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Spoilers ahead. In Tell Me Lies, chances are you’re going to hate Stephen DeMarco. But, like Lucy Albright, the 18-year-old freshman at the centre of the series, you probably also won’t be able to stop thinking about him — because that’s the way fuckboys work.
Based on Carola Lovering's novel of the same name, the series, which premieres Sept. 7 on Disney+ in Australia with its first three episodes, follows university student Lucy (Grace Van Patten) as she first encounters, then gets romantically involved with Stephen (Jackson White), a pretty run-of-the-mill guy who Lucy can’t get out of her head. The thing is, he isn’t a great guy. As in, he’s actually a pretty bad guy. He lies, he cheats (kind of), he manipulates Lucy and the other women in his life, and he may have been involved in someone’s murder (more on that later).
But while you may want to yell at Lucy as she continues to give Stephen the benefit of the doubt and go back to him again, and again, and again (seriously, why is she making those decisions?!), chances are you can probably relate to them. Because if Tell Me Lies gets one thing right, it’s perfectly capturing that all-encompassing overwhelming obsession many people have when it comes to first love. The series proves that fuckboys (and girls, and people in general) are a universal phenomenon, and they’re the scariest part of growing up.
From the moment Lucy first lays eyes on Stephen, you know she’s in trouble. Like all great TV romances, it starts with a sly smile and prolonged eye contact. When he later tells her, in the throes of her first fraternity party, that she looks uncomfortable in her skintight mini dress (while also adding that she looks great in said skintight mini dress), we know she’s a goner.
Over the course of the first season, Lucy first keeps her distance from Stephen, recognising him as a 'player'. But she quickly proceeds to fall into a vicious cycle. She sleeps with him and then pulls away (because he’s hard to read, playing games, and doesn’t always answer her calls) before getting sucked back in. It's frustrating because we clearly see his manipulation, even if she doesn't (because when you're trapped in someone else's fuckery, you never do). It’s a fraught feeling because many of us have been there. Maybe it was a high school crush who shared notes with you in English class, or the first guy you met at a university party. You were so into them that you couldn’t see the red flags, no matter how glaring they were.
“I think it's something everybody can relate to,” Emma Roberts, executive producer for the series, tells Refinery29 over Zoom. “When you watch the show, you can see yourself or your friends in some of these relationships. It's a little bit of a cautionary thing of things are not always what they seem.”
And they definitely are not what they seem when it comes to Stephen. His mind games run the gamut, from telling Lucy he isn’t sleeping with anyone else (when he is) and wouldn’t care if she did because he wouldn’t want to hold her back from her freshman year experiences (when he does), to straight up ghosting her (on Christmas, of all days!).
His fuckboy status reaches its ultimate level during a dinner date when Stephen and Lucy play emotional tug-of-war over contraception. Lucy makes a comment about wanting to go on the pill because she really wants “to feel [him] without a condom.” As they sit over dinner, she says: “I’ve never done that with anyone.” The catch? She doesn’t want to become a college cliché and get chlamydia in her first year. Implicit behind Lucy’s thinking is some emotional manipulation on her part (and not super healthy relationship behaviour). She's trying to find out if he’s sleeping with other people and wants to confirm that she’s the sole object — or at least the most prominent object — of his affection. Of course, it's not exactly on par with Stephen, who promptly tells her: “You are the only person I wouldn’t use a condom with.” Of course, he’s lying through his teeth.
For Jackson White, this moment wasn’t necessarily a commentary into the nuances of safe sex and consent (although as a viewer, Stephen lying about contraception — something that would affect Lucy’s bodily autonomy — is the moment that took him from bad guy to full-blown villain), but rather an example of this toxic power dynamic at work. “Even when [Lucy] thinks she holds the power, he can still manipulate the words and the language,” White says.
Of course, Stephen isn’t just your average immature college fuckboy. Turns out, he may have been involved in someone’s murder. Only a week into their freshman year, Lucy’s roommate Macy dies in a car accident while coming back from a party. It’s a tragedy that affects everyone within her social circle, including Stephen, who we find out later had a closer relationship to Macy than anyone knew — and may know more about her death. While it may be a bit over the top to incorporate potential murder into Stephen’s long list of bad qualities (even my high school fuckboy wasn’t *that* bad), in many ways, this additional murderous element nudges Stephen over the edge, taking him from everyday fuckboy to a potential true villain, and emphasises just how dangerous they can be.
Of course, in a chicken-or-the-egg debate, not all fuckboys are born that way. Both Stephen and Lucy are informed by their respective traumas. And it affects them in different ways. “When you meet Lucy, she is so desperate to feel something because she's been so numb for so long,” Grace Van Patten explains. “And when she meets Stephen, who makes her feel all of these new, exciting, scary feelings, she really mistakes that for love.” This dynamic is especially true of Stephen, who comes from a home life with an emotionally manipulative mother, and often works to have the upper hand in pretty much any social situation: talking back to professors, lying during job interviews, and toying with the emotions of the women he’s sleeping with. It’s the cliché of “hurt people hurt people,” but the truth is that they do hurt, and we watch that pain play out throughout the series.
But that doesn't necessarily excuse the behaviour. Yes, we can acknowledge that people who have been hurt may be acting out in certain ways because of this, but that doesn’t discount the fact that they’re still hurting (or maybe killing) people.
So, in an era of Joe Goldberg’s You and Noah Flynn’s The Kissing Booth, why do we need more bad or toxic-as-hell men on screen? For one thing, we’re still fascinated by them, Roberts says. “As humans, we want to put people in one box. We want to be able to [say] this is good and this is bad.” Of course, real life is much more complicated and nuanced than that, but a show like Tell Me Lies helps us feel like we’re a little closer to some sort of answer. “We're watching it because we're trying to get the answer of is this person good? Is this person bad? What do I do if I encounter this? And the truth is that there is no answer.”
While Roberts hesitates to give viewers a prescriptive message of what they should be taking away from the series, the show has helped the actor reflect on her own experiences and past relationships. “There are certain relationships where I wish I had spent that time being brave enough to be on my own instead of staying in something. So I think that people will also hopefully have that take away from it.” And one thing is certain: “I definitely am not telling girls to go date Stephen, that's for sure.”