For a long time, it has seemed that nothing was quite as bad as unceremoniously killing off a beloved queer character on a television show. Write them off with some weak non-lethal plot device — but if you can keep them away from rogue bullets and reckless drivers everything should be okay, right? After watching Hightown season two, you’d realize there are worse things.
Hightown’s first season was pretty standard as far as crime dramas go. You had your ruthless drug dealers and your disheveled police detectives, each trying to bring the other down. The main difference from most shows in this male dominated genre was Jackie Quiñones, a queer woman of color, touted as the headliner of the series. The only issue being that due to her portrayal as a helpless addict struggling to get clean, the male characters ended up with more of the primary focus when it came to the core story of the first season. Jackie was a part of it, but she was constantly shown failing at her vigilante efforts because she couldn’t stay away from drugs, booze, and women for nearly an entire season. Things didn’t really start getting better for her until the final episode when she got to be involved in a proper operation and helped apprehend the man she was chasing all season, taking a bullet in the process.
Season two was far and away an improvement over the first season; it just didn’t follow through on the things that made it a great second act. Jackie starts out season two strong, despite having to deal with the overdose death of her friend Junior. She has remained clean and is ready to jump into a dual role between her Fisheries job and the police force to take down the drug dealers that sold the stuff that killed him. The strong start along with three key aspects of the story made Hightown season two better, but one of those things ended up being the reason Jackie’s story was bungled.
Part way through the second season Renee Segna (Riley Voelkel), a dancer at a local strip club, ends up having to cover up a murder she committed and hide it from everyone including her drug trafficking husband and her boyfriend, a disgraced ex-cop. It’s possibly the biggest twist of the season and gives her something else to do besides be a go-between with Ray Abruzzo (James Badge Dale) and Frankie Cuevas (Amaury Nolasco). Charmaine (Imani Lewis), a young relative of local drug traffickers, becomes a new player in the drug trade storyline and holds her own when faced with having to work with Frankie and his crew. Although she is much younger, she could easily be a more formidable adversary in the future, if the show continues.
The last piece that really made the season different from the first was pairing up Leslie Babcock (Tonya Glanz) with Jackie as a partner and a love interest. For a while it was the best thing that happened to Jackie on the show but unfortunately it’s also responsible for being the thing that completely ruins Jackie’s progress. Their dynamic is an energizing thing to watch develop; when they work together it feels like Hightown is fulfilling the promise it made in season one. As an outsider, Jackie brings her unorthodox tactics into situations Leslie normally would have handled by the book, pushing things closer to the edge while Leslie reigns her in. When Leslie and Jackie end up getting romantically involved, early on in the season it is the most authentic relationship Jackie has ever had with a woman on the show, with any person really.
Jackie has never really been seen with friends who are also queer despite living in one of the most iconic queer communities in the United States her entire life. She doesn’t even seem to have any platonic female friends. Most women she speaks to, outside of her investigative work, usually end up in her bed. Jackie’s close friends are primarily comprised of heterosexual men she works with, her father-daughter relationship with Ed Murphy (Mike Pniewski) being the most genuine. When we do see Jackie immersed in the queer culture of Provincetown, she’s usually on a solo mission to wallow or get laid.
A character being promiscuous is not the issue. The issue is seeing someone like Jackie be reduced to a hypersexual stereotype which has worn on her development in the show. It also plays into the harmful trope of queer characters being portrayed as always wanting to get laid. The showrunner, Rebecca Cutter, has said that Don Draper was an inspiration for Jackie but one can only wonder if it’s just the womanizing aspects of Draper that were imprinted onto Jackie’s character. Don Draper still managed to have semi-stable relationships with the women he had affairs with while remaining good at his job most of the time, even in his most reckless moments. Quite a drastic difference compared to how Jackie has been portrayed so far on Hightown.
Outside of the relationship drama that arises with her and Jackie, Leslie Babcock is a well-rounded character. The chemistry between Monica Raymund and Tonya Glanz is intoxicating and even before they are an item it feels refreshing to see Jackie in a stable friendship with someone who wasn’t just a one-night stand or an ex she was trying to lure back in. To push Jackie over the edge, Hightown turns this romantic subplot into a Trojan horse, abruptly reducing Leslie Babcock to a one-dimensional character. An awkward cudgel to help force a haphazard storyline into place.
The first blow comes when Jackie eagerly texts Leslie “I love you” after receiving a nude photo from her. Previously they had defined things as casual so we’re led to believe that Leslie going on to ice out Jackie at this point is a completely reasonable response, but it was awkward to watch this play out between two adults. For someone like Leslie, who is normally straight forward with people, it seems like an out of character move.
Everything that comprises Jackie’s interpersonal conflicts feels like they exist in another universe than the show. It’s like how someone straight thinks a queer person would behave in these situations and how Jackie and the women she’s with react to conflict with one another often feels like a caricature of authentic representation. Hightown seems to underserve the storyline whenever it comes to anything involving Jackie’s sexuality unless it’s a sex scene. Everyone in this show has a clearly defined story trajectory and plausible motivations for why they do what they do, even if they are a villain.
Another troubling factor is that during the highs and lows of Jackie and Leslie’s romance, nobody utters the word “bisexual”. Plenty of women like Leslie, who have previously been with men, come out later in life but that doesn’t mean they aren’t attracted to men anymore. It seems to be portrayed as Leslie having to choose between being a lesbian or being a heterosexual woman without anything in between and it’s just not an accurate representation of what someone like Leslie is likely dealing with. It’s an odd form of bi erasure and something that pops up in shows where queer characters end up falling for characters who had previously been portrayed as straight.
After the “I love you” ghosting incident Jackie ends up on a midseason bender that starts off as an unexpectedly nice reunion with her father, Rafael Quiñones (Carlos Gomez). It quickly devolves into a night of heavy drugs and booze consumption as Jackie slips further into relapse. Learning more about Jackie’s family dynamic does help us to better understand the origins of her reckless behavior but knowing we got there due to a flimsy ghosting storyline was frustrating. Actual ghosts being involved may have made more sense. Eventually Jackie is snapped back into reality when her father attempts to offer her up to a creepy drug dealer in exchange for more drugs. It is a heartbreaking scene — but Jackie, in her compromised position, is able to leave on her own and remove herself from the situation. She pulls herself out of a pretty dark place on her own and gets back on track without completely succumbing to her circumstances. It’s a powerful moment for her.
Jackie and Leslie are even able to reconcile a bit as the story seems to right it’s coarse and rejoins the efforts to close in on Frankie and Charmaine’s drug operation. In the finale Leslie admits that she was scared because she did have genuine feelings for Jackie but struggled with the realization that she might be “gay.” Again, nobody seems to want to say the “B” word. Leslie and Jackie start up their romance again and for a short time it felt like the second season of Hightown was going to close out pretty well for those two. Following their reunion Leslie visits Jackie and comments on how Ray seems to be just another man who can fail his way up after hearing he got his job back overseeing a new task force he wants Jackie on. An ironic sentiment to be shared at that point because the rest of the episode goes on to show plenty of male characters, including Ray, being able to persevere while our primary female protagonist flounders yet again, due to something Leslie does.
While Charmaine is being transported to another prison, she is able to escape from Jackie and Leslie during a bathroom break on the side of the road. The two get reprimanded by one of the more misogynistic men in the police department afterward and during this, Leslie is again miraculously transformed into a one dimensional archetype to force the plot to turn against Jackie. Leslie throws Jackie under the bus by criticizing her judgment and requests a new partner, callously telling Jackie “It’s my career” when Jackie tries to talk to her about it. It’s a complete waste of everything that was built up between Jackie and Leslie in the beginning of the finale and pretty transparently repeats a cycle the show uses way too much to fuel Jackie’s breakdowns. This is the final blow.
Jackie ends up relapsing again but it’s worse than any other time. The last scene shows her returning to the creepy drug dealer’s house her dad brought her to and alluding to the fact that she’s willing to let him do things to her in exchange for drugs. It is really a terrible scene to watch, especially not knowing if Hightown will continue. If it doesn’t then that is the last image we will ever have of Jackie Quiñones. It is irresponsible to portray relapse as something that’s only triggered by something traumatic happening to someone in recovery. Many people fall back into substance abuse even if it seems like everything is going well for them. That is more tragic than using a character to force a relapse storyline for another character, like they do with Leslie Babcock in season two. It also leaves little hope that in a continuation of this plot, Jackie won’t just be the version of herself we saw in season one, erasing all her progress from the second season. It’s an unnecessary regression. This is not to say tragedy befalling a protagonist of a show is an inherently bad thing but, in comparison to how other subplots played out for minor characters in season two, Jackie’s torment felt particularly heavy handed in the end.
Osito (Atkins Estimond), the drug dealer who shot Jackie in the season one finale, is given a love interest in season two. At first it seemed like an innocuous story, but when you remember that he brutally bashed in a woman’s face with an iron you can only be faced with one question. Why are we romanticizing this character? He may have been working for Frankie Cuevas at the time but at no point has he been depicted as being remorseful for killing anyone. Establishing his cooperation with the police and looming threats on his life in prison should have been enough. The time spent on his love story would have been better spent on developing the relationship between Jackie and Leslie. Ray is even able to continue his romance with Renee throughout this season despite her ruining his career in season one. He ends up with her in the Finale after Frankie gets put back in prison, and the two of them have a baby on the way. Even though it’s alluded that Renee’s actions will come back to haunt them both in the future, covering up a murder and all, they end the season with some semblance of happiness unlike anything Jackie has ever gotten on this show for more than an episode.
Hightown has had two seasons to do right by Jackie Quiñones. It has come close, but every time the plot slips up on some fragile plot line that crumbles into obscurity and we’re back at the start. Seeing Jackie constantly encounter the same types of conflicts with women and addiction over and over again makes it difficult to trust that a third season can rectify the damage done by the latest finale. How are we meant to trust any new love interest that could be introduced if it’s already been demonstrated how carelessly her love stories have been handled in the past?
If we’re meant to hope Jackie and Leslie will be brought back together at some point will they just be torn apart by yet another trivial conflict or will it stick this time? If the show can make that work and let Leslie be the person who helps pull Jackie up from her lowest point and support her with her recovery, that would be far and away better than what we’ve gotten so far. Hopefully we get a third season of the show because if we don’t, her legacy is just going to fade to black in the dark hallway of a creepy drug dealer’s house. There are plenty of people out there still rooting for Jackie Quiñones; it’d be nice if it felt like the ones crafting her story were among them.