Do you know what’s rare in modern television? Showing a disability story honestly. Too often writers gloss over the negative feelings disabled people may have as they struggle with the traumatic incident that put them in the wheelchair, don’t show the people that surprise you with their overwhelming support and love – people that don’t challenge you to “get better,” but tell you as often as you need it that they love you no matter what – and don’t put love and respect into telling the truth that for every person who manages to get better through luck and arduous physical training, there is one who will remain in the chair.
A bad example is Arrow. The show put Felicity in a wheelchair in the second half of season four. And they did most things wrong. The “love of her life” left her in the hospital for two weeks, told her he would “fix her” once they were together again, ignored the majority of Felicity’s emotions about being in the chair, except for a line thrown in here and there, lingered on pain that was mainly focused on him and his vendetta, and then she was only able to walk again for silly dramatic purposes that did not serve character, plot, or anyone. This is bad. This helps no one, least of all their characters.
NCIS: LA is doing it right.
The two are not even in the same race. While Arrow was out forgetting character history, NCIS: LA was rolling up their sleeves and asking themselves: How can we tell this respectfully?
It’s almost as though the writers have spent some time talking to disabled people and soldiers returning home from battle. It’s almost like they care about representing these people honestly and compassionately. Which, you know, is sort of important when you decide to delve into such a story and intend on doing it right.
Not only have the writers shown Kensi Blye’s difficult, emotional journey to find her balance again after the accident that put her in a coma, they don’t show her in an isolated room as she recovers – the only victim in a world of people who find themselves in wheelchairs for a myriad of reasons and still triumph in their lives, in their accomplishments, and in their inspiration for others. She is one of many who have found herself in a difficult situation physically. We just happen to be following her journey as she struggles through her P.T. It is wonderful to see other people going through the same struggles, even distantly. They show people with prosthetic limbs and in wheelchairs without presenting them as weak or less.
They are simply different than Kensi, going through their own stories, and their journeys are part of Kensi’s reality as well as ours.
The most powerful thing from this story, aside from showing disabled people without trying to cure them magically, is Kensi’s struggle. All too often in television, the idea that people struggle with their disabilities is glossed over or ignored for dramatic moments that serve nothing. This may come as a surprise to many of you, but being in a wheelchair does not magically make the person an unicorn or some other form of inhuman creature who does not feel, want, or fear. They are human, flesh and blood, and susceptible to all the pitfalls of the mind. They get frustrated, they get angry, they lash out, they turn inward, they fight to find their normalcy again, but they also laugh, share joy, joke, and can cycle through all these things in a day or in a minute. This is being human. Finding yourself in a wheelchair can be hard to process initially. It can take a while to find inward peace and acceptance of the change – to acknowledge that what makes you awesome isn’t in how the world at large views able-bodied people. It is in the content of your character and the love in your heart. It is a process towards acceptance, a thing of time, and a cure for this emotional journey is not found in a day.
Kensi Blye is shown no differently. She is a strong, willful person who is used to being the best of the best physically. She is proud of her accomplishments, she works hard to maintain her sharpness, her skill, and her abilities as she serves on the NCIS team. She is, in a word, stubborn. We love her for it, but like with any strength, it can turn into an Achilles heel if it swings too far in one direction. Her stubbornness makes her believe that she can heal faster than the others, do more than the others. It pushes her forward – and she literally falls because of it. She injuries herself further simply because she wants to be healed right now instead of later. Her therapist reminds her that a failure is not the end, and that thinking she can do it faster is not an accomplishment of the mind, but a way of setting herself back. Her body is different now, changed by the helicopter that fell on her and the coma she was in for weeks. She can either acknowledge the reality or allow her stubbornness to defeat her before she begins.
(How often do we get this sort of thinking in disabled stories?! How often are we told that to heal we must give ourselves time and acknowledge our limitations? This is a rare beast that other shows deny in favor of ignoring the emotional impact of such a thing and it matters so, so much.)
The experience of learning to reuse her body is breaking down what she thinks she knows. She is broken, and that brokenness matters a lot in reshaping her worldview. It is not a weakness, but a necessary acknowledgement of where she was, where she is now, and where she will be in the future.
No one should have to go through what she went through and told to be perfect immediately.
What’s more, the writers are allowing all of this progress and failure to be told from Kensi’s experience. They are showing her struggles with the change in her body through her anger and frustration. They are being honest with the emotional fallout, the fear, the pain, and the sense that Kensi will have to find a new normal going forward. No matter what happens – if she gains her physical abilities completely or always has a tremor in her hand – this story is part of her. It is a new element of her character. The brokenness gives her power in ways that the stubbornness doesn’t. It gives her perspective and a deeper strength. It’s easy to be stubborn. It’s harder to acknowledge your limitations and weave them into your life. It helps her understand that disability is not something to be conquered. Some never can. It is something that is with her always, but she can work towards being stronger, one day at a time. She can slow down and acknowledge that small steps are sometimes the most victorious.
The writers are uncovering elements about her and about her relationship with Deeks as well via this story. They are stripping them both bare, stripping them to the essentials of their characters, and showing that together they can face any obstacle or difficult moment. Marriage isn’t only about the times that you make your partner happy. It can be difficult, emotional, a war against the world at times, a Thelma and Louisa jump into the future. No couple who is shown always happy will ever be truly strong. The writers are giving you all the proof you need that their love is strong enough to endure. They are not wasting minutes.
They may be using the disabled story line a little, but they are using it to reveal character rather than suppress it.
They are using it to show that Kensi must become a new her – and that Deeks and Kensi are better as a team and can triumph as long as their love is maintained through consistent effort.
The love is honest and realistic – Deeks proposes and is turned down, because Kensi isn’t ready. She’s not prepared to face the idea that she can’t walk down the aisle to him. She’s emotional, resigned to her failure, and simply not in the right place to think about marriage. Deeks, for his part, doesn’t want her magically healed or pushes her to feel like less because of her being in a wheelchair. He just wants the ability to love her for who she is, to be by her side forever, and he absolutely respects the emotions she’s feeling. He knows her denial of his proposal isn’t about him, it’s about her – AND THAT MATTERS SO MUCH! The perspective remains on her needing to get better emotionally. They are not subverting her story for his. The emotional fallout is Kensi’s to feel because the weight of the pain is predominately on her shoulders. Partners endure things together, but sometimes the only thing we are able to do is kiss away the tears, let them know we love them, and hold their hand as they find their own way. Deeks worries about her, wants to help her, but the recovery is in her hands, in her ability to give herself a break and take one day at a time. His love is all he can give, and he gives it unreservedly.
The fact that Deeks has been stripped back to his optimism and Kensi her stubbornness is something that I really enjoy. It shows how well everyone understands the characters and what tools they have already at their disposal that will hinder their progress but also contribute to it. The fact that they are using this story to reinforce what we know about the characters, and strengthen the idea that they will one day be at the altar, is a good use of time and creative energy. It acknowledges the difficulties without erasing the struggles disabled people face every single day.
No matter how much it costs her now, the stubbornness will drive her forward. She will either have to learn from it or she will continue to fall. No matter what happens, the fact that the writers aren’t glossing over the difficult moments, aren’t suggesting that she’s no longer Kensi because of this thing that happened to her, that they are treating it with attention paid to the character they have established over eight seasons is powerful, wonderful, and so, so respectful of all their viewers.
We need more shows telling this journey outside of an ablest mindset. Disability isn’t something that anyone can cure. Disabled people are wonderfully complex and ultimately human. They accomplish great things, and it is lovely to show that a person who can walk isn’t more or less, simply another aspect of the wonderfulness that is all humanity. We need more stories told on our TVs that understand this. We need this story.
So, thanks, NCIS: LA for placing character, respect, and honesty over dramatic plot points and weird, offensive drama.
Now, don’t fuck it up!
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Not a robot...yet. Writer of books, such as Grey Haven, The Watchers, and Revelation. Collector of stories, researcher of life, and curator of people; not for robot reasons. That would be weird. Everything is Lizzie's fault. Connect with me on Twitter @lynniepurcell.