Episode Analysis She-Hulk: The Retreat
She-Hulk's seventh episode is great until it goes off the rails with an ending that brings the entire series into question.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for She-Hulk through episode 7 and all of the MCU. Read at your own risk.
BIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE DISCUSSES SEXUAL ASSAULT
Y’all I don’t even fucking know. And in case you missed the warning above be aware we’re going to talk about rape because for some fuck unknown reason the show decided to go there.
How do I talk about this episode? Because it was legitimately a great ep until it extremely was not. I feel like a restaurant critic spending time talking about the expertly handled subtle notes of rosemary and juniper berries in the balsamic glaze reduction which paired wonderfully with the Merlot until the moment Gordon Ramsey came out and took a dump in the middle of my steak. Can you even talk about the good when it gets covered in shit? Is it even responsible to given the shit in question?
I went through some debate on this and the side I’m coming out on is that because the episode was actually good until the final reveal I’m going to separate the two. And the reason being that I am a big believer in highlighting when things go well and acknowledging when it may not be the fault of everyone involved when they go poorly (good set design is good set design even if the plot is poor, for example).
So with a huge caveat that I’m giving so much benefit of the doubt that I’m stretching that term to absurd levels, I will talk about what worked with She-Hulk: The Retreat and then talk about the giant shit they took all over it.
Why She-Hulk: The Retreat Was A Great Episode Until It Wasn’t
Up until the final moments of the show I loved this episode. I thought it was the strongest one yet, in fact. It hit on all the right cylinders (is that even the metaphor? Let’s just go with it.) It was even a great counter example to the issues I raised last week with Just Jen in how the show had yet to strike a consistent tone for story, pacing, or comedy in a way to suggest it knew what kind of sitcom it wanted to be.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the strongest episode of the season came in an episode where Tatiana Maslany was allowed to act most of her scenes without the CGI getting in the way. Nor is it a coincidence that it’s an episode where the attorney part of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law was barely a factor.
But it was a story! It had character development! It had good jokes! It had references to things from the comics where they actually did something with them instead of flashing them on the screen like a reflex test to see how quickly the audience recreates the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme!
While I was watching I wrote in my notes that this was clearly a stronger writer and finding out it was Zeb Wells confirmed it. In addition to being a comics writer Zeb has experience with - say it with me now because we’ve been here before - Robot Chicken. Even more significant, he worked on Super Mansion, which was by the same production company.
In hindsight I’m facepalming for not thinking to mention Super Mansion before as a point of comparison to what She-Hulk is trying to do. But in my defense MODOK was the clearer example given that it was both a sitcom and Marvel specifically. In contrast Super Mansion uses off brand superheroes (A Batman type, a Captain America type, and so on) to get to the same place.
If you can watch episodes of Super Mansion I do recommend it though because it is hilarious in and of itself (the Thanksgiving episode alone consistently renders me unable to breathe from laughing so hard). It, like MODOK, shows how you can successfully meet the goals of being a sitcom, having characters with depth, and winking references to comics that manage to be funny even if you don’t know what the reference is.
I will give one caveat though which is that, unlike MODOK, Super Mansion is a bit more on the side of South Park style adult humor. To give an example the Cheetah type character is named after a vulgar term for the female anatomy - but not the one you’re thinking of.
Anyway, point being it stands out how Zeb actually has experience writing stories and specifically sitcom style stories and was thus able to produce an episode of She-Hulk which felt consistent. This in comparison to Dana Schwartz who, though incredibly funny, had a harder time handling the sitcom format.
The ability to handle character depth also came out in how this is the first episode where we actually understand what Jen thinks about She-Hulk. And I have a lot of thoughts there, particularly with regards to how this has been a weak point of the show for six straight episodes and how last week’s episode in particular was a wasted opportunity, but talking about it this week feels like I’m once again waxing poetic about the balsamic glaze which now has a kernel of corn floating in it.
I’ll also give a shout out to Anu Valia for directing. All of the actors were able to give good performances, the comedy beats hit perfectly, all in all well done. It looks like her one weak ep was a one off and that’s great. I’m always happier when things are good.
But this gets us to the thing that was not good. Fucking hell.
The Ending of She-Hulk: The Retreat - What the Fuck?
You know what’s a fun thing to do? Come off having watched a great episode of a sitcom and have to google explanations for rape by deception just in case you need to educate people that that is in fact what happened. The show had Jennifer Walters be raped. And then, for added fun, threw in the part about how pictures of her unconscious naked body are now on the internet.
The fuck. The fuck.
Look, I am going to be extremely generous and wait until the final two episodes have aired before passing full judgement on this. I don’t want to go off on a rant about how they’re going to handle this because I cannot even guess how they are going to handle this. Because I cannot even guess why they did this.
I’m not saying you can’t ever have stories about female superheroes that include sexual assault. It’s a foundational component of Black Widow’s backstory in both the MCU and the comics. Natasha is a woman who manages to become a hero in spite of the extreme violations her body and mind were put through since she was a child. Her story is about her development and strength as she turns away from what she was programmed to be.
Likewise you’ve got Jessica Jones where we see the impact of the trauma of prolonged rape and assault, which is another valid and interesting story to have about a female hero. But again in that case the story was still about Jessica and it was a conscious decision to show the aftermath and how someone has to fight to get through it in the hopes of someday, maybe, finding a place of healing.
What you don’t do is throw it on a female character for no reason. And there is, in fact, no reason this had to happen. In last week’s episode Jen was so drunk she couldn’t change into Hulk without effort. Why wouldn’t Josh have tried taking her blood then? Especially when she was so wasted she had small likelihood of remembering she even met the guy?
No, people in production sat down and said instead of doing it last week it was going to be this week. And it was specifically going to happen after they had sex. Which means someone not only thought this was a good idea but a better one.
I repeat: what the fuck?
The other thing you can’t do is go around doing a Don’t Worry Darling style press tour about how sex positive your show is when the aftermath of your female protagonist dating and deciding to sleep with a guy is that she gets punished with sexual assault and her nudes plastered on an incel run website.
(Don’t come at me with how it was Jen’s bare back. First, that was still her unconscious naked body so it counts no matter what. Second, this is a Disney+ show so they aren’t going to show full frontal. The implication is still there.)
Also the fact that Jen gets punished for wanting to have sex as Jen puts a pall over when she tried having sex as She-Hulk. The guy having a “meh” reaction to Jen instead of She-Hulk was fine. But when you pair it with Jen’s sexual assault you now have two for two on your female protagonist wanting to have sex and ultimately having no pleasure from it. That’s not sex positive.
I keep wanting to get into further details like how making the guy who raped her a member of that incel site even furthers the insult, because people who are on those types of sites think that they are Josh: handsome, successful, and able to teach any woman a lesson about her place as nothing but a sperm receptacle. Like it doesn’t matter if the next two episodes are nothing but She-Hulk turning Josh into a smear on the pavement, it’s still a win for these kinds of people that Josh fucked her.
But even getting into those details is like analyzing the consistency of the shit sitting on my dinner plate because really the issue is there shouldn’t be shit on my dinner plate.
What the fuck, show.
I feel really weird about having this section this week. “Other than the rape, the use of ‘Abomaste’ was funny!” doesn’t sit right, you know?
So yeah. See you after episode eight, I suppose.