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Batwoman's Rachel Skarsten on the many faces of Beth and whether Alice can be redeemed
The CW’s Batwoman can be a little dark. Unsurprising, since it takes place in the nearly permanent night that is Gotham City. One of its darkest elements, however, is also one of its brightest stars — and that's the phenomenal performance by Rachel Skarsten as the season’s Big Bad: Alice.
Alice is the type of villain that in the wrong hands can so easily become a caricature, but week after week Skarsten has imbued her with enduring humanity alongside her psychopathy.
Warning: Spoilers within for Batwoman episode, "Off With Her Head."
In this week’s Batwoman, some of the final holes in Alice’s backstory were filled in, and we witnessed the tragic, traumatizing, and — as Skarsten puts it — liberating birth of Batwoman’s greatest foe.
What did tonight’s episode, “Off With Her Head,” mean for the future of one of the Arrowverse’s most compelling villains? SYFY FANGRRLS spoke to Skarsten by phone ahead of the episode to find out.
We’ll get to the big reveal at the end in a moment, but I’m curious, what was your reaction when you first read this episode and saw all of these things that you were going to go through?Oh, sh*t. [laughs] I mean it’s a very dark episode. I had just come off playing two characters, with Beth and Alice, and now I’m playing Alice and two different ages of young Beth. But also a real deep sense of gratitude that the writers trusted me with this kind of material, playing different versions and ages and all of that stuff. I thought it showed a lot of faith in me and when I got over the initial “how am I going to do this,” it was kind of an exciting challenge, which I actually felt Alice has been on the whole since the beginning.
Like to said, you’ve done so many different versions of this character — we’ve had Crisis Beth and Alice, of course, through the season, but also different versions of Alice in a way — and then we get this episode with Alice and different versions of young Beth, and then sort of the moment she becomes Alice. My question is: who is she really? How much of Alice is a mask that Beth is wearing?
I think, actually, this episode shows the moment that Alice was really born. The other episodes have shown Beth being broken down and Alice forming, but Alice really sort of takes her power back in this episode and stands on her own two feet, very much embracing herself as Alice.
It’s not so much a mask — although I do believe, I sound like Kate, I do believe that Beth is in there somewhere — but it’s hard to separate one from the other because they co-exist in Alice all the time. However, Alice is the dominant personality going forward.
Do you see becoming Alice as sort of a liberation for Beth?
Absolutely. Alice, all along, has felt very justified in all that she does because of where she came from and the trauma and the brokenness that she endured, and this is the moment that we see her break away from that and push back against that in a very real way. And yeah, in essence, become free.
I would argue that she never leaves that basement, that she still carries all of that with her and it manifests itself in different ways throughout the season, but in a physical way, yes it is where she gains her freedom.
Speaking of that trauma, we’ve spent this whole season thinking that Alice’s trauma came from one specific place — from Cartwright and what happened in the basement — so now we find out that she not only had another tormentor in his mother, but that there was a moment when she became Alice, and that moment is seeing her mom’s head in a freezer. How does that change things for her and for you going forward? Do you approach the character differently?
No, because to me even though Cartwright says “it was my mother who really broke her,” I don’t think that that’s necessarily true. He had a large part in breaking her too. They were kind of a package deal together and traumatized her in very specific ways. But it’s just sort of more of what we’ve already seen.
To me, the head in the freezer is very very dark, but is it more dark than locking a child in a cell or teaching a child to stitch together pieces of flesh to make a face? It all sort of comes out in the wash and it’s all pretty bad. So it’s different layers of the same onion.
Sounds especially bad when you say it out loud.
[laughs] Yeah, I know.
We’ve seen this moment where Kate has effectively killed Cartwright. How does that affect her relationship with Alice? They ended the episode together.
It probably affects Kate more than it does Alice because Alice felt all along very justified in what she does because of the trauma that she went through and the brokenness that was a result of that. Kate has always come from the position of wanting to redeem Alice and if given the right circumstances — give any circumstances — with the right decision or the right choice, it could have been different.
For Alice it’s this real vindication, having Kate do essentially exactly what Alice would have done. She’s proven to Kate “you are not actually any better than me. We’re the same all along.” Which has really been her goal to prove to Kate from the beginning.
So I don’t think it so much changes a lot for Alice … But it’s a real turning point for Kate because it definitely is a moment where her reality has changed. How she sees herself has forever changed. And how she sees Alice as well.
Part of the main point of the episode was witnessing Alice’s greatest fears, and in addition to her trauma, one of them is that she will get rejected again by her family. At the same time, this is the moment when her father comes around and sees her as kind of a person and Kate obviously still sees her as someone worth saving. So, my question for you is: can she be saved?
From the beginning, I’ve always wanted to play Alice with the possibility of redemption. All great and complex and interesting villains to watch have that aspect or that possibility of redemption. It’s what helps us relate to the villain and to empathize with the villain and to root for the villain, so I really appreciate the opportunities the writers give me to, you know, to delve into her brokenness and her past and her humanity.
Alice, according to me — the writers very much decide this — yes, she is always, always redeemable.
This interview has been edited and condensed.