Locke & Key is a fantastic show for a lot of reasons, but what really gets me is how it captures the trauma experience of being the oldest child of traumatized parents.
In some ways you are a literal crash test dummy; your parents make a lot of mistakes with you that they learn not to make with your younger siblings. Sometimes you and your siblings’ experiences are so different it feels like you’re being gaslighted.
When the Locke kids were talking about their dad’s sea monster bedtime story, we find out Kinsey (and presumably Bode) got a happy ending, as opposed to the Grimm Fairytales version Tyler heard. We see Tyler’s flashback, where his dad dissociates and spins the story into something clearly reminiscent of his own trauma. By the time Kinsey is old enough to hear the same story, her dad has healed and gained enough wisdom to not repeat that mistake. But when Tyler tries to vocalize his experience to Kinsey, Kinsey is dismissive: “You remembered it wrong.”
I related to that so hard.
Another moment that really got me was during Tyler’s flashback to his conversation with the student who killed his dad. Tyler says: “I can never just make a mistake. You know, it’s like every little thing becomes a moral lesson. Kinsey’s perfect, but I can’t catch a break.”
This is literally the root of every single one of my (many) arguments with my dad when I was a high school junior and senior.
I’ve just never felt seen in this way before, and I’m really grateful to see my own experience reflected here.
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Locke & Key and the Thematic Sanitizing of YA
I’ve been noticing lately that modern YA is strangely sanitized. While obviously it makes sense that content designed for younger audiences would have either less sexual/violent content, or a complete lack of the two, I’m particularly interested in the thematic softening that regularly takes place in modern, popular YA series. YA is for people aged 12 - 18, everyone from tweens to actual adults. Why are some topics made easier to swallow or not dealt with at all? Why are some wholly internal struggles considered too “adult”?
I’m going to look at this with the help of Netflix. Netflix adapted the comic book series Locke and Key, a decidedly adult series. The adaptation is quite fun, and also quite clearly YA. By and large, this means that they greatly toned down the violence, removed an incident of sexual violence, and changed a few of the keys. This all makes sense when you’re aiming towards a younger audience. The story still holds up, and honestly I recommend the show.
But they also made some alterations to character’s internal, personal journeys. I challenge that these changes, which serve only to make the character’s journeys (or personalities) easier or more palatable, are not necessitated by making the series PG-13, and are a clear demonstration of this bizarre removal of any “difficult” topics from YA.
[Spoilers for Comic & Show Follow]
In both the comics and the show, Tyler is haunted by the fact that he joked to Sam, in a moment of teenage frustration, to kill his (Tyler’s) dad. The inciting incident of the whole series is Sam murdering Tyler’s father, Rendell. Tyler goes through months not knowing if Sam took him seriously and if he is in any way responsible for his father’s death.
In the comics, in a later showdown, Sam uses this fact to taunt Tyler. He tells Tyler that the last thing Sam ever said to Rendell was that Tyler told him to kill him. That the last thing Rendell EVER heard was that his own son wanted him dead. An important fact - while we see almost every moment of the murder in flashbacks in the comic, we don’t actually see this happen. So it is left intentionally and forever ambiguous, for both the reader and Tyler, if Sam really did say that to Rendell or if he is just saying that to fuck with Tyler’s head.
However, in the show, Sam goes out of his way to explicitly and unambiguously explain to Tyler that not only did he never say anything of the sort to Rendell, he didn’t even remember Tyler making that joke to him. The joke played no part in anything. He completely absolves Tyler of any possible involvement, influence, or effect on his own father’s death.
Since this wasn’t a removal of gore or violence or sexual content, just an internal struggle of a character, I have to wonder - why the softening? In both versions, they keep the setup to the whole situation. And I want to be clear, the comics do not blame Tyler for his father’s death. It is very clearly Sam’s own unhinged choices, and the manipulations of the Key House, that lead to Rendell’s death. But Tyler doesn’t get the easy absolution he gets in the show, and has to learn how to move through his own grief. He has to choose whether to believe Sam or not, and how to process and handle his own choices.
I argue that this topic isn’t inappropriate for a YA audience. The intended audience could very well relate to, and grapple with, this theme of regrets and the non-answers death often leaves us with.
How many people have, in real life, said or not said something and regretted it in the face of someone’s death? And how many people, when processing the death of a loved one, often blame themselves for things that are ultimately either random chance, or the responsibility of someone else? “If only I hadn’t asked them to run and pick me up something from the store, then the wreck wouldn’t have happened. If only I had convinced them to stay, they wouldn’t have gone out in the snow storm. If only, if only, if only...”
The comic’s choice to leave what really happened ambiguous for both the audience and Tyler is masterful - in life, when you lose someone, particularly if its suddenly, there’s going to be unanswered questions. Unresolved sins. There are going to be regrets. The show, in what is ultimately a move that just makes a tragic and sudden death less tragic and sudden, de-fangs this whole struggle.
Bridge to Terebithia, written for ages 10 and up, allows its 11-year-old protagonist more ambiguous regret and grief than a YA horror-fantasy show allows for its 17-year-old protagonist. The character makes an understandable choice that causes him to blame himself for his friend’s death. Yes, the book is fucking sad and will probably make you cry - but kids lose their friends. Katherine Paterson knew that and wanted to give kids a chance to explore it through fiction. Locke and Key recognized that kids lose their parents, and angsty teenagers can lose their parents, and they might have said some things they really regret and have to live with after the fact.
What’s more interesting, and what’s a richer story for an audience? Seeing a character you relate to with a similar struggle learn to overcome that struggle through emotional growth and self-forgiveness? Or having the character get a get-out-of-jail free card that the audience member watching will literally never be able to get, because if your parents die in real life, the accident, illness, or person that killed them is not going to show up three months later to absolve you personally of anything you ever said or did?
It doesn’t make it better, it doesn’t make it more relatable, and ultimately, it babies the audience. It acts as if they could not emotionally handle, through fiction, a character having to live with a very real regret.
There are other examples throughout the series, but this is already long enough. I guess my ultimate point is that I’ve been seeing instances like this - not letting characters have real flaws, taking selfish motivations and transforming them, removing hard questions or situations, as a reoccurring, weird watering down of a lot of content for YA audiences. It’s absurd to act like tweens and teens cannot handle in fiction what many handle and/or experience in real life. Comforting fiction is great, but not all fiction needs to be that, needs to wrap up with a sitcom bow. A fantasy-horror series seems like the perfect example of a show that does not need to go easy on its audience when it comes to something like death-related regrets.
Anyway, like I said, I do actually recommend the show. But these kinds of changes weren’t necessary, and make what could have been a really good show and make it just a romp worth a binge, and are indicative of a larger and stranger trend in YA. Also, if you don’t mind more explicit content, I absolutely recommend the comics. Good horror, good art, good characters.
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