Warning: Major spoilers ahead for Netflix’s Firefly Lane. Explicit descriptions of sexual violence as well.
“I think that’s the biggest point of Tully: Everybody thinks that she has it all under control and she’s cool. Boys and girls like her. So you can easily pass that off as, ‘She’s doing fine,’” Firefly Lane star Ali Skovbye told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the series’ premiere. But anyone who has seen Firefly Lane knows Tallulah “Tully” Hart (played by Skovbye as a teen; Katherine Heigl as an adult) is anything but “fine.” In the series premiere, viewers learn that Tully’s mom Cloud (Beau Garrett), a single woman with a drug addiction, is dangerously neglectful, “forcing Tully to be her own mother and grow herself up,” as Skovbye said.
Then, second episode “Oh! Sweet Nothing” arrives, changing Tully’s already fragile world forever. Tully is raped during a high school party in the woods and left lying on the ground by her attacker, older jock Pat Richmond (Michael Taylor). It’s a devastating scene that doesn’t look away from the violence inflicted on 14-year-old Tully (“They’re very young teens,” Skovbye reminds viewers), following in the purposeful footsteps of fellow Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and Grand Army.
But Firefly Lane — based on Kristin Hannah’s 2008 novel of the same name — isn’t a YA show like its predecessors. It’s an adult friendship drama intended for the same people who love This Is Us. Through Firefly Lane, Skovbye is opening up the conversation around sexual assault and survival to a brand new audience. It’s the potential for that conversation, Skovbye explained, that “drew” her to the painful journey of Tully Hart in the first place.
“As challenging as it can be to take on that harder subject matter, I think it’s also really, really important that we continue to do that,” 18-year-old Skovbye said. “What our story does so well is showing that you can be popular and be considered ‘cool,’ whatever it may be, and still go through something like this.”
Firefly Lane leaned on an intimacy coordinator to get that message across and ensure Skovbye — who was 17 and in her senior year of high school during production — felt safe and comfortable while filming the assault scene. Skovbye said the “pivotal” coordinator, Amanda Cutting, felt like her “mom” on set, giving her chocolate and tea for those particularly difficult days. Cutting observed filming of the entire scene on a monitor “so if anything was shown or anything wasn’t going right, she would say something,” Skovbye recalled. The coordinator was also there as a resource for the crew, should anyone be triggered by the subject matter.
“It was honestly choreographed like a dance sequence,” Skovbye continued. “Caring, considerate” Michael Taylor, who plays rapist Pat Richmond, followed the “very specific, detailed” steps along with Skovbye. As we see in “Oh! Sweet Nothing,” Pat lures Tully, who is drunk, past the edges of the party and into the secluded woods. Tully complains of feeling “spinny” and Pat pulls her to the ground, starting to kiss her. Pat eventually climbs on top of Tully. She asks him to slow down, but he ignores her pleas and complains she is supposed to be a “cool girl.” Finally, as Tully begs Pat to stop, he holds her down by her wrists and assaults her. When Pat is done, he blames Tully for her own rape and leaves her curled on forest floor to get more beer. Tully only begins to process her traumatizing experience when she sees Kate (Roan Curtis here) back on their shared home street of Firefly Lane later that night.
“Whenever people talk about sexual assault, it’s oftentimes like, ‘Just talk to somebody,’” Skovbye said. “While I agree that that is very, very important, and Tully’s friendship with Kate is ultimately what helps get her through that, I think, as much as you say that, oftentimes people still just don’t feel comfortable doing it … Showing it on screen in such a popular platform like Netflix is really, really helpful and can help make people feel less alone if they still don’t feel comfortable talking about it.”
Subsequent episode “Dancing Queens” offers similar catharsis. While Tully does start to heal by talking about her assault, that pacifistic move isn’t her only response. Instead, in a rarity for TV survivor stories, Tully directly (and physically) confronts her rapist. She initially plans to drop Barely There hair removal solution on Pat’s head. When PTSD causes Tully to freeze before enacting her revenge, she gets in the VW van she stole from her mom and tearfully attempts to run Pat over.
“It was so great to show. I think that as emotional as it is, you do feel very angry afterwards,” Skovbye said with a look of clear empathy. While Skovbye knows many survivors do not act on that anger towards their rapist in such a possibly dangerous manner, she points out that a girl as young as Tully “doesn’t understand the repercussions — what can happen if you do something like that” at her age. Thankfully for Tully’s long-term future, no one is seriously injured. So, she can be a consequence-free avatar for viewers at home still working through their own trauma.
“She’s trying to be really hard to just be like, ‘If I get back at him, it’ll be fine,’” Skovbye continued. “You see her struggle with that, and it’s not always that easy.”
Firefly Lane leans into Tully’s most uneasy moments for the rest of her life. That’s why Skovbye has a few very specific parting goals for anyone who has witnessed the Netflix drama’s most delicate storyline: “You never know what someone is going through, so be kind and ask. Ask questions. Ask if they’re okay.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please visit Shelter Space.