Love and Repression in ‘Dare Me’

USA's Dare Me adaptation highlights the rage and darkness in unrequited love.

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In Dare Me, mistrust and danger are everyday occurrences in the lives of a cheerleading squad led by mean girl Beth (Marlo Kelly) and her best friend Addy (Herizen Guardiola). When new squad coach Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald) is introduced, fraught relationships implode and loyalties are tested. Based on Megan Abbott’s unique novel of the same name, USA’s adaptation brings Midwestern exploration of angst and jealousy to the small screen in a tantalizing way.

In episode three, set against a moment of intimacy between the two, Addy remembers something Beth once told her: “Love is a type of killing. And nobody makes it out alive.”. This idea is later proved to be true. Just as the ‘top girl’ in the squad experiences euphoria in a risky thrust towards the sky, love is as a hazardous leap into the unknown.

Dare Me is all rage, girlhood, and the electric chase of danger. With every turn in the plot, Beth and Addy become more interesting — there’s an addictive darkness around them that’s hard to shake. Something keeps calling us back: a promise that there’s something under the veneer. They live in a vacuum that begins and ends with each other; a perfect recipe for obsession.

Alison Thornton, Marlo Kelly, and Herizen F. Guardiola in Mutually Assured Destruction (2020)
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Dare Me is interested in fascination. In particular, Addy’s fascination with Coach — one that leads to a problematic lack of boundaries and, eventually, involvement in a death. From the moment Addy sets eyes on her, a quiet battle for desire and companionship begins.

Between Addy and Beth, Beth seems the poisonous one. She’s often awful: a bully, violent, cruel. She feels a need to cause pain. Addy participates, especially if it’s backing up Beth, but there’s not as much of a thrill in it for her. Addy, although pleased with the feeling of power she gets when belittling others, doesn’t care much for it.

It’s partly because she has little interest outside of her current infatuation with Coach — one that leads to a problematic lack of boundaries and involvement in Will’s (Zach Roerig) death. Addy molds herself around others, and her apathy and chameleon-like social tendencies are arguably scarier than Beth’s meanness. With Beth, there’s at least some apparent reasoning behind her actions. She’s deeply unhappy, and this is transparent in her self-destructive behavior — which Addy always ends up picking up the pieces after.

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It takes time to unravel Beth, and the more unraveled she becomes, the more sense she makes. Her presence is heavy, but the true nature of her behavior and the heartbreak behind it is stealthily pieced together throughout the show. In the book, the subtext stays aloof until the very end. But by episode seven of the show, Beth had already begun to crack. But, although faster than the source material’s, the exploration is still patient; her deterioration is gradual.

Dare Me spends time with Beth without the book’s unreliable narrator, so we get to see her from a perspective other than Addy’s. We see the stolen glances, boring days at home, and the absent father who is more attentive to Beth’s step-sister. Because of this additional context, the romantic tension between Beth and Addy — although still coded enough to slip past some viewers early on — is more obvious than it was on paper. Beth becomes more accessible; and the series drives home the fact Addy, despite being perceptive, doesn’t seem to notice (or want to notice) what’s in front of her. Addy is happy to ignore. Beth has had too much of that. The series is written the same way the book was, with piercing dialogue and implications underneath every act and choice.

What Beth feels for Addy, and what Addy feels for Coach — sometimes romantic, sometimes admiration, sometimes sexual — is ambiguous and intense. They live in a small town, so there’s not much else to do other than gossip, search for possibilities, and obsess over the interiority of others. All they have is their sport and each other. The squad’s bond is important even if it’s partly inauthentic. They’re loyal to one another, and loyalty is currency. Their poor transition into adulthood, and the misery it may hold, is perhaps already sealed by the lengths they go to just to feel something.

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Beth and Addy’s interactions are dynamite. They’re exciting to watch because most of their intent bubbles beneath the surface. The homoeroticism is palpable and suffocating. The truth shines through in short bursts that never quite last long enough to satisfy: prolonged eye contact, sly jabs, physical affection, and Beth’s eruption before taking the stage at regionals. Trying to savor a moment of actual expression from them is delightfully frustrating. Beth mines for reactions while Addy has mastered the art of blissful ignorance and deflecting.

While Addy and Beth’s friendship hinders on co-dependency and performative trust-falls, Addy’s interest in Coach is rooted in what she represents. And there’s really two of her: Coach, the leader Addy wants to imitate, and Colette, the softer woman Addy wants to be intimate with.

She’s beautiful, and her life from afar is too. But Coach isn’t infallible, far from it. She’s similar to her squad: relationships are calculated, she’s dangerously impulsive, and is victim to her own special type of boredom and insignificance. This, instead of turning Addy off, ignites a burning need to be involved with the good, the bad, and the ugly. She treats her as if she’s an interesting work of art that she can’t help but want to know on an impossibly deep level.

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The infatuation makes itself at home in every aspect of Addy’s life, and if Addy is busy thinking about who she associates with depth, she’s not paying attention to Beth. And Beth is someone who needs her attention.

Beth and Coach are in competition for Addy’s fondness, with Beth being the only one aware of it. Early in the season, when Coach tells Beth that she doesn’t interfere in her team’s personal life, Beth rolls her eyes. Coach has already interfered by being of interest to Addy. Beth wants her gone. She wants to spill the beans on Coach’s affair with Will just as much as she wants to be able to talk about the fact she’s in love with her best friend. What’s maybe most frustrating for her is that Coach is too self-involved to fully understand the way her team views her: as a sort of bottle-blonde deity. To lose your most important spectator is one thing, but to lose them to someone who doesn’t appreciate the fact they’ve won is something else.

On top of that, Coach and Will’s relationship isn’t dissimilar from Addy and Beth’s. Will is suffering, and the woman he loves is living a façade with someone else. He has to watch her leave, time and time again, always on the outside no matter how sporadically intimate they are. Ultimately, Dare Me warns against living a lie.

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What happens after Will’s death — Coach’s pleas for Addy to pretend nothing happened — run parallel to how Addy handled the aftermath of what happened ‘that night’ between herself and Beth. She now knows what it’s like to be silenced and to have texts go unread in the name of self-preservation. She’s wrapped around Coach’s finger the same way Beth is wrapped around hers — Coach allows close proximity but isn’t achievable. And while Beth had coping mechanisms that kept her wheels turning, Addy crumbles under the secret she has to keep for Coach almost instantly, and with no emotional support.

If there’s an episode that truly seeks to understand and sympathize with its characters, it’s ‘Containment‘. All their imperfections, heartbreak, and friendships settle into a natural place of peace and quiet. We’re let into Addy’s head. We experience the flashbacks with her: the pouring rain, the friendship bracelet that would represent so much later on, the physical act that changed everything. Her world spins, and in the chaos, everything becomes clear. In seeing Addy finally reckon with the truth — the memory of the kiss in the playground and her anxious look Coach sees on her face as the recollection hits — the show allows a moment of empathy, pure and glistening, that acknowledges what these women are battling.

The reality of Addy and Beth’s relationship, and how it got to be so tainted, realigns what came before it. Beth’s behavior can’t be explained away by her being evil. Rather, it’s the turbulence in her life caused by repression. Each insult, each outburst, each drunken mistake, and threatening text, all of it was a cry for attention: see me, hear me, admit what happened. ‘That night’ hangs over her like an inescapable cloud.

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The kick to the gut must be Addy’s refusal to have their past be an effect on her daily life like it is for Beth. Their encounter haunts her, it twists inside and causes unspeakable resentment and anguish. But Addy either isn’t aware of it — having pushed the memory so far down that her same-sex attraction becomes too obscure to confront — or simply ignores the pain she causes. Addy’s sexuality seeps through when she’s with Coach, not Beth — who expends so much energy trying to stay important.

Beth’s curse is to look to her left, expecting a devoted friend to be looking back, only to see her gaze drift to another woman. Beth’s arc is a cautionary tale about the woes of wanting, and what we miss simply because we aren’t looking at it.

In episode five when the same day is shown from their three different perspectives, we learn so much about how little the show’s characters understand each other. Their lives intersect but their pain is never shared helpfully. Beth is the victim of her own silence, Addy fails to recognize reality, and Coach creates a fracture in something she once set out to unify.

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The characters in Dare Me are not nice. They’re not the type of girls you want to see more of, or would usually want to succeed, but there’s a sadness to them that’s hard not to sympathize with. And in their efforts to protect themselves and each other, they’ve done the opposite.

Abandonment can wreck any young girl, even the ones who seem to do nothing but hurt others. If heartbreak can make the like of Beth and Addy buckle under its weight, forcing them to withdraw and continue the cycle of neglect, what hope do mere mortals have at surviving tortuous unspoken desire?

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Trudie Graham

Hello, I am a Scottish filmmaker who enjoys writing about movies and reading comics! You can follow me on Twitter @_trudiegraham

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