Note: I tried to keep plot spoilers to a minimum, but there are some small podcast and show spoilers in the Archive 81 review below.
Archive 81 — a new Netflix horror series based on a podcast of the same name — follows two entwined protagonists through a maze.
In present day New York City, there’s Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an archivist and conservator who restores old film for the Museum Of The Moving Image in Astoria. A mysterious stranger backed by an equally mysterious and no doubt nefarious corporation approaches him with a job: restoring a set of tapes damaged in an East Village building fire. There are several catches (but, like any good horror hero, Dan ignores the red flags and plunges into danger). He can only do this work in an empty fortress of a research facility in the middle of the Catskills. There’s little cell service and a fence around the property. Here he must work, alone, removed from reality, his only companion a rat. And there’s something off about these tapes, all filmed by a young doctoral candidate named Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) who was intent on studying the residents of The Visser, the burned building in question.
Here is our second protagonist, whose life in 1994 unfolds for Dan on these tapes. We see her time at The Visser through her camera’s lens, scenes occasionally shifting out of found footage and into her actual perspective so we can see some things Dan cannot. There’s considerable tension in Dan’s role here. He’s a passive observer, watching what happens in horror as Melody’s footage makes it more and more apparent that something is very wrong at The Visser, that perhaps it is cursed. But he’s also snarled up in the ribbons of film he restores, the boundaries between life and the screen melting away. We watch him watching her, the past and the present converging, the remove provided by the screen making everything somehow more frightening. Dan has to watch Melody maneuver in a maze of mystery and monsters. All the while, he’s being watched, too. The type of fear Archive 81 thrives on is that prickle of a feeling of eyes on you only to turn around and see no one there.
Like the research facility Dan works in and The Visser itself, Archive 81’s story is a labyrinth. Every hallway Dan and Melody turn down leads to more secrets, more peril. The first half of the series is an excellent alchemy of psychological horror, propulsive and rhythmic storytelling, and strong performances that give greater stakes to the scares. In its second half, the series gets a little too lost in its own mythology maze, overexplaining some parts and dashing away from others.
The series has traces of DNA from three of the horror films that terrified me the most in my youth: The Exorcist, The Ring, and The Blair Witch Project. Archive 81 blends found-footage horror (Blair Witch), cursed videotape (The Ring), demonic possession and supernatural mythology steeped in Catholicism (The Exorcist). Jump-scares and quick hits of horror come from those elements, but the most unnerving parts of the series hinge on the deep dread of isolation. There are touches of The Shining in there, too. A man unravels in a strange and secluded place, unsure if the things he’s experiencing are real or his mind playing tricks on him. Dan and Melody encounter each other through the screen and in dreams, reaching out to each other, the tapes transcending the space-time continuum, footage, reality, and dreamspace merging in a way Archive 81 renders simultaneously alluring and frightening.
I watched the show in two evenings, and then I wanted to write about the show, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
It isn’t especially queer, even though one of its recurring characters — Annabelle Cho (Julia Chan), Melody’s roommate and best friend — hints at hookups with women and a more minor character — one of The Visser’s many strange residents, Cassandra Wall — was once in a secret relationship with Eleanor, a mystical woman she pretended was her sister to keep their sexuality clandestine. I thought I would touch on those elements briefly before moving into the other parts of the series that captivated me. The found footage approach; instantly indelible sound details like the percussive breathing pattern characters do when participating in a demonic ritual; those long, meticulous process shots of Dan restoring old tapes (I think I could watch anyone do a specific and methodical task like this, but especially when that anyone wears a wool sweater and soft cloth gloves as handsomely as Athie).
So, I sat down to write my little review. And I did a little research for background. I knew Archive 81 was based on a popular scripted podcast, and I wanted to brief myself on the original source material. I learned then that the adaptation changed quite a bit on a character and story level, which, whatever! My favorite adaptations always change, expand, reinterpret, and also make smart and meaningful use of a shift in medium. Sharp Objects the television series invented its own hidden word game that couldn’t have worked in a novel. The Handmaiden lifted Fingersmith and placed it in an entirely new cultural and temporal context. Dare Me made shit gayer for television.
Which brings me to this: In the Archive 81 podcast, Melody Pendras has a wife. Over the course of the podcast, they are married for twenty years. They’re even the only named characters to ever share a kiss.
In the show, Melody does not have a wife. If she is queer, it’s never mentioned. Her only love interests are, briefly, an evil occultist named Samuel and, possibly, Dan, which I’ll get into. If she is queer, then there were plenty of opportunities for it to be mentioned or even hinted at. Her roommate Annabelle talks about past hookups with girls with her. And Melody seems so naive about sexuality that Annabelle has to be the one to explain to her that Cassandra and Eleanor were very clearly lovers and not sisters.
No, I feel pretty confident saying Melody Pendras in the television series is straight. I feel pretty confident saying this is one of the worst instances of straightwashing I’ve seen in a very long time.
I know this might be controversial, but for me, it’s not even the surface-level representational repercussions of this change that bum me out. Of course I want to see more queer women on television. Of course I want to see more queer women as protagonists, more queer women in horror and genre shows specifically, more queer women whose arcs encompass more than just their coming out or who they date. But when it comes to Archive 81, it isn’t even as simple as “this could have been an opportunity for representation” or “this could have been an opportunity to add one more character to the still kinda small list of queer characters on television.” This could have been an opportunity for a better fucking story!
By erasing Melody’s queerness, Archive 81 gains nothing and loses a lot. There’s that aforementioned hint at a romantic connection between Dan and Melody. Dan’s best friend Mark Higgins (McGorry) jokingly calls Melody Dan’s girlfriend. And I wasn’t the only person picking up vibes. In an interview with Shihabi at Variety, Jennifer Maas begins a question: “It seems pretty obvious that Dan falls in love with Melody throughout Season 1…”
Look, this isn’t my first rodeo. The creators could come out and say that they never intended for there to be an amorous vibe between Dan and Melody, and I wouldn’t believe them. I think the door was left open for the possibility of a relationship between Dan and Melody as a cheap and easy way to sell the connection between them, to make viewers invested in their entwined arcs. Romance is far from the point of Archive 81, sure, but then so why let that be a possibility at all? Why make Melody single? Why not let her have a goddamn wife?
Frankly, Dan’s obsession with Melody is most interesting when any possibility of romantic interest is taken out of the equation entirely. He has lost a lot, and he is drawn to lost people and things. Even subtle hints at something romantic feel hollow and forced.
Melody’s main motivation in the series concerns her trying to figure out where she belongs, where she comes from. She says she’s studying The Visser for an oral history project, but really she comes to this haunted place to try to find the mother who abandoned her at a church when she was a baby. Really, she came to The Visser for answers about herself. A queer lens to these questions of the self, of family, of curiosity and exploration as it pertains to community and identity would have added so much more texture, more teeth to the character and her journey.
Indeed, though it starts strong, character motivations and dynamics feel flat by the end of Archive 81’s first season. A character introduced very late in the game is inexplicably infertile, and that seems to be the reason she wants to raise an ancient evil spirit? The character is, at least, elevated by a seductive performance from Georgina Haig, but in its final act, Archive 81 all of a sudden attempts to explain its terror instead of just letting it terrify, bending over backwards to reveal the precise contours and turns of its labyrinth. It’s simultaneously messy and tidy, much of the fear factor sucked out. To be fair, horror endings are wildly difficult. But Archive 81 bottoms out not because the mythology becomes convoluted but because the character arcs become too pat. Archive 81 is plenty imaginative in its soundscape, in its connections between film and ritual. But it ultimately lacks imagination in its character work, which is especially emphasized in this straightening of Melody Pendras.
In the podcast, Melody is a gay woman in the 1990s. She has a wife who takes her last name. In! The! 90s! That’s interesting stuff! It was a time when gay marriage wasn’t even legal in New York. I wondered if the podcast addressed this historical context, and it does, in season two episode 10 (full transcripts available here). Here’s an exchange between Dan and Alexa (Melody’s wife, who is not a character in the show at all) in the episode:
DAN: Wait. Wait. You’re Melody’s… you’re Melody’s…
ALEXA: Wife. Well, never got a chance to be legally married, but been together long enough. Probably be common law, if there were any actual laws around here. So, who are you?
The straightwashing cuts even deeper because of how it erases such a specific and hard-to-find queer story of people in long-term, cohabitational partnerships before gay marriage was legal. It almost feels like the makers of the adaptation have gone out of their way to write out Melody’s wife, to write out Melody’s interiority beyond her wanting to find her mother. At the end of the day, she’s little more than a phantom.
To be clear: I don’t think being queer makes a character inherently more interesting or dimensional. I do think the Melody presented in the television series is broadly drawn, more of a device than a character despite being a protagonist. And I guess that somehow bothered me less before I knew about these details from the podcast. There are so many missed narrative opportunities here, ways to deepen Melody’s life beyond her search for her birth mother. Ways to draw her deeper into the darkness of The Visser that don’t rely on her falling for the charms of an OBVIOUSLY EVIL DUDE.
On paper, I like when an adaptation invents a new queer character who doesn’t exist in the original. Like Annabelle. But injecting Annabelle into the narrative is actually baffling in the context of straightwashing Melody. There’s even queer subtext between Melody and Annabelle. “You don’t desire me anymore?” Annabelle asks after spying on Melody making out with the aforementioned evil dude. When Melody and Annabelle first appear in the pilot talking about being roommates, I said “sure, roommates.” What a strange choice to wipe away a character’s queerness and instead transplant it elsewhere. Stranger then to hint at the possibility of something between Melody and Annabelle, like straightwashing and queerbaiting have joined forces. And Annabelle, like Melody, does not feel like a whole character. She is walking comedic relief, loud and raunchy and quippy.
It’s like Melody’s queerness was taken away and then compartmentalized in this caricature. It’s like there’s room for queerness but only a little, only in the best friend, only in brief snippets of dialogue. To have a woman with a wife as the protagonist would be too queer. Instead, give her a quirky queer best friend. Have I been transported to the 90s?!
In other ways, the series expands on the podcast. Dan’s physical appearance is never described in the podcast, and instead of defaulting to white the way Hollywood loves to do, he’s a Black man in the show. Melody, also not physically described in the podcast, is played by an Arab actress. A minor character in the podcast, a young boy named Jesse, becomes a young girl named Jess with a much more significant role in the narrative, especially when it comes to her close friendship with Melody. And beyond that, on a story level, changes have indeed been made to the mythology and world rules of Archive 81 for its filmic iteration. And that’s how it should be. Adaptations should build, should expand, should not merely repeat but rather reimagine. I’m all for creative changes. But this change feels like it’s moving backward, not forward. It feels like it’s taking away.
This might also be controversial — and surprising given the 2,000+ words I just wrote — but I still like the show. All the things that drew me to it in the first place still appeal to me. If there will be a second season, I will watch it. I want to see where Dan’s story goes, where Melody’s story goes even. The show is good — if uneven in parts — and worth watching; this conversation about straightwashing is worth having. Those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I feel like Dan, trying to figure out what’s happening on the tapes or like Melody, tracing the origins of evil at The Visser, painstakingly turning the show over and over trying to figure out why Melody’s wife didn’t make the cut. Wanting to make sense of an erasure. Fitting, I suppose, that this show about lost art and lost people has left me feeling bereft.