First of all, only the pilot is out. The fact that I’ve listened to podcasts and seen comments on reddit where people reduce Tulip’s character (either positively or negatively) to a “badass” or a “psycho” (their words not mine) is obviously a kneejerk reaction given how little material we have to work with. That being said, I already feel the need to defend her, because I’ve seen these sorts of analyses being bandied about before regarding other female characters and they really rub me the wrong way. I’m going to be responding mainly to the interpretation of Tulip in the second episode of this podcast.
We first meet Tulip singing “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon in the shower and there’s nothing I don’t love about that scene (or any scene with her in it, but I digress). There’s something about female characters that are presented as naked but not objectified that is empowering to me. I can’t quite explain it. It makes her seem vulnerable but self-possessed and in charge of how her body is presented on-screen and in-universe. Tulip gets out of the shower and watches Jesse drive off, still singing thoughtfully to herself as she’s silhouetted against the daylight outside. We look over her shoulder and hear her get to the quietly voiced lyric “I had some dreams; they were clouds in my coffee.” Indicative of dissatisfaction with the direction in which her life has gone? Only time will tell.
Then we get the flashback to a few hours previous when Tulip is in the car with some men who are trying to get their hands on her map (to Grail Industries, no less). The podcast I mentioned knocks this scene, calling it too unrealistic and reducing the scene and Tulip to the “Kick Chick” trope. Quite frankly, I didn’t get that from this scene at all. One of the men already appears to be dead and leaning against the gas pedal and Tulip is preoccupied with the garrote the other has slipped around her neck from the back seat. Later, when she talks to the kids as they make the bazooka, it’s clear she still has a mark around her neck from the garrote – obvious efforts were made to show she’s not invincible. She and the man tumble around in the car, with Tulip making up for her proportionately smaller strength in realistic ways, like biting off his ear when she can’t get him off her and kicking him in the nuts to prevent him from getting up – typical self-defense moves I’ve read about. Nothing about this scene made her seem invincible or even unrealistically invulnerable to harm. The frenetic bizarro edge contributed by the corn cob killing and the wild drive through a cornfield is no more outlandish than Cassidy’s airplane fight or on some level, Jesse taking out all those huge dudes in the bar almost completely by himself. This show is going to be larger than life – that’s the spirit of the comics as well as the show. To deny Tulip a stake in that heightened reality but to not bat an eye at Jesse and Cassidy’s pulpy ultraviolence is unfair and really quite sexist. The same can be said of the bazooka scene – how is that any more over the top than the other scenes? (Side note: why do people have to suck the joy out of everything by insisting on flawless realism in a show based on a trippy comic book?)
Now, as to the criticism that Tulip is some sort of amoral sociopath – she’s no more a sociopath than Jesse or Cassidy. A lot of people (most of them male fans from what I’ve seen) have been quite put off by Tulip being as vicious and ruthless as the male members of the core trio – of getting to “play with the boys,” so to speak. The scene where she interacts with the kids as she builds the bazooka is a case in point – she protects the kids and gives them life advice all while being tender with and friendly to them but never maternal, which I found interesting. Tulip doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes some would shove most female characters into – she is neither mother, virgin, slut, nor bitch. She has her own code and her own morality and at this point is probably best described as chaotic good. She doesn’t send the children away because she probably figures they’re safest with her, given that she’s confident in her own capability to dispatch the incoming helicopter with little fuss. And she’s right. The complaints about her being “unstable” remind me of the complaints Charlize Theron fielded about Furiosa’s supposedly unrealistic anger – her response? “Uh, surprise. Women have that…women are just as interesting and complex as men.” Ruth Negga has spoken similarly about how rarely a woman with Tulip’s kind of anger and ferocity is allowed that sort of emotional range on television, or visual media in general.
Another criticism I’ve seen is that Emily, the church organist, has more chemistry with Jesse than Tulip does. Besides the racism that I think often underpins this sentiment, I think some of the feeling behind this opinion comes from feeling threatened by Tulip’s independence and self-assertion. Emily’s interaction with Jesse was completely one-sided as far as romance was concerned. She’s pining after him and he’s oblivious and uninterested. In contrast, there’s a deep resonance and understanding between Tulip and Jesse in the show; the sense that their relationship was a lifelong, codependent one that might not be good for them right now but they just can’t stay away from each other. How he can’t meet her gaze in the car, how he smiles when she touches his hair, her tenderness and anger towards him. The way she quietly repeats, “We are who we are,” to herself as he leaves, almost as if she’s trying to convince herself that Jesse’s efforts to change himself will ultimately fail because if they succeeded, what would that say about her and her way of life? That perhaps she ought to change too and that she is in the wrong and not Jesse? Personally, I found their interactions electric and revelatory of deeper layers of both Tulip and Jesse’s characters and insecurities. And given that the actors refer to them as soulmates multiple times in interviews, I don’t think that will change. I don’t think there will be a Madonna/Whore comparison between Emily and Tulip either, because I don’t think either of them are that simple (in promo materials and interviews, it’s been said more than once that Emily has dark secrets).
Up to this point, I’ve tried to mention cast commentary as little as possible so as to refer specifically to the scenes in the pilot alone but I think it’s also worth alluding to some comments by Ruth Negga, who specifically says in this interview that Tulip is not just a badass, but that she has a “tender sort of humor” about her that makes you want to look after her, and that that will be developed as the series progresses. Ruth has also discussed how Jesse and Tulip’s relationship began in their childhood and that they weathered great difficulties together:
Interviewer: Does Tulip really want Jesse back in a romantic way or does she just want him back in the life?
Ruth Negga: I don’t know. I think that when you have a connection and a bond with someone from such an early age…you can’t live without those people. You can’t live without someone who knows you intimately and all your flaws and still deeply loves you. We visit their kind of relationship from childhood and you just get a sense that there is a deep bond that is…oh, I made myself cry. I knew this would happen…I think there’s that tenderness that you can’t replicate with anyone else and I don’t think they want to live without each other. I don’t think that she wants him to get back into the old life of crime. She doesn’t need a man, but she needs the person that he is. The person that who was for a while the only person who stood up for her. The only person who doesn’t just see her as this kind of miscreant misfit, but who sees her for her essence and her spirit. And I think that under the guise of “oh come on back into the life of crime” what she really wants is a friend back. Ugh, I’m gonna cry again. [x]
I really get the sense that Jesse needs Tulip as much as Tulip needs him; that this is a relationship of equals. Both of them are functioning without each other but Jesse is barely able to get out of bed in the morning as he himself admits in the sermon that closes the episode. If anything, Tulip is functioning even better than he does, going about a life of petty crime as she always did (probably a result of their shared messed-up childhood, the details of which we’ll learn later this season). It seems that doing those things side by side with Jesse was much more meaningful to her, however, than a life of crime itself. She doesn’t just miss him as a woman misses a man, but as a lonely soul misses its mate. But she doesn’t know how to go about life differently than she’s already living it, and she’s unapologetic about that even if she’s conflicted about it. Until that changes, or until Jesse does, they can’t be together. And that’s the point of this sort of arc, isn’t it? Working through your vulnerabilities with the help of those who know you best, in order to find out who you really are and what you really value.