[2 August 2011]
In a world where dissociative identity disorder is still famously associated with Sally Field’s Sybil portrayal, Toni Collette takes Tara Gregson, and her multiple personalities and gives a unique and updated portrayal of a woman struggling with her disorder.
The final season of United States of Tara not only brings out a disturbing new alter in the form of her half brother/molester Bryce, but also sees Tara trying to change the trajectory of her life by going back to college, which turns out to be just another setting for her alters to wreak havoc, as she tries to desperately find her true self amongst her alters and acclimate to the new environment.
While in season two Tara struggles with finding out what traumatic event happened in her youth to spur on her illness, she starts season three not silencing her alters, but coming to understand and embrace her different personalities so that she can better grasp their wants and desires. In the first episode of the season, we see a completely different Tara who’s willing to “move on from dwelling on stuff”. However, Buck, the woman loving, beer guzzling redneck, and complete departure from Tara’s “normal” identity, begins knocking on the doors of unknown neighbors with a gun in hand in an attempt to serve justice to Tara’s attacker/brother Bryce.
At the end of the season opener is the first time Tara becomes completely united with her identities, being coherent enough to hear all of her personalities out, from Alice, the perfect housewife, T, the rowdy teenage, Buck, Shoshana Schoenbaum, the New York therapist, Chicken, the first alter of her former five year old self, and Gimmie, a squirrelly animalistic being.
The significance of this final moment in the first episode is palpable and throughout the season it’s what Tara deals with the most, creating a tug of war of owning her personal identity, which Tara hadn’t dealt with so lucidly until this confrontation. In this moment in the series the alters all let Tara know that she needs them to work through her life and to get through college. As the season progresses she gives in to them, but is more coherent in her body than ever before. In the past, she sought out a way to silence her split identities so she could be a housewife, and keep her life “normal”. In this season Tara, husband Max (John Corbett), daughter Kate (Brie Larson), and son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist), and sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) throw normal out the window and embrace her personalities for what they’ve become.
This turn of attitude leads Tara into creating a contract in episode 4, finally putting her foot down while all the identities introduced are present, in the form of a meeting. The dialogue is delivered wonderfully and by Colette as Tara demands respect saying, “I have spent far too long babysitting you. All of you will write down what you want out of life, and I will decide how to go about it.” This is the real start of the season; getting an insight on what Buck wants, which is to seek revenge, what Alice wants, which is to tell Tara’s mother off, and what T wants, which is to act out in defiance of authority, which shows how Tara hides from the bigger and more powerful adult, which can explain how being molested by her older brother affected her.
Throughout the series, as Tara is finding out more about herself through her split identities, so are we as the audience. The spectrum of identities are always changing, giving a fresh perspective of Tara and a little insight into who she was before she got sick, or who she wanted to be. Probably one of the most insightful alters that finally gets to shine after being introduced in the finalé of season two is Chicken, an extension of Tara’s former self as a child. This character is reintroduced in episode 8 when the family goes to the cornfield. Tara gets scared by a pumpkin head and immediately transitions into Chicken, running into a barn and crying out for help, giving some more insight to where the molestation went on, and at what stage of Tara’s life it went on during.
If there was anything that felt weak in the writing of United States of Tara, it was the lack of psychology explored on the show. This season we got a huge lesson in learning about the deductive and psychology reasoning behind some of Tara’s impulsiveness and the root behind it all. This all came in the form of Tara’s Professor, Dr. Jack Hattarras, brilliantly played by the quick witted Eddie Izzard. Usually characters introduced so late in a series that’s already bloated with a long list of characters (in this case, alters) doesn’t always gel, but it’s through Dr. Hattarras defiance and devil’s advocate approach that makes this character stand on his own against the sometimes apathetic approach the Gregson’s take to Tara’s disorder.
Indeed, it’s Dr. Hattarras intrigue withTara’s mental illness that has him studying her and eventually holding sessions to write a paper on her experiences as these characters. It’s through his newly developed ideas of dissociative identity disorder that the audience is given brilliant moments, as in episode 6, when Dr. Hattarras begs to differ with Tara by saying, “All of your personalities are you. You are in control, and you always have been in control.” Another side of the doctor’s beliefs comes later in the season, when Tara’s own life is in the hands of an alter. Realizing that she needs more help than Dr. Hattarras can give her, he enlists a colleague who introduces the “abuse your alter” theory, in which a personality protects itself from the original abuse by becoming the abuse—the ultimate paradox.
One of the most intriguing and horrifyingly riveting portrayals from Toni Collette came in episode 7, when Tara consumes the identity of her 14-year-old molester and half brother, Bryce Craine. It’s then that we see through Tara’s eyes the monster Bryce was to her, and how, even though as we later find out that he’s deceased, he still very much lives inside of Tara’s mind. From the arrogant swagger, to the explosive outbursts and manic episodes, Bryce makes his presence known by “killing” off all of the alters until Tara’s the only one left to kill, which would lead to suicide if he completely took over.
Throughout the last four episodes we as the audience see the true torment Tara was put through in her childhood as the identity of Bryce cuts Tara with a broken beer bottle, and attempts to kill her on several occasions. Through Collette’s performance, you not only believe that there’s an evil force within Tara, but she’s able to portray the sadistic 14-year-old boy so well that hiring an actor to portray a memory of Bryce wasn’t even necessary. It’s clear to see why the actress has won accolades for this role, because she pulls all the personalities off effortlessly, but still knows how to take the extra step to drive Tara deeper into madness.
Other standout performances not to be missed are Marshall Gregson, played earnestly by newcomer Keir Gilchrist. The young actor knocks Marshall’s struggle with his sexual identity out of the park, and in this season he acts as the devil’s advocate and pseudo narrator of the family. His commentary on the family was cleverly executed in the character’s arc to become a successful filmmaker, developing a short film in class that dissects his family situation. In episode 8, his film gets selected to screen in the New York Film Festival, and in episode 9, he and his father Max go to see the film. Marshall’s film counters that it’s not a story about dissociative identity disorder, and it’s not even about his mother, but it’s about his father and how he comes to terms with the craziness that surrounds the family, and how despite everything he still holds on to his own unrelinquished dreams for a better life.
Marshall’s own experiences, including losing his first boyfriend in a car accident, viewing his mother’s illness from a realistic point of view, and turning his back on his mother as her Bryce alter slaps him and threatens to kill him, was a refreshing and welcomed change from the young boy who once thought it was “cool” to be raised by four or more people. Gilchrist’s performance not only gives off the right amount of vulnerability that a boy his age would have amongst his own confusion as a teenager ,but just the right amount of defiance and separation from the Gregson family that later sees him moving into his grandmother’s house for his own safety.
Although the series ends with Tara going to Boston to seek serious medical treatment, because of the show’s abrupt end and Diablo Cody’s finished season, these characters weren’t put to rest the way they should have been, and as the audience, we’ll never know if Tara’s treatment helped, but my guess is that if the series continued on there would be more chaos with the alters, because how else would it go on? The most poignant exchanged dialogue came from the last episode in which Marshall, finally breaking the silence, goes to Tara before she leaves and says, “When you get to Boston don’t let them pull out all the good parts.” And to that Tara replies, “You guys are my good parts.”
With consistent fantastic writing across the board for all three seasons, and an always innovative perspective on a widely ignored mental illness, it’s easy to deduce that we got all of Tara’s good parts—from start to finish.