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Mr. Mercedes Is Offering a Challenging Take on Toxic Masculinity

Writer Dennis Lehane explains

Liz Raftery

[Warning: This article contains spoilers about Wednesday's episode of Mr. Mercedes.]

The incident that kicks off the action in Mr. Mercedes-- both the TV show currently airing on Audience Network and the Stephen King novel on which the series is based -- may feel disturbingly realistic to some viewers: an angry young man named Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) drives his car full speed into a crowd of people who are waiting on an unemployment line in the wee hours of the morning, killing 16 people and injuring dozens of others.

But there's another element of the show, albeit a less obvious one, that also resonates with the current cultural and political climate: the destructive nature of toxic masculinity.

In Wednesday's episode, Brady gets the ultimate revenge on a rude customer who verbally abuses him and his coworker Lou (Breeda Wool) at the electronics store where they work. Using a universal remote he's programmed, Brady changes a traffic light from red to green, causing the customer to drive nonchalantly into an intersection where his pickup truck promptly gets slammed by an oncoming flatbed, killing him.

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The customer in question is Ryan Springhill (David A. MacDonald). We don't see much of Ryan in the episode, but what we do see is very telling. As part of his meticulous morning routine, Ryan does a rigorous fitness workout, drinks a thick homemade protein shake, adjusts his tie and American flag pin just so in a mirror, and tells himself: "You will succeed." He also has a habit of browsing alt-right websites and listening to Infowars-esque radio programs as he prepares for work. We can infer that he's recently separated from his wife, who has apparently claimed custody of their children and whose decision to serve Ryan with a restraining order sets off the chain of events that will ultimately culminate in his death.

David A. MacDonald, Mr. Mercedes

Mr. Mercedes, both the book and the series, examines the after-effects of the global financial crisis and comments upon the death of the American Dream. But in Ryan's case, his anger and sense of victimhood stem from threats that are perceived rather than real, notes author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), who wrote the episode and serves as a consulting producer on the series.

"We were looking at an America that feels discarded, and an America that feels lost and ignored. Ryan's rage is more the rage of the displaced male, the emasculated male that we're seeing a lot of damage from," Lehane says. "It's not the rage of somebody who authentically has a right to be enraged, which is people whose jobs were taken from them, pensions were taken from them, promise was taken from them. We know Ryan has a job. Ryan's doing OK. So it does make him a little easier to hate."

At the electronics store, when Ryan brings his computer in for repairs after it crashes as he's typing a profanity-laden email to his estranged wife (he doesn't know it's malfunctioning because Brady has been tampering with it), he makes homophobic remarks to Lou and calls Brady a "d--kless wonder." Brady and Lou's boss Robi (Robert Stanton) makes matters worse by not only refusing to stick up for his employees, but actually kowtowing to Ryan, because his construction company brings a lot of business to the store.

As Lehane notes, what's complicated about the character of Ryan -- who, it should be noted, is not in King's book and was added for the TV series -- is that he puts the viewer in a position of not only empathizing with Brady, but actually, dare we say, rooting for him. There's something undeniably satisfying about seeing that flatbed slam into Ryan's pickup -- even if it's just a flicker that fades as soon as we see Ryan struggling to take his last breath as Brady gazes coolly at his bloodied face.

"That's Brady's vengeance moment at the end. He really wants to make sure [Ryan] sees him and he knows," Lehane says. "We're talking about this idea of toxic masculinity... There's a lot of that in Brady too."

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While Brady would balk at the notion, it's true that he and his victim have more in common than he realizes. They're both driven by pent-up rage, but while Ryan channels his rage into becoming a stereotypical alpha male, Brady's rage comes, at least in part, from his own stunted masculinity. He's been a victim of bullying his whole life, is repeatedly emasculated at his job, and has suffered from years of sexual trauma at the hands of his mother. Even as he mocks Ryan (shortly before killing him) for being a "bro," one gets the sense that there's a twinge of jealousy underlying Brady's anger as well.

"We push towards this idea that Brady, like a lot of extremely destructive people, by the end all he has left is his hate," Lehane says. "That's what he embodies. His hate is just a lot stronger and a lot more dangerous than Ryan's. ... [Ryan] says one little aside to Brady, and that's what ultimately will cost him his life, because toxic masculinity is about to run up against a real bad boy."

Harry Treadaway, Mr. Mercedes

The toxic masculinity embodied by Brady is a common trait seen in real people, like the technologically savvy (mostly) men involved in the Gamergate controversy and more violent domestic terrorists like Dylann Roof. They are for the most part, like the fictional Brady, angry young white men who reinforce their feelings of hatred and sense of entitlement through online forums and virtual harassment of others. In the most extreme cases, that rage spills over into real action, which often results in mass casualties.

"What's going on right now in this country is that, there's this myth of this America that once existed that truly never existed," Lehane says. "And it's becoming so damaging. Politicians and a lot of other people are dining out on it, and it's become pretty toxic."

Viewers need to look no further than the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia and subsequent protests to see what happens when a group of people feels like something that is their right or destiny is being stripped away from them. And, as demonstrated with the character of Ryan, alt-right websites and conspiracy theory-spouting radio hosts only ramp up these fears, preying upon them with arguments that are often rooted in racism, misogyny and xenophobia. It might have been a little too on-the-nose for Ryan's apartment decor to feature a Make America Great Again badge, but the implication is there.

And we've seen plenty of characters in TV and pop culture who embody the type of alpha male that Ryan represents -- including recently on Queen Sugar, and from the fantasy perspective Game of Thrones. Often, though, high school shows will push them in the form of bullies. Though we don't get to see what Ryan was like as an adolescent, it's a safe assumption that he's become the type of adult bullies grow into when their aggression as young males goes unchecked.

On the flip side, it's easy to infer that Brady is the type of person who's been put upon his entire life by people like Ryan, so in some sense his desire for revenge is understandable. Let's be clear: the fact that Brady puts his vengeful fantasies into action makes him a psychopath, but the root of his frustration is more clearly identifiable than Ryan's.

"You can't write about a guy like Brady unless somewhere you find empathy," Lehane says. "The place where I find empathy with Brady is the horrors that were visited upon him as a child."

Does that mean we should also try to empathize with toxic masculinity in real life? Probably not. But shows like Mr. Mercedes can help us better understand the roots of the problem -- and how to properly combat it. Just with more talking, and less murder.

Mr. Mercedes airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on Audience Network.