[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Dare Me” Episode 5, “Parallel Trenches.”]
The opening of each episode of “Dare Me” is its own pearl, presenting the audience with a mystifying piece of visual information that hints at where things might be heading. In the case of Episode 5, that image is a floating tooth, drifting — as some of the series central characters are, too. Unsettling in isolation and horrific in context, it’s just one of the many storytelling levels that this USA series has discovered for itself.
“I think we felt freer to be more abstract and surreal as it goes,” series co-creator and novel author Megan Abbott told IndieWire. “This show has gone somewhat into this sort of unconscious state, with dreams and the different POVs. It gives you a little more freedom to play. We’re all David Lynch fans among the room and the crew and everybody, so we would often talk about our David Lynch moment.”
This week’s episode takes that veneer of surreality and expands it out into a “Rashomon”-style exploration of a pivotal event, both in its foreboding lead-up and its devastating fallout. Orbiting around a shocking cheer accident that leaves Sutton Grove cheer squad member RiRi without a few of her front teeth, the episode peels back the curtain to reveal the psychological and physical precursors that also run through the lives of Addy (Herizen Guardiola) and Beth (Marlo Kelly).
What started as an idea to build off of the framework of Abbott’s novel became a way to marry the freedoms of writing and visual storytelling that episodic TV can afford.
“Lisa Lutz, who wrote the episode, and I worked on ‘The Deuce,’ — she pitched it and we all kind of jumped on it immediately. What mattered to us most was those devices are meaningless if you don’t have a purpose for them. And we really wanted that emotional landing with Beth when you really understand what she has been through, we really wanted to everything became about understanding Beth and what everyone else is not seeing,” Abbott said. “There was all this other stuff, honestly, that we would have loved to have done. But you realize that no one’s going to notice that because they’re actually doing what they should be doing, which is following the story. In the end, Olivia Newman, who directed it, had such wonderful ideas about color and camera that did so much that we didn’t really have to write all that.”
TV is an ideal venue for retelling a single series of events from slightly different perspectives. And it’s not the first time that series co-creator Gina Fattore has worked on an episode that takes this structure — she wrote the Season 3 episode of “Dawson’s Creek” that replays the day the school finds out that Joey and Pacey are dating. The context here in “Dare Me” is a little different, but the challenge remains the same — of finding the right balance between making something that works within the overall flow of the show before veering off into unexpected territory.
“When we were breaking the story, at every stage I was trying to track that the audience has seen four previous episodes of this show, so they have a sense of the rhythm of the storytelling. Some people who may watch more TV than others are going to pick up really quickly when there’s a deviation from that formula or style, and some people might not get it until much later on in the story,” Fattore said. “The people who are going to get it right away may be looking for clues earlier, but the other people who are just watching for the first act, it really should seem like the other episodes of the show. I love all that experimentation with with point of view and rewinding and realizing that we didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, so we’re giving you more.”
For Abbott, the events in this episode outlined some of the main differences between words on a page and experiencing “Dare Me” in this TV form. The novel deftly conveys the pain, both in small incremental bruises and outbursts like RiRi’s accident. But getting to translate those moments into something that can engage other senses became one of the more satisfying parts of making the show. “Dare Me” can show Beth demonstrating a bow-and-arrow technique and convey in 10 seconds through everyone’s reactions how significant a development that is.
“In a novel, it would take you a page and a half to get you there and it still would be relying on your ability to describe spatial elements,” Abbott said. “[On TV] everything is easier about that. In the sound, the power of the feet landing on the on the shoulder, the punch of it all. That all is just so much a part of it and says so much about the risk these young women are taking.”
While juggling viewpoints, this episode also engages with another idea in Beth’s storyline, as she comes to terms with what has happened to her. Navigating a complicated world of trauma and self-denial, “Dare Me” mirrors the outward violence that RiRi experiences with the violence that Beth is forced to internalize.
“It just seemed like a perfect fit in terms of examining the trauma that happens to teenage girls in our world, where we’re having a conversation right now about consent, which is amazing and great. That conversation was not happening when this book was first published,” Fattore said. “The great thing about a writers room is that you start to have conversations in your room, and you realize that there are so many different ways to tell the story. Something involving any kind of sexual trauma is a really fraught story that you want to handle with care and get many different perspectives, and so I think it became a sort of natural outgrowth that we thought, ‘Well, this is the time and the place to tell that story.'”
In addition to providing windows into the interior lives of other characters, this split-perspective episode also deepens the audience’s understanding of Addy. Guardiola has been tasked with playing multiple moments so far this season where Addy has faced a pivotal choice. Much like the ice-bath sequence a few episodes earlier, this chapter draws on Guardiola’s ability to take the internal struggle that the novel can make so explicit and translate enough of it to the surface to help the viewer track her complicated motives.
“I was worried I would end up at a place where we would have to soften that or make Addy always do the right thing,” she says. “And it’s been such a relief that we get to let her do all this because she’s figuring stuff out, in some ways, [that she] is the most morally complicated character because she doesn’t know herself yet in the way that, say, Beth does.”
Though this might be the season’s biggest swing from a structural perspective, Abbott says that she sees this as a reflection of where the second half of the season evolves from here. From director Steph Green’s work on the pilot to what Newman was able to do in blending the various storylines, that evolution shows how “Dare Me” has been able to stay connected to itself even as it’s drawn in other genre directions.
“When we were interviewing or meeting with directors and DPs in the early stages, we kept telling them that we wanted to show’s look to slowly morph from this to this dreamy adolescent feel to this noir, and this episode we always imagined as the pivot,” Abbott said. “It’s almost like there’s this sort of sharpness to the lens and all of a sudden, the lens gets shaken and nothing looks the same thereafter, which is how it is for Beth.”
“Dare Me” airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on USA.