Note: This piece will include language regarding and depicting sexual assault, and also includes spoilers for the HBO Max series Beartown
After a year of chaos, quarantine, and sadness—which we are still fully in the midst of—it’s hard to recommend a series that deals with something as heavy as sexual assault. But there are TV shows, like Hulu’s A Teacher (about a male high school student’s faux-consensual relationship with a female educator) and HBO Max’s Beartown (where a young girl is raped by a classmate), that are worth wading into, because their depictions are both carefully considered and starkly portrayed.
In his review, Shane Ryan refers to the five-episode Beartown as an “outstanding, unsparing work,” and it is exactly that. As most of those reading will know, the series revolves around the family of an NHL player, Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg), who returns to his Swedish hometown and takes on a coaching gig. The town is dying, and hockey is the only thing that remains a focus and source of hope. His smart and musically-talented daughter Maya (Miriam Ingrid), 15, befriends the star player, Kevin (Oliver Dufaker), who is 17 and the town darling. But Kevin is not full of swagger like his teammates. He’s quiet, reflective, humble, and somewhat in awe of Maya. Further setting the stage for their potential romance is the fact that they are neighbors, and their fathers hate each other (naturally).
Throughout the first episode and part of the second, we see the two cautiously show an interest in one another. Both of them are very young, and look young, especially Maya with her shiny braces. There’s a sweet suggestion that there could be a slow-burn relationship on the horizon, one where Maya and Kevin understand one another in ways no one else can. But then Maya attends a party at Kevin’s house after the team improbably wins the semi-final game, everyone drinks too much, and she and Kevin spend time alone together. There, when she rebuffs his sexual advances, he rapes her.
As someone who went into Beartown completely unaware of its plot, that scene knocked the wind out of me. The way it happens is horrifically believable, taking place in real time. Maya and Kevin awkwardly talk in his room, he tries to show off some things, she accidentally insults him and his father while trying to look cool. Deeply triggered, he grabs her and violently holds her down, silencing her as he violates her, an act only stopped by the advent of an even younger teammate, Amat (Najdat Rustom), who walks in on them—something Kevin sees but Maya does not. It’s Maya’s chance to escape him, but she can’t run out. She has to put her underwear and pants back on while Kevin stands there, quietly handing her some of her things. When she takes a sock from him, she thanks him as tears run down her bruised face.
It is utterly devastating.
It sounds strange to ever say that a story like this is handled “well,” but Beartown’s portrayal is emotionally masterful. Maya tries to deal with it herself, eventually confiding in a friend, and then trying to stand up to Kevin (which goes poorly). Totally unmoored, she finally tells her mother, who calls her father, who calls the police. The result is that her father immediately abandons the team during their final match to rush home, and the police take Kevin off of the team bus and down to the station. The players, confused and without their leaders, lose the game and the town turns on the Anderssons as a result.
Beartown’s depiction of the town’s (and the team’s) reaction to the rape case is both truthful and expected. Maya is immediately villainized and bullied, the family is targeted, Peter is on the verge of losing his job. The young witness is silenced and later must risk everything, like Maya did, to tell the truth. Kevin lies, repeatedly, to everyone, with the same two statements: “I didn’t do it” and “she wanted it,” each time less convincing than the last. And yet, he’s believed because everyone wants to believe him.
What makes Beartown such a gripping portrayal, though, are the horrors of the smallest moments—like Maya thanking Kevin for handing her a sock. After the rape and Maya leaves, Kevin just stands in his room looking dumbly at the sheets where blood from her elbow wound is smeared. He tells people what they want to hear (claiming his innocence), but he doesn’t boast. The sickest thing is that he clearly really liked Maya. He would have wanted her to be his girlfriend. And he didn’t just assault her, he ruined her life. Forever. Forgiveness will never be an option. So he convinces himself that he did nothing wrong.
The other thing that Beartown emotionally touches on in several different ways is Kevin’s adoration of Maya’s father, who is a better and more supportive figure than his own. Kevin’s father does nothing but teach and model toxic masculinity to him, encouraging him to take what he wants, suggesting that women must be put in their place, spewing hatred and negativity towards him constantly that he’s not good enough. None of this excuses Kevin’s behavior, but it does give important context to the crime he commits. Kevin is presented as a “good guy” early in the season; the lesson is that this kind of violence could come from anyone.
Because of the way others view Kevin, Maya is terrified of reporting the rape. She’s afraid her own father likes Kevin more, and Beartown doesn’t let Peter off the hook there. Though he is initially and enthusiastically supportive of Maya, he later has doubts when he sees video of her drunkenly dancing at the party. Classmates claim she was “all over Kevin,” and Peter (ill-advisedly) voices this to Mira who goes ballistic at the suggestion. But these are the moments that Beartown feels the most honest, when it allows these difficult truths to be voiced. The truth of what happened is unclear to the town, but it’s not unclear to viewers—Beartown never means for Maya’s rape to be a mystery. We know exactly what happened, which makes the tension of that being uncovered (or not) all the more excruciating.
In the finale, it is sadly not Maya’s but Amat’s testimony that sways most of the parents and some of the players. Some are rightfully chastened, others make excuses to rationalize their belief in Kevin’s innocence. Others simply remove themselves from the situation altogether. Even though few seemed to really believe Kevin saying he didn’t rape Maya in the first place, it was easier to just ignore any other possibility. But when Maya bravely confronts them so that they can no longer disparage her (which they won’t do to her face), it is what gives Amat the fortification he needs to step up. It is her strength that gives clarity to her father, to Amat, to the town. And by God it shouldn’t have to be.
Beartown’s first episode is bookended by a mysterious scene in which we see two individuals stumbling through the snow, one chasing the other with a gun. When it zooms in at the end of the hour, they are revealed: Maya and Kevin. Maya holds the gun, Kevin drops to his knees. The scene replays in the finale, where Maya—at the end of her rope—chases Kevin who has meanwhile gotten off scot-free (legally) from his crime. But when it comes down to it, when Maya has him in her sights and is ready to pull the trigger, she shows mercy. She shoots wide, he wets himself in fear. She looks at him with a mix of clarity and pity. He’s not absolved, but she can move forward now seeing what a pathetic creature he is. Not a wolf, not an alpha as his father encouraged him. A cub. Scared. Violent. And when she held all of the power, she didn’t use it to “punish” him as he did to her. She let him go, and her father carried her home.
In the end, Kevin does admit to his father—and himself—that he did it. That he raped Maya. His father doesn’t seem surprised. He doesn’t care. It’s something to push pass, to bury down, to buy your way out of. He continues to model this toxic behavior to a son who is already so broken and messed up that he has already committed sexual assault at 17.
Meanwhile, Peter goes to find the box of his late son’s things he kept hidden away, like his pain. He opens it and weeps; Mira and Maya find him and sit with him, also silently going through the box and remembering. Afterwards they have a warm family dinner, as the healing begins. We get a sense that Maya will make it, that the Anderssons will make it, all set to the backdrop of a beautiful, haunting song that Maya sings and plays along with her guitar.
Kevin and his father, meanwhile, move to another city to continue Kevin’s hockey career. But like that early scene in the snow, Kevin is just running, running, running…. Even when he stops and turns and faces the truth, it’s clear he will never know peace. In hurting Maya, he forfeited everything.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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