Grand Army begins with a terrorist attack. About 11 minutes into series premiere “Brooklyn, 2020,” a bomb goes off a few blocks from the teen drama’s titular bustling Brooklyn high school. To make matters worse, Grand Army is quickly flooded with rumours that one of its own students, beloved senior athlete John Ellis (Alphonso Romero Jones II), may be one of the four fatalities of the nearby bombing. “John if you’re seeing this mark yourself safe!,” reads one panicked Facebook posting. No one in Grand Army is surprised they have to learn about this kind of deadly news through an impersonal screen — this is their lives.
For most series, such a traumatising incident would define its first season (if not the entirety of the show). The tragedy of such a close and deadly explosion would mark characters forever, and their actions — no matter how erratic — would be chalked up to bloody emotional fingerprints left by one stranger’s violent actions. But not Netflix's Grand Army. Here, the series’ core cast has countless more increasingly personal horrors to survive over the next eight episodes. They do not have the time to dwell on a terrorist attack.
Grand Army is a bundle of trauma that will be triggering for audiences. It will also dominate your conversations.
The spine of Grand Army comes from Slut, a play by the show’s creator, Katie Cappiello. In both projects, protagonist Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion in Grand Army) is raped by her closest male friends during a night out. To set the stakes devastatingly high, Grand Army does not introduce you to Joey’s attackers — George Wright (Anthony Ippolito), Luke Friedman (Brian Altemus), and silent bystander Tim Deleney (Thelonius Serrell-Freed) — as villains. They’re painted as feminist fuckboys who care deeply about Joey. These are the kinds of friends who are willing to piss off their school’s most powerful administrators if it means sticking up for Joey. Yet they rape her in the back of a taxi.
Television often depicts sexual assault through flashes or the suggestion of violence. Grand Army does not. Joey’s assault is an unrelenting scene that lasts a little over a minute, although it feels much longer. It will likely be too visceral for anyone who has actually experienced the kind of violence Joey does. What begins as a silly, youthful makeout session in a cab escalates to Geroge and Luke forcing themselves onto Joey as she begs them to just “wait” a second. They ignore her. Tim, recently spurned by Joey, looks on quietly as she stops fighting. Her eyes glaze over, and her body becomes limp as her pleas go unheard.
The darkness of this scene will inevitably stick with viewers. In the same way Netflix’s initial headline-making teen show 13 Reasons Why forced young fans to reconsider how their actions could harm another classmate, Grand Army is determined to make its audience really meditate on consent. Traditionally, pop culture mostly tackles the topic with this classic scenario: a bedroom to the side of a wild party, with one fairly sober boy and one very drunk girl. Grand Army complicates the situation by ensuring everyone involved is far from sober, and the girl is initially the initiator of physical activity with two different boys.
Stil, Grand Army tells viewers, consent must be requested all along the way — no matter what assumptions anyone has about how the situation is progressing. Anything else is rape. Ignoring someone’s demand’s to stop is rape. It’s a necessary lesson that Grand Army achieves through brutal means.
It’s not the only teachable moment the series aims to achieve. Unlike Slut, the Netflix adaptation expands Joey’s world by adding four new main characters to the proceedings. Dominique “Dom” Pierre (Odley Jean) is a first-generation Haitian student with big dreams; Siddhartha “Sid” Pakam (Amir Bageria) is a closeted athlete; Jayson Jackson (Maliq Johnson), a Black musician ignorant to the plight of less-privileged Black teens; and Leila Kwan Zimmer (Amalia Yoo) is a freshman destined to become Grand Army’s most controversial character.
It seems that in building these new layers, the series stumbled behind the scenes. In September, former Grand Army writer Ming Peiffer revealed on Twitter that she and three other writers of colour left the show “due to racist exploitation and abuse.” One of the alleged abusive incidents included creator Cappiello calling HR on a Black writer for getting a haircut (Peiffer and Netflix did not yet respond to R29’s request for comment).
While Peiffer and her fellow writers of colour have not commented further on the Grand Army turmoil, the difficulties behind the scenes can be seen in the uneven storylines for the series’ non-white protagonists. Dom’s journey shines as it reveals the true-to-life struggles for Black, immigrant families in New York. Dom also gets to enjoy a compelling and complicated romance. Jayson and Leila do not get the same consideration. The former comes off selfish and suffers from a narrative lacking a true sense of urgency. Leila rarely makes sense. The adopted Chinese daughter of Jewish parents, she struggles with her identity. She is both the victim of sexual manipulation and the perpetrator of it; both halves of her experience are grim. Viewers will be talking about Leila’s antics — and her genuinely cool graphic novel-style fantasy interludes — for weeks to come.
The purpose of Grand Army — building an ecosystem of narratives outside of Joey Del Marco — culminates in a bomb threat on its central high school. It’s a scare tactic deployed to exploit the administration's fear after the premiere’s terrorist attack and shut down Grand Army. At a time when real-life school violence was an omnipresent and chilling threat, Grand Army does not approach the set piece with the necessary amount of solemnity; the kind of solemnity every scene starring Joey receives. Rather, the bomb threat is one more piece of evidence that maybe one member of the series’ sprawling teen cast is beyond saving. For a drama with as many upsetting moments of Grand Army, this last bit of terror should shake up the lives of its characters, not serve as one more frightening obstacle to shrug over.
But in a world as punishing as Grand Army’s, nothing can surprise these kids anymore.