Lately, I’ve been reading Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. It’s a fun series of books, starting with what is probably a modern classic of Every Heart A Doorway, and following several characters through the currently-published five books. What’s particularly notable about Wayward Children is the casual, cheerful representation; book one alone features a trans male character (Kade), an ace character (Nancy), characters with Japanese (Sumi) and Mexican (Christopher) roots, and later books feature fat representation (Cora), lesbian (Jack) and mental health representation all over the board (most notably, Jack has OCD). This is all framed against the basic premise of the series – that children who are vanished away to other worlds through various portals don’t always adjust well when they come back.
For the most part, I find Wayward Children incredibly validating. There’s a lot of Shenanigans, ideas about stories and the way narratives are “meant” to go, and overall, it feels like the kind of vibrant but complicated cast I’d fit in well with. Except… well… Then, there’s Jill.
Spoilers follow for the entire Wayward Children series – most relevantly, ‘Every Heart A Doorway’, ‘Down Among The Sticks and Bones’ and ‘Come Tumbling Down’.
Jack and Jill are – in so many ways – an examination of complex parental trauma. Forced into boxes they never wanted as a “matching set” of twins, one is the sporty, boyish one, and the other the sweet, scholarly, girlish one. When they end up at the Moors, they’re quick to take the chance to do something different. “Rough-and-tumble” Jill becomes the heiress of the Master, a vampire lord who runs his part of the Moors under his protection at a cost; meanwhile, Jack is taken in by mad scientist Dr. Bleak to be his apprentice and learn his craft.
Obviously, any story with vampires is going to exist in a certain cultural milieu. Even before getting the context of the backstory in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Jill’s fascination and obsession with returning to her Master is tinged with sexual subtext. She’s young, blonde, beautiful, in wispy dresses and silk – of course that subtext is there. Vampires as groomers and predators is an established trope; McGuire even makes a point of addressing it in Bones where the Master outlines his expectations from Jill, clarifies that none of them are sexual, and says she can leave whenever she wants.
But Jill’s story is much more complicated than just having been a monster’s plaything – and the fact that it’s distinctly not sexual just underlines that. Jack and Jill’s parents didn’t particularly care for them – and they get parental figures of their own who, in some way, appeal to who and what they want to be. That’s apparently how the doors work – they call to something in your heart, something unspoken and unsatisfied. For Jack, it’s a desire to put her scholarly interests into practice – to be useful, instead of just an ornament. For Jill, it’s more complicated. She wants to be a girl, not just as a tomboy who’s rejected by the girls and ignored by the boys, but somebody pretty and heartbreaking and devastating; and in her head, Jack’s always been that person. No wonder, then, that she made such an easy victim for the Master. She’s already habituated to following precise, careful orders – but unlike her parents, the Master returns obedience with affection, and offers what she perceives as freedom.
So much is obvious within the narrative. But there’s plenty that the narrative hints at but never commits to. Jill is obviously terribly lonely, and the townspeople are frightened of her; we are told that every time she makes a friend, they “mysteriously” die or are chased away, because the master wants his protege isolated. How are her own transgressions punished? And – most importantly – in the space between Bones and Every Heart A Doorway, does anybody affirm to her that this wasn’t normal?
Of course, we aren’t really supposed to be rooting for Jill. Jack is the one with a girlfriend, the wry sense of humour, the almost-friends in Christopher and Nancy and Kade. When Jack kills Jill at the end of Doorway, it’s Jack’s emotions that are given the space; when we re-enter their story at the beginning of Come Tumbling Down, it’s Jack in distress that we see first, Jack who a terrible cruelty has been done to. And at the end of CTD, when Jack makes the choice to kill Jill herself, Jack is Not Okay.
But what about Jill?
Don’t get me wrong. The end of Come Tumbling Down is beautifully written – a confrontation on top of a castle tower, a savage argument that ends in death – appropriately for the Moors, it’s straight out of an old horror movie. But I can’t help but be sad for Jill. Maybe I shouldn’t – maybe there are conversations we never see where she rejects real, proper chances to be better, not just casual attempts at friendship. Maybe there are conversations between Jack and Jill off-page where Jack shows some sympathy to Jill instead of just about her. Maybe there are even ones on-screen I’m forgetting. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Jill just didn’t react to her trauma in the “right” way. If you call your trauma trauma, you can go to the school mentioned at the beginning of Doorway, where children who want to forget about and move on from their journeys go. If you don’t, or you handled it alright, or it wasn’t that traumatic, Eleanor’s school for Wayward Children is right for you. Jill falls through the cracks; she wants to go home, but despite what Eleanor’s beliefs are – she really, really shouldn’t. So Jill’s told, over and over, that going home is the ideal; that everybody wants their door to come back – and nobody addresses what she would be going back to. Inadvertently, the school’s attitude reinforces what she already believes. She is nothing without the Master, and if she can’t be His, then she is nothing.
This is frustrating enough, but a detail in CTD makes it all the worse. At the end of Doorway, Jack kills Jill and takes her home to the Moors to be revived; now that she can no longer be a vampire, she’s safe from the mob and from the Master. And yet, the first thing she and Bleak do when they revive Jill is give her back to him. Moreover, we don’t see this scene directly – we just hear Jack’s retelling of it, as well as the scene where Jill takes Jack’s body. Nor do we see what the Master’s reaction to the “despoiling” of Jill’s body is. So why is this treated as Jill and only Jill’s crime? Not only has the Master made her options clear – “please me or be abandoned” – the only person she could even have hoped of as an ally kills her, revives her and thereby takes away her only option to make her Master happy, and then abandons her entirely.
Perhaps this is the only way it could have gone. Not every victim of abuse is a good person – and Jill has certainly done enough cruel things that she came to of her own will that something had to be done. Her murder of other students may have been the result of abandonment, but she still thought it up herself – and Alexis’s murder may have been to please her Master, but she chose Alexis specifically to spite Jack. But many of the characters in Wayward Children have done cruel or upsetting things – Kade was a warrior, Sumi led a rebellion, and Jack herself talks jokingly about vivisecting people. We just aren’t shown these terrible things on screen, leading to the unfortunate conclusion that “if it’s not somebody we know, it doesn’t matter”. In fact, this seems to be Jack’s logic, too. When she does bad things, it’s fine. When Jill hurts people, it’s some sort of deep character flaw – specifically because Jill hurts her loved ones. Jill is spiteful and bloodthirsty, but the narrative also puts her crimes at front and center, while neatly brushing off more “likeable” characters’ crimes under the carpet. Was Jill ever given options – and if she had been, with the right support, and the right character development, would she have taken them? It’s hard to say. But by CTD, she gets no narrative space of her own, and even Bones is primarily focused on Jack; Jill’s internal struggle and internal self remains a mystery.
I dislike this kind of Chosen Villain narrative as it is; it’s all the more upsetting, however, for how much Wayward Children otherwise focuses on ‘Light is Not Good, Dark Is Not Evil’, redeeming characters and breaking cliches. Not every story has to have a villain – nor is it fair to punish the “chosen” villain and not the person who deliberately and manipulatively made them that way. This isn’t the only case in media, either – Wrath, Envy, Lust and Greed from the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist series all fall into the same category as Jill, as well as Prince Lotor from Voltron: Legendary Defender and the ill-fated Haku and Zabuza from Naruto. They’re abuse victims and clearly shown, implied or even stated to be such; but the narrative kills them off anyway, because the way they’re dealing with their abuse is problematic and complicated in ways that the narrative doesn’t want to or doesn’t feel equipped to examine. This is all the more frustrating because these media also show sympathetic trauma survivors. Roy Mustang in FMA 2003 has clear and present PTSD; Gaara is given a second chance by the equally-traumatized Naruto; even VLD’s shaky handling of Shiro and Allura’s trauma exercises a thousandfold more compassion than its handling of Lotor. All of these narratives, Wayward Children included, unintentionally or otherwise set up a good/bad survivor narrative, and use this to decide who gets to live and who gets to die.
If Jill was to be a villain, we should have at least watched her make that choice – and have it be a true choice, somewhere along the way. Instead, she’s thrown from place to place, in search of a freedom that, unlike Jack, she never really got. At every step, she’s framed to us as the ‘bad’ survivor, the Evil survivor, and even if we’re not meant to cheer at her death, it’s framed as a grim necessity – when it’s unclear what other options were ever exercised other than “have fun, good luck”. Jill Wolcott deserved better. I rest my case.