‘I Am Not Okay With This’ tackles mental health and the supernatural

March 30, 2020, 10:37 p.m.

Major spoilers ahead for season one of “I Am Not Okay With This.” 

Netflix has been pioneering an influx of new shows, almost to an overwhelming volume. One of its most recent genres of choice is the superhero teen drama, a genre that brings the sensational graphic novel to life. We’ve seen it in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and Netflix’s own “The End of the F***ing World,” to name a couple. It’s a jarring genre for those who aren’t familiar with the comics, as the protagonist usually appears to be a conventional small-town geek who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the hormonal teenagers around them, only to unexpectedly possess an element of the exaggerated supernatural. 

From the director of “The End of the F***ing World” and writers of “Stranger Things,” Netflix brings us “I Am Not Okay With This” — and I am so okay with this. If you enjoyed “The End of the F***ing World,” you’ll definitely enjoy this show. Director Jonathan Entwhistle has a style unique to these works that perfectly portrays a sublime hopelessness and a recklessness in adolescence that celebrates the ostracized.

Despite its strengths, however, the show has a fairly weak start (as most graphic novel adaptations do). The pilot episode thrusts us into a cliche monologue characterized by unapologetic teen angst that we’ve seen many times before. Our protagonist Syd couldn’t care less about the theatrics of high school, and, like any other underdog story, home life isn’t any better. However, the show takes an interesting and pivotal turn with the introduction of Syd’s new friend Stan, weaving in adolescent exploration of friendship, sexuality and emotional processing. And if this cast of characters alone isn’t enough to keep us watching in the beginning, perhaps the foreshadowing images of our protagonist running down the street covered in blood might be. 

What is most fascinating about this show, though, is how the fiction of the supernatural reads as nonfiction of mental illness. Syd’s superpowers that color the graphic novel aspect of the show’s source material are in fact quite metaphorical. Director Jonathan Entwhistle chooses to portray Syd’s supernatural powers as manifestations of her anxiety. Her kinetic powers are directly connected to her mental state; when she falls into a panic attack or slips into another depressive anxiety, the world around her reacts. Her “superpower” is a physical manifestation in the real world of her deteriorating mental health and anger issues. As she bottles up the anxiety to the point where, as the expression goes, she literally feels like she needs to explode, she does — she lets loose a burst of supernatural energy that causes everything around her to explode and break. Further, as she learns of the precursors or triggers to signal another one of these supernatural outbursts, she repeats a mantra to calm herself down that is much like the mantra one repeats to oneself during a panic attack: calm down, Angelina, calm down, you just need to calm down. Syd’s supernatural outbursts really aren’t all that supernatural aside from the literal damage done — they’re just like panic attacks. The moment she feels it erupting within her mind, she just needs to isolate herself, lock up and breathe.

Furthermore, perhaps it is the source of Syd’s kinetic superpowers that speaks to their metaphorical relationship to mental health. Syd has absolutely no control over her powers. Following the physical repercussions of her mind triggering the wall behind her to crack open, Syd says helplessly, “I can’t control it. It controls me.” Although she may be referring literally to her superpowers that she can’t control, it also seems to be a conscious choice on Entwhistle’s part to suggest it is her emotions she can’t control as well. Further, the more she seeks to control it, the less control she has — and her anxiety intensifies. When Syd falls apart, so does her world. And in many ways, this is the reality of spiraling mental health unattended. 

The most critical epiphany in the show emerges when we learn more details of Syd’s father’s death. This is a crucial point in the narrative, as we now realize Syd’s story is framed within her father’s. The show takes an unsettling turn when Syd’s mother reveals her father killed himself because of PTSD and the ensuing depression that plagued him. This is a frightening scene and a turning point in Syd’s life because, in an eerie voiceover, Syd reveals this is exactly what she is going through — an unexplainable mental health issue that the show initially set up as merely an unexplainable supernatural power. Her mother, unaware of Syd’s own deteriorating mental health, tells her that her father killed himself because of what she herself is going through right now. This creates an eerie undertone, as Syd explains to Stan that she feels as though someone is constantly following her, a physical figure present only when her powers show up. In many ways, yet again this is the metaphor taking shape in physical manifestations of her father haunting her, the memory of him following her in her panic attacks. The trauma of his death still hangs over her head; she still sees him all around her, especially when she is at her lowest mental moments of grief (“grief hallucinations,” as her guidance counselor calls them). Whereas before we thought Syd was on the incline with Stan beside her, we now fear she might not be able to escape the path her father set her up for, the path he himself fell upon. 

Syd’s mother’s understanding of her father’s PTSD juxtaposed with Stan and Syd’s understanding of her mental spiraling creates an interesting gap in understanding between the adult perspective and uninformed adolescent perspective. The show very cleverly portrays the innocent adolescent trying to make sense of mental health through Syd and Stan’s comical exploration of her superpowers, as Stan throws out all the possible explanations for her superpowers from his comic books — radioactive spider bite? No. Galactic goo? No. It is as if mental illness is such a strange, weird, unnatural thing that needs to be explained by something just as strange, weird and unnatural to make sense. 

But we can’t talk about the show without talking about the ending. Needless to say, it is a wild and totally unexpected end. But, it is also the exact type of scene to expect from a graphic novel. The ridiculousness of the violence is completely unexpected, as this show bends the graphic novel genre so as to become almost uncannily realistic enough that we forget about the supernatural momentarily — until Syd wills her jock antagonist Brad’s head to literally explode, shocking us back into the graphic novel world of the story. This moment feels a bit like a deus ex machina, as the instant explosion of Brad saves Syd from what would’ve created a new set of problems for her to deal with. It is an abrupt, chaotic and totally ridiculous turn of events that almost all too perfectly resolves the current problem, but it does set in motion a much larger cliffhanger that sets up a second season to answer. It does feel, though, that consequently in true Netflix fashion, the show might be seeking to do too much with too little. 

“I Am Not Okay With This,” as the title highlights, is a social commentary on mental health. Throughout the entire seven episodes, Syd’s mind runs wild. She has no grip on her emotions and mental stability, and the physical world around her reacts destructively to this. Syd is falling into a depression triggered by the trauma of her father’s suicide, and she is not okay with it. She is not okay with her supernatural powers that destroy the world around her, she is not okay with her panic attacks and she is not okay with her lack of control. But at the end of the day, perhaps what she — and we — must learn is that it is okay. It is okay because it’s not our fault that we don’t have control over our emotions and mental health. No one is made the same; there’s no one we “should” be. As Syd realizes, “I tried. I tried to be normal. But I’m just not wired that way.” Although she first says this dejectedly, by the end of her journey this becomes less of an evil curse and more simply a personality trait. Sometimes, we’re just made different, and we just need to figure out our way in this world with what we’ve got.

Contact Angelina Hue at ahue ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Angelina Hue is a staff writer for Arts & Life’s Film beat. She likes to poke and prod films as it is, so she’s happy she can write those thoughts down here. One of her favorite things to examine is how visual storytelling synthesizes art and narrative. She enjoys all things film, television, and books. Contact her at ahue ‘at’ stanford.edu, or find her on Twitter: @anjialina.

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