“The Girl In The Woods” Delivers a Complex, Queer Horror Hero

With eight half-hour episodes that dropped all at once on Peacock, the new supernatural teen series The Girl In The Woods goes down easy in one sitting. Featuring a small town disrupted by monsters and a powerful teen girl who teams up with a couple weirdos to stop them, the show mashes together dystopian YA and supernatural-horror tropes. But it also adds in specificity when it comes to its characters and the emotional stakes of the story. There’s a queer love triangle. There’s a queer, messy backstory between Carrie and her ex. And the series explores grief and trauma as well as friendship and love with depth and care, injecting a fairly familiar supernatural story with some freshness.

I won’t spoil too much, but the show’s mythology is pretty straightforward: Our titular girl in the woods Carrie (Stefanie Scott) belongs to a cult that trains literal children to guard a door to hell. On the other side of that door lie great horrors, like a long-tongued monster who lures victims with a spinning coin. The series kicks off when Carrie, for reasons we don’t learn until much later, abandons her post as a guardian and lets a monster slip out. Carrie and that monster both make their way to nearby Pacific Northwest smalltown West Pine. There, she meets Tasha (Sofia Bryant) and Nolan (Misha Osherovich). When West Piners start violently dying, the three have to team up to close a portal to hell.

Protecting the world from these beasts comes at a great cost. Carrie and her fellow young Disciples Of Dawn train brutally to become guardians. They’re stripped of their individuality and connection to the outside world. They fight each other. They’re taught that the ultimate expression of love is sacrifice, and they all bear permanent scars and wounds—sometimes self-inflicted. It’s here that The Girl In The Woods does some of its most interesting work. Carrie is a strong, monster-destroying horror hero, but her power was forged in traumatic and isolating conditions. Flashbacks to her training sessions reveal the violence of her upbringing but also the small ways she desperately grasped at autonomy within her oppressive surroundings. In these flashbacks, she’s in a romantic relationship with another young Disciple named Sara (Kylie Liya Page). Their relationship is…complicated, to say the least. Their scenes together whiplash between close, quiet intimacy and them literally drawing blood from each other in ruthless one-on-one battles. Those blurred lines between violence and romance unnerve as much as the show’s actual monsters do. Scott and Page do fantastic work here.

The Girl In The Woods covers similar territory as Buffy The Vampire and, more recently, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, in asking questions about identity, self-discovery, and destiny. Like Buffy and Sabrina, Carrie is pulled between her obligations to protect the world from evil and her desires to have some semblance of agency and a normal teen life. Like Sabrina suddenly forced to question her environment and everything she previously believed, Carrie’s story isn’t just one about fighting evil but about fighting for herself and forging her own community after becoming disillusioned by the one she was raised in. The Disciples Of Dawn protect humankind from monsters, but they’re also not the good guys. They’re monsters, too.

At one point, Tasha points out to Carrie that it’s entirely absurd and cruel that she has been tasked with protecting the ENTIRE WORLD from HELL. Tasha’s main responsibility is just doing the dishes, and she’s not even good at that, so how can Carrie possibly punish herself for failing at the responsibilities forced upon her by oppressive, manipulative adults? Tasha has a point, and those little glimmers of meta commentary on the show’s premise are sharp, adding in some of that specificity that elevates the show from something that just feels like a copycat of prior shows with similar concepts. The Girl In The Woods has heart, humor, and horror in bursts.

That said, I found myself wishing The Girl In The Woods would sit in certain moments a little longer. It spends a lot of time worldbuilding and then not enough really needling into that world. The monster moments in the show are some of its most memorable, sowing fear effectively. But for a show where the big conflict basically boils down to There Are Monsters Killing People In This Town, there aren’t enough monsters. That likely has to do with the speedy pace at which the show clips along. At just eight half-hour episodes, The Girl In The Woods spends a lot of time on exposition. Just as things are starting to get deeper and more thrilling, it pulls back to push the plot along.

The Girl In The Woods thankfully doesn’t entirely throw character development to the side in service to that plotting/pacing. We see the effects of Carrie’s trauma and the violence she was raised in play out in her choices and actions. The complex relationship between her and Sara adds so much to our understanding of Carrie and the true stakes to her choices to run away from the Disciples. In addition to the other shows I already mentioned, I found myself thinking, too, of Jessica Jones, and not just because Krysten Ritter directs The Girl In The Woods (!!). That series also sharply investigated the interiority of its protagonist and the ripple effects of her violent past, complicating the idea of a kickass hero without making her defined by her trauma. Girl In The Woods does that well, and it adds pathos to Carrie’s hero journey. But again, I do wish we could have sat in certain moments longer. Carrie is most enthralling when she doesn’t just seem like a broad amalgamation of a bunch of action heroes, but there are times toward the end of the season where she slips into that territory.

Ultimately, Carrie, Nolan, and Tasha all feel like real teens, and the queer love triangle between them as well as their friendships are believable and layered. Their personal conflicts interplay with the overarching monster problem. Tasha’s still working through the grief of losing her mother, her relationship with her father one of The Girl In The Woods’s welcome soft spots. Nolan knows they are non-binary and genderqueer but struggles with how to tell people. A town bully torments them, but their well-meaning parents are harmful, too, adding to the pressure they feel to perform masculinity. The Girl In The Woods doesn’t make Nolan a tragic character though and doesn’t package their arc too neatly. The show is occasionally too mechanical in its plotting/exposition, but on the character-level, it allows a little more room for mess and specificity. Nolan and Tasha easily open up to Carrie, and the intimacies that develop between them provide deeper stakes to the horror and action. The showrunner and head writer J. Casey Modderno is queer and trans, and there’s nuance to the ways the series explores sexuality and gender.

Here are queer and trans teen characters whose identities are significant and yet not wholly defining of them. Unlike some of Sabrina’s misfires when it comes to using supernatural metaphors to explore themes of sexuality and gender, The Girl In The Woods is smart and surprising in its queer storytelling. When the people in Nolan’s life try to force them to be someone they’re not, the harm becomes monstrous—literally. It isn’t Carrie’s queerness that the cult punishes her for but rather the fact that she dares to have desires at all. She cannot be herself. She can only be a guardian. She can only do and be what the cult decides for her.

When I watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I was just starting to understand my own queerness, and it wasn’t Willow or Tara who I connected with but rather Buffy. Sure, I didn’t feel like I could kick a vampire’s ass. But this girl who is constantly told who she is and what she is supposed to do with her life—that’s exactly how I felt all the time before coming out. My interiority and the external pressures I felt from the world were at constant odds and sometimes still are. In Girl In The Woods, Carrie is literally queer, but on top of that, her storyline also feels just so, so fucking queer. And now that the show has laid the groundwork for its world, I’d love to see it move through these emotional underpinnings even more.


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kaylakumari

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 321 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I loved this show! I couldn’t believe at first that all three leads were queer! I really need season 2 but I feel like this show is being ignored by the media. It has hardly any reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

    Also, I don’t know if it’s a generational thing but the demand for instant gratification I’ve seen from some fans is flabbergasting to me. I’ve actually seen more than a few people complain that Carrie and Tasha weren’t a couple by the end of the season. A eight episode season of half hour episodes and you’re mad things aren’t resolved? We have a show with three queer leads, Carrie’s whole storyline about being in love with a girl from her community and Tasha and Nolan having a deep and loving relationship and people are upset?!

  2. I recently finished this show. I will be upset if there is not a season 2. The ending was one of the biggest cliffhangers I’ve ever seen. All 3 leads are queer and one is also trans!!!! And I like them all as characters. I am very worried it won’t be renewed though as I have seen barely any press other than Autostraddle, and many of the other reviews are negative.

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