If you’re here to read this recap, chances are you’re checking in on #GayKarolinaWatch2017 updates. And I regret to inform you that the latest episode of Marvel’s Runaways, “Refraction,” doesn’t really include anything about Karolina’s journey of self-discovery. In fact, Karolina is barely in it. In fact, the teens are barely in it at all with the exception of a couple big scenes at the end. “Refraction is the most tedious episode of Runaways to date, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show’s most sluggish and incohesive episode is the episode that focuses most intently on the parents. The show works best when there’s balance between the parents and the teens, and this episode tips too far into the parental side of things.
But in watching this episode, I started thinking about the question of how queer Runaways is. And I really think it’s more queer than meets the eye. Even though Karolina’s coming out narrative has been unraveling very slowly and mostly at the periphery of scenes, there’s latent queerness at the heart of the show’s premise. Runaways upends the (hetero)normative notion that we must be loyal to our family unconditionally. There are two distinct families in the world of Runaways: the chosen family of the teens and the forced family of the parents. The adults of Pride are all bound to each other for all the wrong reasons, connected by their nefarious overlord Jonah. The teens, on the other hand, are bound by something much more powerful, much more emotional. As Karolina puts it in her talk with Molly, they share a secret that no one else can understand. They all know each other more intimately than anyone else, and they’re unified in their quest to bring their parents to justice for what they’ve done.
In “Refraction,” both families are in shambles. Pride has been weakened by the news of Robert and Janet’s affair, and for some reason, Jonah pressures Leslie to mend the group. She works her magic, first appealing to Tina (and is it just me or were there sparks flying between these two?). She then puts pressure on Janet to repair her marriage with Victor, insinuating that there’s a much larger cause that they all much make sacrifices for. Admittedly, the stakes and motivations of Leslie and Jonah are getting more and more confusing. Now Frank’s parading around with a pair of Jonah’s gloves that can heal people? And Jonah has known Leslie since she was a little girl, which makes their whole dynamic extremely creepy. Jonah is too broadly written of a Big Bad to really be all that compelling. The rest of the parents have distinctly human and complex motivations. Jonah is still a big question mark.
The one compelling part of the parents’ side of things this week is the tragic story of Janet and Chase’s cyclical abuse at the hands of Victor. Flashbacks to the day Victor and Janet first met and the day Chase was born show that Victor can be charming. A lot of abusers can be charming. We also see that he has been hitting Chase for most of his life, and we know that he has hurt Janet for most of their marriage. For most of this episode, Victor appears as a different man, an upbeat and kind guy invested in his son’s well being. But it’s all a side effect from whatever Victor gave him to cure his cancer. Victor is the same as he ever was, and even though Chase sends a message from the future telling him not to pick up the Fistigons, he does by episode’s end, uses them to hurt Chase, and then is shot by Janet. It’s a shocking ending to an otherwise middling episode, and the foreshadowing makes it that much more thrilling.
Janet shooting Victor will no doubt have major ripple effects for both Pride and the teens, and Chase’s warning from the future implies that those ripple effects could be calamitous.
The teens aren’t in a great place for most of the episode either. Once they find out that Molly accidentally spilled to Catherine, the family fractures. They unfairly turn on Molly, who already feels like an outcast in the group because they don’t take her seriously. She’s hurt by how quickly they blame her, so she tries to find a new family in the dance team, who treat her even worse. The Wilders’ proposed solution to Stacy and Dale in order to make sure that Jonah doesn’t find out what Molly saw is to have her sent away. It’s Molly’s worst nightmare come to life, and the scene between her and Gert at episode’s end is devastating. Their sisterhood is one of the many strongly written relationship dynamics on the show, and Gert realizing that she can’t protect Molly from this is heartbreaking. I was starting to get frustrated by the fact that Gert’s storyline in this episode was mostly just making sassy remarks because she’s upset that Chase and Karolina kissed, and the scene between her and Molly almost makes up for it.
While this episode gets a little too caught up in plot mechanisms to really let the full weight of its emotional throughlines hit, the themes of Runaways remain powerful and elevate the show. There’s queerness in its DNA, in its emphasis on chosen family and on seeing the things that make us different as strengths rather than weaknesses. Much more than friends, the ties that bind the teens to each other are complex and don’t easily fit in boxes. Even without Karolina being out yet, Runaways is the queerest Marvel TV series.