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Maximum Harm: The Toxic Maternal Instinct of Therapists in Daredevil and The Punisher

I have a particular interest in feminine aggression and how women's ways of destruction differ from the masculine baseline of beatings, gunfights, and demolition of infrastructure. The Netflix Marvel shows have been universally strong in depicting women as realistic, complicated, and aggressive in uniquely feminine ways.

Of course, the heroines like super-powered Jessica Jones and driven Karen Page exemplify these qualities, but so too do the female villains--the ones who know they are villains... and those who think they're on the side of the angels.

Daredevil Season 3 and The Punisher Season 2 have an important connection that struck me (other than being Marvel shows on Netflix): They both feature a female psychologist whose overabundance of care for her psychopathic patient results in great harm being wrought on the populace. I don't think it's a coincidence that there is a fair bit of overlap in the writers for these two shows (all 12 writers for Punisher also were part of the team for Daredevil).

As a writer myself and an editor for other writers, I know that themes often pop up more than once in an author's collection and it seems one or more of the Marvel writers share my irritation with the lack of accurate modern depictions of female destruction.

I mentioned the psychiatrist in Dareveil in my review of Season 3. She is brought in to treat a pre-teen Benjamin Poindexter after he accidentally killed his baseball coach with a ricocheting curveball. His therapist, Eileen Mercer, is assigned to treat him, as Dex is a ward of the state. Eileen is not a stupid woman and is not portrayed as such. She identifies almost immediately that rather than being traumatized, Dex is perfectly fine with his coach's death. She sees that Dex does not love. And he simply doesn't understand why other people do. Dex is a psychopath. 

It's what happens after Dex freely admits to her that he killed his coach on purpose that reveals her unintentional destiny to put the general public in danger:

In watching Dex's nonplussed demeanor, Eileen understands immediately he is a psychopath. And instead of recommending he be removed from decent people, she tries to help him. It seems she does this out of love, with the idea that he can be aimed in the right direction. But she's fooling herself. She doesn't aim him anywhere. She teaches him to mimic normal human emotions he doesn't feel, like empathy. She teaches him to hide his absolute disregard for other people behind a structured job and a script for human interaction. Even on her deathbed, he wants to kill her because she is leaving him. She is not meeting his needs.

Even more diabolical is the Punisher's Dr. Krista DuMont who is assigned to rehabilitate the psyche of rogue assassin Billy Russo after his season one run-in with the Punisher left him in a coma, with amnesia, and devastating scars on his face. Krista's pathological need to "fix" Billy takes on a different tone than Eileen's relationship with Dex. Not only is Billy a grown man, but also (prior to his scarring) unambiguously handsome. He's also a former Marine Operator and still has the body of a Greek god. Though Krista calls all her patients "wounded birds" and treats them as such, it's not difficult to figure out why she would devote herself so entirely to Billy's recovery. Even after meeting Agent Nadami, the woman Billy seduced and then shot in the head, Krista tells everyone who will listen that Billy is "her patient" is "different now" and "deserves redemption."

Yes, of course he does. You thirsty bitch.

But the writers weren't so lazy as to write Krista off as a case of a cush gone bad. Like Eileen, they paint her as The Devouring Mother, an archetype that has been around for centuries. Most non-literature or religious scholars have only come to know about it thanks to Jordan Peterson's books and lectures. In explaining the apparent inability for Millenials to deal with any opinions that conflict with their own, overcome even minor adversity, or tolerate ambiguity, he points to the hovering and permissive tendencies of their Gen X and Baby Boomer parents and the proliferation of single mothers.

In doing everything for their children, the devouring mother paints herself as the ultimate caregiver, one who will do anything to help their children. But this willingness comes at a terrible price. As Peterson explains it: "I'll do everything for you to make sure you never leave me."

We see this in both of Marvel's toxic female psychiatrists. Eileen continues to "treat" Dex long after he ages out of the foster care system, telling herself she is helping him keep his psychopathy under control. "You have a moral compass," she tells him. "It just needs to be pointed in the right direction." Of course, she is the one who can do the pointing. Even on her death bed, she is giving him instructions on what type of job to pursue and to continue listening to their session tapes for guidance. She does give him the name of another therapist. But she'd been treating him for more than ten years. She knew he would never tolerate talking to anyone else.

And Krista... there is no professional or ethical boundary she does not cross. And she feels righteous when she does it. She is the arbiter of right and wrong. The only one fit to judge Billy and decide his fate. Anyone else who comes along with a different idea... well, she deals with that as any loving mother would.

A good villain is a key part of any good narrative, whether in book, film, or tv series form. But it is the truly outstanding narratives that feature villains that work as cautionary tales. The ones who show us that fabled road to perdition and the carcasses of good intentions that pave it.

Let's hope Disney Plus revives these outstanding Marvel series in the future. They're too good not to continue.




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