One of my favorite quotes in all of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is this: "It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then." Alice quoted this moment in an earlier episode of Batwoman but it is perhaps most fitting for this week's installment. That's because this week, we finally witnessed the moment when Beth crossed that threshold and Alice was born.
WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Batwoman Season 1, Episode 15 "Off With Her Head."
This episode was... let's just say a lot. In a good way. Throughout its first season, Batwoman has been at its best when it strips the episodes down to a simple premise and a character-driven story. That is especially true whenever the character at the wheel is Rachel Skarsten's Alice and for that reason "Off With Her Head" might be one of the best hours of the series so far.
When we last left our favorite villain, Alice had just learned that Mouse was being held captive by his father attached to a canister of Fear Toxin. Alice doesn't waste any time in rushing to her friend's rescue, but when she arrives he turns on her, strapping her to the Fear Toxin instead and forcing her to face down her greatest nightmares, including the Red Queen.
We've spent this entire season, 15 episodes now, believing that Alice's trauma was terrible but ultimately simple. As Beth, she was taken from the river by Cartwright and kept in his basement to be a friend to a son he had decided was too disfigured to live in the normal world. In that basement, she was forced to endure abuse and neglect (including the time he murdered her kitten which I had blocked out until just this moment) until the day he allowed her out in order to teach her to make faces from human flesh. It's a terrible way for a young girl to grow up and it's honestly no surprise that she retreated into the book she and Mouse used to escape. Only it wasn't just Cartwright who tormented her and it wasn't just a slow breakdown of her psyche. There was another terror in her life, one potentially worse than the man who held her, and there was a moment when she became broken, even if the cracks had formed over years.
This week, we met the Red Queen, who it turns out is Cartwright's own mother, herself an abusive parent who might have had something to do with how her son turned out (though that in no way releases him from his actions). It's unclear exactly how much time she spent with her son and the two children he lived with, but over years she became the one whose abuses of Beth were less, shall we say, subtle than her son's. He was the emotional manipulator, tormenting Beth with the things he forced her to see and do and taunts about her family, while his mother berated her, terrorized her, and seemed to hate her for her youth and beauty. Over years, the two of them broke Beth down until the day she finally snapped.
Somehow, this is where, in an episode about child abuse and the deepest fears of a broken and mad woman, the episode went from dark to downright pitch black. Back when Kate was uncertain whether Alice really was her long-lost and presumed dead twin sister, Alice proved herself by producing a necklace containing their shared birthstone. It was part of a matching set between the sisters, given to them at their Bat Mitzvah and made to match a pair of earrings worn by their mother. One day, as Beth is serving the Red Queen her tea, she notices the woman wearing a familiar set of earrings, and suddenly everything clicks into place. She races to the outbuilding on the property, a room which holds a freezer she was told never to open, and inside she finds exactly what she feared: her mother's head, severed from her body in the accident that brought Beth here.
In that moment, Beth's entire world is finally shattered along with her mind, and Alice is born, as the Red Queen becomes her first victim.
Skarsten's performance in this episode is nothing short of extraordinary. She's been the standout since the start and through these 15 episodes has slipped into so many different versions of this character, peeling back layers to reveal the hints of a person beneath. She's played what could be a caricature of a villain with humanity and empathy, and this episode and these performances (because she gives a few) brought the evolution of that character full circle. Her actions since her escape from Cartwright and the Red Queen are not justified — she's murdered countless people with no sign of remorse — but it is hard not to feel sympathy for someone who has obviously gone through so much to get here. It's also hard not to wonder if some amount of Beth really is still in there, buried deep beneath the Alice she created to protect herself.
Jacob and Kate both seem like they might be willing to believe that again, as both dropped what they were doing to rescue Alice from her nightmares. Before she took off to save Mouse, Alice left Kate a gift: Cartwright, tied up at the bat signal with a bow on top and a note in his mouth. While Jacob goes to rescue his other daughter, Kate stays behind to force more information out of Cartwright to help save her sister. But the truth is hard to bear. Beth found that out years before, and as Kate discovers that this man before her not only took her sister from her but kept her mother's head in a freezer, she too snaps. And just like Alice, her first action is to kill.
There are distinct differences in the way Kate and Alice react, even if the results are the same. Alice is calm and deliberate when she chooses to end the old woman's life. Kate is all rage and grief when she leaps onto Cartwright. She doesn't make a decision so much as react to her own overflow of emotions, but what's done is ultimately done. For Alice, it is perhaps exactly what she was trying to do all along. As she tells their father, "both of your daughters are killers now."
We're at an interesting turning point in the series now. With Kate now a murderer, she and Alice have something odd to bond over. As the episode comes to a close, Kate chooses not to run to Sophie and instead she and her sister set off to bury Cartwright's body and hide her crime. The city's hero is now an undisputed criminal. Jacob will likely be implicated as well, covering for one daughter while learning new things about the other, all while attempting to root out corruption in his own agency.
It's a complicated time to be a Kane.
- This week was packed full of great stuff. I wanted to spend the recap talking about Alice's journey, but thankfully this very dark and serious episode gave us some levity by finally putting Mary and Luke together for an extended period. Mary is still determined not to reveal that she knows Kate's secret, but she's incredibly bad at it, constantly slipping up around him. They are unbelievably fun as a nerdy team of geniuses and I want them to work together all the time. Even more of a reason to bring her into the fold.
- Another reason? Batwoman needs a medic. Seriously. Like, a lot. Get the girl on board.