Amazon’s adaptation of the Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang comic series, much like the source material, is a show about death. Paper Girls’ time-traveling tale is about many other things, sure: the tensions between who we wanted to be and who we wind up being, generational divide and trauma, plus a time war. What hit me, though, was that a bunch of its uniformly brilliant cast play characters who learn of their own ends long in advance of it coming, leaving them to confront head-on the one thing none of us can escape: dying. It’s a gnawing, knotty feeling that’s difficult for just about anyone to unpack. Except most of these characters are having to do it at 12 years old.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the first season of Paper Girls.]
You can see it best in the story of Mac Coyle, played perfectly by Sofia Rosinsky, who has to shoulder some of the show’s darkest themes. She’s the group’s brash, loud, swearing kid who’s had a truly shitty hand dealt to her. Her upbringing has been tumultuous, with absentee parents and violence, leaving her the most cynical of the four titular paper girls. You learn quickly how bad she’s got it and it leaves all her barbs feeling fragile, concealing a lot of hurt she’s not yet old enough to begin dealing with. Hell, she isn’t even really able to acknowledge it. This is all she’s known and she has to survive it first. So when their trip to the bright, glamorous future of 2019 results in her learning not of an unexpected adulthood like the other girls, but of a shocking death at the age of 16 to cancer, it hits you like a freight train. It’s cruel and unfair. And the show doesn’t pretend otherwise.
One major change the show introduces is the presence of an older brother for Mac, Dylan, who greets her in 2019 like he’s seen a ghost (which I guess he has). After the initial shock he quickly falls into the role of guardian, eager to not only protect Mac but to make up for their terrible childhood.
His instincts make him a bit of a surrogate for adult viewers keen to protect Mac. He plans to catch the cancer early, pretend she’s a niece and fold her into his now affluent life and family. In his own words, “giving you the life you deserve.” Watching him tear up over this second chance with his dead sister, you get a sense of not only that urge to save her but also a resurgence of the grief that has shaped his whole life. Losing her made him become a doctor, a job that got him out of poverty and a family of his own. Perhaps there’s some guilt, a sense of a debt to be repaid, for the life he got to live that she didn’t.
Mac struggles to open up to him and the other girls about her struggle, which she mostly tries to keep to herself. She’s not the only one who tries to manage alone. But while its other characters have to come to terms with death — including poor Larry, who bites the dust twice — it’s the kids who remain the focus.
Erin is the first to confront a future death, the demise of her mother, something that preys upon her existing fears, caring for a parent who doesn’t speak much English and struggles in the small town of Stony Stream. Riley Lai Nelet portrays well the isolation of being not just the “new girl” but someone distanced from their community and their grief because of their race and responsibilities. It’s that loneliness that makes it difficult for her to reach out, whether that’s her future self’s reluctance to connect with her sister or her past self’s struggle to open up to the other paper girls — especially after she has to watch her older self die saving the group in the future, potentially locking in her fate. Unaware of Mac’s fate, it leaves her feeling singled out from the group yet again.
Tiff, too, feels an obligation to manage on her own even if it isn’t with her own death. As she grapples with the potential danger her friends are in, in a scene in episode four delivered so poignantly by Camryn Jones, she’s trying to hold her own among adults, desperate to grow up and have control of her life while also having to overcome her inexperience.
While Tiff and Erin feel isolated by their fears, it’s KJ who helps the group start to depend on each other as they confront their grim futures. The performance by Fina Strazza allows her quiet demeanor to masterfully misdirect from her strength. She’s the first person Mac opens up to (their blossoming crush for one another, a whirlwind of confusion for two girls from the ’80s), and her immediate response is not to try and shield her or protect her but to share in her pain with a tender hug of understanding. She eventually helps Mac share the news with the others, an act that finally solidifies the group’s bond and allows them to confront their dark fates together.
Not that Paper Girls is alone in putting youngsters in serious peril. Even over the last few years, shows like Stranger Things and The Wilds have put teens decisively in harm’s way. Those kind of dangers are different from the fate Mac and others are confronted with, though — in those, characters get killed off, but in ways that are often outright heroic or tragic. They are big moments, built up to with fanfare (and probably a little too much signposting) that offer payoff to character sacrifices or a moment of teary eyed sentiment for their loss. There’s catharsis in the tragedies these shows present that isn’t in Paper Girls. I think that’s why Mac’s story has lingered with me ever since I read the comic. It doesn’t fixate on the death itself or the fallout but instead Mac’s own internal struggle with a fate that has no grand meaning, just terrible misfortune. There’s no resolution, only ever an acknowledgement that it is brutally unfair.
You can argue about whether Paper Girls is for kids or not. But I’d say it certainly has appeal to adults and youngsters both, but with its central cast, teenagers are definitely kept in mind. That’s a precious thing. I know I didn’t have access to any kind of fiction like this as a youngster. Even as an adult, it’s a reminder that kids have rich internal lives. They deserve autonomy and room to actually deal with the harsh realities pushed upon them.
Paper Girls feels like one of the only stories that sits with what that feeling is like for a young child. To give voice to an experience that’s all too common but almost never discussed. Like Mac’s brother, our instinct, understandably, is to shield kids from these harsh realities. It’s a fantasy, though; whether we like it or not kids have to deal with all kinds of problems we wish were reserved for adulthood. Paper Girls might be a fantastical time-travel show, but it’s not offering up a warm slice of nostalgia. It’s offering teens a cold piece of reality.
Paper Girls season 1 is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.