to stay away and leave her alone. Human interaction, for her, has led to nothing but trouble. Attracting living people means attracting spirits, too.

The second (and final) series contains an arc in which Alison starts being haunted by her mother’s spirit, and falls apart. This too is reflected in her demeanor and appearance. She develops a sullen facade that suits a teenager more than an adult; she starts wearing even harsher makeup and a lot of beaded necklaces; and her behavior is more erratic and less functional than before. Once she hits bottom and finally discloses the root of the problem (I’m being vague to keep the spoilage to a minimum), she finds something like peace. Her demeanor and appearance change accordingly: she smiles more, makes eye contact, softens her makeup, sometimes pulls her hair back and starts dressing more casually (jeans, shirts and jackets, mostly). If I’m making it sound corny, it’s not: her transformations in appearance and body language are consistent with the way real people consciously and unconsciously change their demeanors with their moods.

Alison is fascinating at every point in her growth because she’s always great in some ways, not so great in others, always struggling and always surviving.

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    There is something…

    These roles, when they’re done right, are usually awarded to male characters, possibly just because most interesting roles get assigned to men, but also possibly because men can be both “weird” and sexy (think Fox Mulder, Daniel Jackson), but sexiness in women is more narrowly defined than that.

    On Heroine Content, I said of Whiteout, referring to the main character Carrie Stetko’s loss of two fingers to frostbite:

    I liked that, as female characters may get raped or abused for drama, but very rarely do they get to survive a maiming and go on to kick ass.

    Poor choice of phrase between the commas there. But what I’m trying to get at is that when a women get hurt in film or TV, it’s portrayed as fixable – a point is usually presented where the injury, be it physical or psychological, is gone. Not adjusted to, but no longer present.

    That’s what differentiates Alison Mundy from Medium’s Alison DuBois or Ghost Whisperer’s Melinda Gordon – both of those characters frequently get hurt to some degree, but Alison Mundy is maimed. Her psychological wounds have healed into the equivalents of stumps and scars, not of healthy tissue. But she keeps going, and rather than recovering what she’s lost, finds ways to live without it. And does, a number of times, find ways to save other people.

    Actually, it’s rare to see male characters get that deep a treatment too; but it’s even rarer for female ones.

  2. says

    Good example: the “wounded hero” is not an archetype writers like to give to women, particularly pretty young women, because while scars (physical or metaphorical) can be sexy on men, we have this weird idea that it would be a tragedy of the utmost proportions for a woman’s face, back, arms or legs to bespeak of battles she has survived. I mean, we’re okay with all the sexual assaults and battery that women experience – we accept that as a natural part of being female. But scars? Oh noes!

    Maybe it’s that scars indicate a survivor – someone who has lived to tell. I don’t think society likes thinking about what women would have to say, if we all survived the incidents society accepts as “natural.” A lot of the perps obviously don’t, because rape and assault of any sort have pretty fair odds of leading to murder.

    But she keeps going, and rather than recovering what she’s lost, finds ways to live without it.

    Yes, exactly. I think maybe you’ve summed up in one sentence what appeals to me so much about her. And in so doing, she ultimately does recover some of what she’s lost.

  3. Theora says

    What’s amusingly odd to me is that I am watching Season 2 of “afterlife” on my laptop right now (rented from my local video store) and I just happened to check this blog between episodes. I love coincidence! Anyway, I picked up the dvds because the writer Stephen Volk wrote “Ghostwatch”, an excellent horror drama written in the format of a reality show. (People say it’s a hoax like Blair Witch, but there was never intention to deceive, so ‘hoax’ is the wrong word.)

    The first thing that caught my attention was that she is an older woman who is allowed to look like an older woman. She’s experienced so much and it shows, and it’s amazing how rare that is for television. Is British TV the only place where women are permitted to age without making them into joke characters?

  4. says

    Is British TV the only place where women are permitted to age without making them into joke characters?

    For lead female characters, I would say that’s pretty much the case, sadly. With American TV, I get pretty excited when a middle-aged woman is allowed a good *supporting* role – like Sharon Gless’ character in Burn Notice.

  5. Occasional Expositor says

    Delurking to say that I rented disc one of season one based on this blog post. It’s interesting what you say about the emotional impact of this Alison’s abilities on her. However I found the show too annoying to continue watching.

    Problem 1: Alison requires that Robert believe in her abilities without offering any proof. In Afterlife, her abilities are real, but surely even in her world there are charlatans and scam artists. But she demands that Robert believe her, and gets angry with him that he remains sceptical. (At least he still is sceptical at the end of disc one.) This irritates the heck out of me.

    Problem 2: Seriously, the haunting by the spirit of an aborted child? My every feminist hackle was raised by this plot line, and I lost my will to watch any further.

    I really wanted to like this series. I like Lesley Sharp (Bob and Rose) and I was pleased to see Andrew Lincoln again (who I last saw in This Life) and I am intrigued by TV shows vaguely based on science fiction or fantasy premises. However, I just can’t bring myself to go on.

  6. says

    But she demands that Robert believe her, and gets angry with him that he remains sceptical.

    I didn’t read it as “demanding”, but I guess it’s a matter of interpretation.

    Seriously, the haunting by the spirit of an aborted child? My every feminist hackle was raised by this plot line, and I lost my will to watch any further.

    Ah, that one worked okay for me because the spirit was “neither alive nor dead” and they clearly stated that the abortion had not been a wrong thing to do. Not a favorite, but satisfactory.

  7. Theora says

    Problem 1: Alison requires that Robert believe in her abilities without offering any proof.

    I didn’t think she required that he believe in her abilities as much as she wanted him to be either more open-minded or less openly snarky about his lack of belief. If he was going to be constantly underfoot for the writing of his book, he could try harder to be tolerant or polite about her subjective reality :-)

    Problem 2: Seriously, the haunting by the spirit of an aborted child?

    The impression I got was that they were haunted by this spirit because of the mother’s denial and subconscious guilt (exacerbated by her husband), not because of the abortion itself. It wasn’t a proper ghost, but more like a thought-form given energy by her unwillingness to accept what she had done (not as an issue of right or wrong, but that it even happened in the first place), and that this was a constant shadow over the child she did have. If she hadn’t felt so conflicted, I think it’s likely that the manifestation wouldn’t have happened.

    The show is about grief, regret, and loss. It’s not unreasonable that this woman would feel all of those things and yet still know in her heart that she made the right choice for her at the time, and the character did say as much. And once the spirit (the event) was acknowledged, that was enough and it went away. She didn’t have to appease it or apologize, she just had to admit, “Yes, he is a part of my life’s experiences.” I thought it was a delicate way to deal with a complicated and emotional topic.

  8. says

    When watching the pilot episode my first thought was “that can’t be Alison – she’s too old and realistic-looking to be the female lead of a show.” It actually took me about half the episode to get over that. I wonder what this says about my media conditioning?

    Unlike you Jennifer, I utterly loathed the haunted-by-mother storyline. At first it was interesting, and since I read this review before seeing series 2, I paid more attention to Allison’s reaction vis-a-vis clothing choices.

    But ohdeargod how I hated the conclusion/solution episode. (I’ll try to be vague to avoid spoilers).

    It essentially shattered the more respectful and egalitarian relationship Robert and Alison were developing in the second series. Because we know Alison’s vision are real, we all wanted Robert to get on board, and he seemed to start doing that…..less willing to write it off as coincidence and actually giving Alison credit for her successes.

    But then we get to the penultimate parental-issues episode, and suddenly Alison is just a crazy woman that needed this self-sacrificing sane man to help her confront her past demons and become more socially acceptable.

    I did like the other overarching series 2 plotline, it packed a nice emotional punch without the misogynist ‘Crazy Women/Mothers Drive Good People/Men Crazy’ moral.

  9. says

    But then we get to the penultimate parental-issues episode, and suddenly Alison is just a crazy woman that needed this self-sacrificing sane man to help her confront her past demons and become more socially acceptable.

    Hmm, I saw it very differently. Partly because I had found Robert so utterly useless up to that point that it was like “Aha, ’bout damn time you came in handy.” The show establishes clearly early on that Alison’s work is valid and Robert is silly for always dismissing it.

    That specific episode STILL made Robert look like an asshole – springing her father on her and being so aggressive about helping her because, really, he’s desperate to help himself and can’t so he’s projecting. And ultimately, he was proven wrong *again* as both he and Alison’s father saw The Impossible happen more than once, no matter what they chose to believe later.

    Additionally, I saw it as payback for her helping him get over Josh’s death. She helped him with his parenting issues, he helped her with her parental issues.

  10. Occasional Expositor says

    If he was going to be constantly underfoot for the writing of his book, he could try harder to be tolerant or polite about her subjective reality.

    That’s a fair point, and I agree to some extent. From Robert’s perspective, Alison is suffering from a mental illness, and he is “helping” her to face up to it. I imagine in his mind, he is being quite tolerant.

    This raises a very important issue (and it sounds from your discussion like the series gets more explicit about this later on): the sometimes quite damaging “help” that vulnerable people are “given”. Women who are “helped” to reconcile with an abusive partner, people with depression who are “helped” with involuntary electroshock therapy.

    The idea of someone who knows better than me what is best for me, and who will override my own wishes, scares the hell out of me.

    Ah, that one worked okay for me because the spirit was “neither alive nor dead” and they clearly stated that the abortion had not been a wrong thing to do. Not a favorite, but satisfactory.

    If she hadn’t felt so conflicted, I think it’s likely that the manifestation wouldn’t have happened.

    Yeah, I caught the little “it was right for me to do, but I regret not acknowledging it” line. Wasn’t enough for me: if this was a manifestation of guilt (as opposed to the “soul” of a dead person), then why did it not torment the mother?

    If it was the “soul” of a dead person (and this was my reading, because Alison could see it), then it was the “soul” of an aborted fetus, which takes it into a whole ‘nother realm.

    Having said all that, I have now got disc two, so I will persevere. I do like a complex, interesting woman :)

  11. says

    Wasn’t enough for me: if this was a manifestation of guilt (as opposed to the “soul” of a dead person), then why did it not torment the mother?

    I figured, for the same reason spirits haunt Alison instead of their own loved ones: because she’s receptive and they’re not. But YMMV.

    If it was the “soul” of a dead person (and this was my reading, because Alison could see it)

    She clearly stated it was “neither alive nor dead”, and she’d “never seen one like it” so I accepted that as being the case. But I also kind of reserved judgment on that ep until I saw a few more. I’m being vague to avoid spoilers, but other episodes convinced me the writers just wanted to play with states of being that were somewhere in between life and death, and it doesn’t bother me to suggest that a fetus is somewhere in between. Again, YMMV.

    I like that the show is complicated enough that this thread alone, with just a few comments, represents several varying points of view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.