Monday, September 20, 2021

‘Nancy Drew’: How the Series Created the Best Mental Health Storyline on Television

This article discusses anxiety and depression, with brief mention of suicidal ideation. If you’re struggling with feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide, you’re not alone. Call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741741.

For as long as there have been horror stories, the monsters within them have been used as stand-ins for issues like racism, homophobia, and mental illness. The CW’s Nancy Drew is in a unique position to tell these stories due to its inexhaustible supply of things that go bump in the night. The series has tackled tough topics throughout its run using various monsters and ghosts as catalysts for plot action, but nowhere has it been more effective than Nancy’s struggle with an entity known as the wraith in season 2.

Nancy Drew’s writing staff and its lead actor Kennedy McMann committed fully to exploring the impact mental illness has on the person living with it through Nancy’s journey. The season delves into the way depression clouds the world and influences our actions while deconstructing the image of Nancy Drew, giving us a modern and nuanced look at a legacy character. To pay tribute to this feat of storytelling, let’s dive into how Nancy Drew unpacked the stigma surrounding mental illness and ultimately gave a message of hope to its audience.

The Perfect Daughter

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Nancy Drew is portrayed as nearly perfect in most media, from her books to other filmed adaptations. She’s the plucky ideal daughter and friend who solves mysteries to help others. Her squeaky clean reputation is used as a shorthand for an annoying goody two shoes in other shows and films. But what’s missing from many portrayals of Nancy is her reason for seeking the truth. Why does Nancy care so much about solving mysteries? What is driving her to seek the darkness? Is it a sense of altruism — or is it something else entirely?

Shane Harvey /The CW

From the minute we meet this version of Nancy, it’s clear there’s more to her than the perfect teen sleuth we’re used to seeing. She’s adrift at the start of the series, waiting tables at The Claw when her mother’s death shatters her college ambitions. It initially seems that it was this one event that made her life move off course, but subtle hints are planted that show Nancy has always struggled with her mental health. We see in a flashback that Nancy was asking her parents about death from a very young age in the context of her mother’s health struggles. But this fascination with death also exists because of her drive to ask “why” when confronted with the unknown to alleviate her anxiety.

Her perfectionism is a trauma response, with her father Carson noting that when 13-year-old Nancy witnessed a terrifying monster kidnapping a child she later saved, her first instinct was to suppress the memory. This is metaphorically expressed by the monster she was chasing erasing the memory, depriving her of the chance to heal. Young Nancy insisted she was fine, even in the face of Carson and Kate taking her to therapy, expressly giving her permission to not be okay. Even though Nancy was not told about the circumstances surrounding her birth, little Nancy could sense something wasn’t right. Later, Nancy says that her passion for solving mysteries came from this disconnect she was feeling, “because my own truth was kept from me. And I knew that. On some level, I’ve always known.”

Dean Buscher/The CW

After the events of her childhood, Nancy did what is so common in those living with mental illness. She channeled her anxieties into being the perfect daughter. But her mother’s death shatters the defenses she built up, and her normal coping mechanisms don’t work for her anymore. She looks for comfort with Nick, who is stable enough to offer her a safe harbor but “dangerous” enough to give her an escape from a life she feels disconnected from (as she tells Nick in the pilot). Her self esteem is low despite her outward achievements, and she has no ability to deal with her emotions. Carson warns Nancy early on that, “Whatever you’re feeling, you can carry it with you, but you can’t let it consume you,” but Nancy prefers to bury it so deeply that she doesn’t feel it at all.

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It’s her alienation that ultimately leads Nancy to solve the Lucy Sable mystery and put the pieces together about her true origins as Lucy and Ryan Hudson’s daughter. It’s fascinating to see the many parallels between Nancy and Lucy’s journeys, especially with regards to how both struggled with depression and hopelessness. Lucy experienced suicidal ideation because she felt alone, even though we see that she had many people willing to help her (including Carson and Kate). Nancy is not portrayed as having suicidal thoughts, but like Lucy, she can’t see the support she has around her. Her friends would do anything for her, and she would do anything for them, but Nancy doesn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily choose to stay in her life.

This is why Carson not being her biological father devastates her. Nancy sees Carson’s love for her as a lie because it is not based in something irrefutable like biology. To Nancy’s brain, this is just more proof that any love she has gotten from others is a lie somehow, that she is not worthy of that love without a link like genetics. Additionally, she is convinced that her fate is to be evil because the Hudsons have done terrible things. The discovery pushes her further from her biggest source of support right when she needs Carson the most and kicks off Nancy’s arc towards finding herself again in season 2.

Stalked by the Wraith

Colin Bentley/The CW

Nancy falls deeper into darkness when she confronts the wraith for the first time in Gorham Woods. Forced to give voice to her deepest fear, Nancy says, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid of me. I’m afraid that I don’t know who I am, and that I’m just the worst parts of all of them.” Nancy and the audience don’t realize it at the time, but the wraith latches on to this fear and secretly stays with Nancy, acting as a parasite for the rest of the season.

Nancy’s romantic relationship with Gil Bobbsey demonstrates that the wraith is exploiting her insecurities. The writers tactfully explore an emotionally abusive relationship from the inside as Nancy’s friends can see what’s happening with Gil — but Nancy can’t. The wraith hides Gil’s rage and the way he puts her down in the same way that depression makes it difficult to see the world as it is (or see a way out). She knows he’s bad for her somewhere deep down, but she can’t summon the energy to fight for herself.

But the biggest turning point for Nancy occurs when she goes back on her testimony against Everett Hudson. This lie is so far from the Nancy we have grown to love, and she knows it. Nancy betrays every belief she has ever had. It causes her to spiral in shame, particularly because she worries about what Kate would have thought of her actions. It all culminates in her birthday party breakdown where Carson calls Nancy her parents’ “better angel,” and Nancy allows her anger and sadness to take control as she wallows in guilt.

Shane Harvey/The CW

It’s here that the Dark Nancy storyline takes hold. Nancy is angry at what is happening to her and is scared because she doesn’t know why she can’t feel anything. Her anger gives her a purpose and drives her forward, and Nancy leans into the darkness because she doesn’t see the point in living in the light anymore. But even when she brings Everett to justice, it’s not enough to end the numbness she feels. In a wrenching speech to Carson, she tries to articulate how scared she is of the person she’s becoming.

“I thought it would feel different. I mean, I did it, I brought Everett to justice, and I don’t … I don’t feel anything. No anger, no satisfaction. Not even relief, just nothing. [sobs] I don’t know who I am anymore. And after what I did today, all I keep thinking is, ‘What would Mom think?’ What is wrong with me?”

But Nancy Drew’s true brilliance in how it portrays Nancy’s mental illness is revealed as Carson holds her tight and tells her, “Nothing we can’t fix.” From here on out, Nancy has the full support of her friends and family as they discover the wraith and its influence on her. They spring into action with supernatural cures. We even get a physical manifestation of the pain Nancy has been in emotionally all season as she gets sicker. It’s the perfect metaphor for how mental illness can suck the life from you internally without anyone noticing on the outside.

Facing The Darkness

Colin Bentley/The CW

But ultimately, Nancy needs to go on a journey through her own mind to get rid of the wraith. It’s symbolic of how even though support from others is crucial, the road to living with mental illness is a path that has to be traveled alone. The dream version of Nick tells Nancy this is something she has to do on her own before she literally pulls herself out of her mother’s grave. The show also dispels the notion that those with a mental illness are somehow lesser or irreparably damaged. Nancy tells dream Ace that, “I was born broken. And that’s why all these pieces of me are broken.” But dream Ace responds with two of the most powerful lines on the show.

“You weren’t born broken. You’re hurt, maybe. But in the end, the only way to heal is to let that pain become love … It’s time to kick the monster out of your house.”

We find out that Nancy locking away the dark parts of herself represented by the four “Nancys” that reside in the dreamscape of her mind is what made her vulnerable to the wraith in the first place. By not dealing with her grief and emotions, the wraith got to those memories before Nancy even knew something was wrong. But it’s not as simple as cutting the wraith out and moving on. Nancy learns that killing the wraith without saving the Nancys will cut her off from many of the memories that make her the person she is. She finally realizes that while she can banish the wraith, the underlying trauma needs to stay in order for her to truly heal. She decides to embrace the other Nancys in a powerful statement.

“I didn’t want you to be a part of me. But if I destroy you, I destroy the pieces that made me who I am. Don’t be scared. I do have a choice, and I am bringing you with me. And I know it’ll be hard. Every day I’ll have to face the things I never wanted to. But I’m ready, and I have you now.”

She returns to the real world and tells the Drew Crew that she is strong enough now to live alongside her trauma rather than hide from it. Her journey isn’t over, and this is only the beginning of her recovery from her trauma. The show doesn’t present Nancy as “cured” of her mental illness. Rather, she has learned that she can’t outrun her feelings anymore and that she will need to face them to move forward.

A Revolutionary Portrayal

Shane Harvey/The CW

It is crucial to note that while the wraith manipulated Nancy in many ways, it could only feed off the anxiety that was already there. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s Nancy and what’s the wraith — and that’s the point. Depression and anxiety can be such a big part of who you are that it’s hard to distinguish what is you and what is your illness. The wraith is such an effective symbol for depression because it is a lurking monster that subtly influences all of Nancy’s actions, but it isn’t making her choices for her. Ultimately, Nancy is in control of her life even while being influenced by the wraith.

Nancy may have depression and anxiety, but she is not her illness. She’s still the Nancy we know the majority of the time, making the case that just because someone has an invisible illness it doesn’t mean their every action is defined by that illness. McMann’s portrayal of Nancy is one of the best and most realistic representations of anxiety and depression that I’ve seen on screen. The writers clearly put a lot of time and thought into developing Nancy’s character, but it’s McMann who brings her to life beautifully. McMann has been open about living with OCD and anxiety, and it’s clear the wraith storyline is something she wanted to explore.

Nancy Drew has always been a fantastic and entertaining show, but what Nancy Drew offered viewers this season was a hopeful message of how you can live with mental illness in a way that doesn’t destroy you. It tells the audience that no one is beyond saving and that they are worthy of love and support from others — a powerful message for a show that airs on a network watched primarily by teenagers and young adults. By daring to look at the darker edges around the Nancy Drew mythology, the show created a nuanced portrayal of mental health that will stand the test of time.

Nancy Drew seasons 1 and 2 are available now on HBO Max. Season 3 will premiere on October 8 at 9 p.m. EST on The CW. You can find our other coverage of the show including recaps and our rewatch series here!

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Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.

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