In “The Breast Issue,” The Bold Type unfurls one of the most powerful narratives about breast cancer I’ve seen on television since Kristina Braverman’s cancer arc on Parenthood. It’s raw, personal, layered, and grounded by an incredible performance from Katie Stevens. We have yet to see great emotional range from Stevens, and Jane’s storylines up to this point have all had to do with her ambition in the workplace and her determination to figure out who she is as a writer. But Stevens turns in the kind of performance that sticks with you in “The Breast Issue,” which probes deeper into who Jane is outside of her work as a writer.
The Bold Type maintains its girl power voice throughout, Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” chiming in twice during the episode, and Kat and Sutton participating in a free the nipple rally in Central Park in the very first scene. But the episode goes darker than the show ever has, shedding light on the brutal realities of breast cancer through Jane’s emotional arc. Kat’s Twitter campaign to promote women’s health and destigmatize women’s breasts has good intentions, but for Jane, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 32, the feel-good awareness campaigns aren’t what she needs or wants. She’s scared, and she wants everyone to know how scary this really is.
Not knowing about her family history, Jacqueline sends Jane to interview Lisa Hendricks, a doctor who advocates for women with a family history of breast cancer to get tested as early as in their 20s for the BRCA gene, which can indicate a higher risk of developing breast cancer later in life. Jane thinks it’s irresponsibly aggressive to test women when they’re so young, and her fear clearly stems from the fact that she’s a strong candidate for the testing. Jane returns to the office exhausted, angry, hurt, scared, and those emotions all compound and explode when she’s interrogated by Jacqueline, who wants to know how the interview went. Jane blows up on her boss, who quickly realizes the story is very personal for Jane. Stevens rips back the layers of Jane’s pain. She lost her mother when she was very young. She doesn’t want to write about it, doesn’t want to turn her personal trauma into clicks for the magazine. She directs a lot of this anger at Jacqueline, accuses her of exploiting the emotions and sensibilities of her writers without ever letting them in on her own life.
The Bold Type gets at something deeper than Jane’s family history here, revealing how emotionally exhausting it can be to build a career around writing about your lived experiences. Jane seems to write a lot of what would be considered personal essays, a genre of writing often stigmatized and derided as frivolous and self-absorbed (but only usually when written by women…no one seems to care when men amass careers out of writing about themselves), but that ignores the fact that personal essay writing is hard, tolling work that often reopens wounds. Jane writing about never having had an orgasm was an embarrassing process for her, even though she was proud of the final piece. When it comes to her mother’s cancer, she draws the line. This isn’t content; it’s her life.
Sutton’s storyline this week isn’t directly tied to the episode’s overarching breast theme, so it’s unsurprisingly the weaker of the three. Her first day on the job in the fashion department proves to be a lot less glamorous than she hoped. It isn’t much different from her former job on Lauren’s desk, but now she’s fetching coffee instead of green juice. Oliver keeps her in line, calling her Red even though her hair isn’t red (he thinks it would look better if it was). I really love Oliver, especially the way Stephen Conrad Moore characterizes him as tough but even-keeled, infusing Oliver’s remarks with a sharpness that’s somehow also laid-back. He’s elegant, poised, witty, chill. In “The Breast Episode,” Oliver challenges Sutton to secure some sort of fancy pendant, and she taps into her assistant network for fashion mission impossible. Again, it’s refreshing to see women in the same industry working together instead of competing with each other.
I also love that Sutton doesn’t just listen to what her boyfriend tells her to do when she ends up losing the pendant in a cab. Sure, Richard’s professional legal advice to report the jewelry missing and let insurance cover it is wise, but Sutton feels that she needs to do things her own way, and she forges ahead with her ridiculous plan to get security footage from a nearby laundromat in order to get the cab’s license plate. She goes on this mission with Alex, who eventually confirms that he’s indeed supposed to be a conflicting love interest for Sutton when he figures out she’s dating Richard and says it’s too bad because he wanted to kiss her. Alex and Sutton no doubt have charming chemistry (more than Richard and Sutton do), but Alex is still a shell of a character. Ultimately, I like Richard’s somewhat passive role in Sutton’s character development. He’s around to offer advice and his support, but she remains very independent, determined to make her own decisions, even if they’re risky. She gets the pendant back and proves herself to Oliver, who is impressed for all of three seconds. Have I mentioned I love Oliver?
Inspired by a text from Adena, Kat starts posting photos that will trick Instagram into flagging and deleting the posts. Her mission to expose Instagram’s sexist censorship rules is honorable and all, but the truly important takeaway here is that Kat and Adena are still texting. Kat and Adena may have ended their relationship, which hadn’t even had a real chance to start, in a whirlwind at the end of last episode, but it clearly isn’t over. The Bold Type hasn’t forgotten about Kadena, and Kat is fooling herself if she thinks the two can get away with just being friends. They’re clearly still flirting through their messages, and isn’t Adena supposed to be in Paris to smooth things over with her girlfriend Coco? Texting Kat every second of the day seems counterproductive to that goal. She may be out of sight, but Adena is far from out of mind.
After Jane’s explosion in the bullpen, Jacqueline tells Jane to take a walk, doesn’t let her come back to the office for the rest of the day, and tells her to make herself available for a meeting the following night. That mysterious meeting turns out to be an invite into Jacqueline’s personal life. Jane meets Jacqueline’s husband, her two sons, her poodle Frida, and sees the Scarlet queen’s absurdly beautifully apartment. Jacqueline demonstrates that she’s willing to let Jane into her private life to an extent, but she still keeps professional boundaries in place. (Fashion side note: Jacqueline’s casual at-home look — a buttoned white tank with ankle jeans and gold bangles — is one of my favorite outfits she has rocked.) Jane and Jacqueline have a moving conversation about fear. Jacqueline points out that Jane is so detail-oriented, that she craves control, that she loves to have as much information as possible. It’s easy to extrapolate that a lot of these defining qualities of Jane likely have something to do with losing her mother at such a young age. Cancer destabilizes control.
Jacqueline also ends up having an important conversation with Kat the next day about walking back her social media crusade against nipple-censoring policies. Kat is a loud and proud feminist, and she often uses social media to get out important messages, but in the process, she sometimes forgets about the very real people at the center of the issues she’s fighting for. She wants to use breast cancer patients who have had double mastectomies as props in her campaign, and Jacqueline points out that Kat has someone close to her for which this is much more than a hashtag.
Kat and Sutton eventually join Jane in the fashion closet for a pivotal moment. In every scene after her initial meeting with the doctor, Jane seems slightly off, distracted. Stevens plays that sense of being unmoored provocatively. In the fashion closet, she appears a little more focused. She asks Kat and Sutton if they’re busy, and Sutton replies “not too busy for you.” They join Jane on her doctor’s appointment, where she’s tested for the BRCA gene mutation. Jane records the appointment, hoping it can help someone else find the strength to go through with it. Kat and Sutton try to keep things light, joking around in a way that makes the whole thing feel more comfortable for Jane.
A week passes, and it’s time for the results. The Bold Type shocks by having Jane test positive for the gene. As the doctor details how to move forward with finding the best course of action, the focus remains on Jane as she digests the news. This is the second episode in a row to end with a very emotional blow for one of the characters, and The Bold Type’s determination to be a fun and sexy show that can also tackle real, meaningful conflict elevates the show from its initial premise. Afterward in the park, Jane declares that she’s going to keep living her life, that she feels good knowing and isn’t going to let it define her. It’s a much better and bolder ending than the alternative would have been. And the final words of the episode punctuate The Bold Type’s strong sense of self: “We don’t want to cause a riot.” “Sure we do.”