By Claire Davidson | August 6, 2021
One minor symptom of the pandemic grinding everything to a swift halt was that the capitalist need to endlessly produce presented itself as a dilemma to television screenwriters. When presented with the question of whether or not to integrate social restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic into regularly-scheduled material, many who opted to face the reality of the crisis were met with lukewarm or outright negative reception from fans and critics alike. Such a jarring contrast between intention and execution makes sense when considering the circumstances. On-screen fictions are often crafted with a degree of realistic context in order to maintain believability, while at their core they are an escape from reality. This juxtaposition prompts a disconcerting slip into the uncanny when attempting to reckon narratively with a deadly, highly contagious virus that has rapidly wreaked havoc on social norms. Compact, episodic narrative structure is not meant to process this reality in full. This is a medium that regularly incorporates comedy into its delivery, requiring the viewer to further detach from reality. Many television shows, particularly sitcoms, that attempted to incorporate signifiers of the pandemic into their seasons often registered as desperate to muster a smile while clearly gritting teeth. These choices seemed as though they were attempting to convince audiences that everything would resolve itself simply, when the stakes are clearly much broader than actors can mitigate. This liminality is made all the more cringeworthy by the fact that these situations are ultimately temporary and don’t necessitate such drastic commitment.
With all this in mind, it would be fair to assume a show literally titled Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, would become one of the worst offenders in this category. The Freeform sitcom wrapped its debut season around the same time the American COVID-19 shutdowns came into effect. Its second season sees its suburban California setting firmly in the midst of quarantine. The premiere finds the central cast enduring yet another day of boredom as they desperately search for more mundane tasks to complete. Yet, thanks to the show’s established easygoing tone, the newfound limitations that the main characters face are hardly even noticeable.
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is predicated on two sisters, Matilda (Kayla Cromer) and Genevieve (Maeve Press) having to adjust to their new life as their older half-brother Nicholas (Josh Thomas, also the show’s creator) is appointed to be their guardian by their recently-deceased father. Makeshift family routines were already a long term motif of the show’s first season. The central family found themselves navigating awkward boundaries, uncomfortable moments of honesty, and, more than anything, the painstaking discomfort of having to confront a tectonic shift in normality that finds them all on the cusp of transition. These themes are almost perfectly suited to the quarantine adjustment that Everything’s Gonna Be Okay handles with ease. With unprompted outbursts about how life isn’t going as planned—or how media narratives supposedly reinforce broad, linear life milestones—it never misses a beat. The warm-hearted comedic cadence that allows the show to tackle this sort of subject matter with relative ease has also gained it upbeat critical reception and an eager fanbase, though its most recognizable quality isn’t even related to its style.
What has gained Everything’s Gonna Be Okay its most distinct notoriety is that it has made history as the first network television show to feature an autistic character portrayed by an actor who is autistic themself, in the case of Kayla Cromer’s performance as Matilda, which Cromer herself disclosed shortly before the series premiere at a Freeform Summit.The show has not been exempt from criticism by autistic viewers because of this, and for good reason: Matilda’s occasional use of functioning labels (“high-” or “low-functioning autism”) and person-first language (“person with autism” as opposed to “autistic person”) to describe her experience as an autistic person were met with opposition from fans. So too was the first season’s finale, which depicted Genevieve performing a standup routine that revolved around an extended anecdote involving a meltdown Matilda once experienced while riding an airplane—a low blow, seeing as that episode ended with Matilda realizing she would not be able to attend her prospective college due to the sensory overwhelm of its location.
Despite these mistakes, Kayla Cromer’s portrayal of Matilda is still a welcome departure from the usual on-screen interpretations of autistic characters, which are so often intertwined with maleness, both literal and symbolic. Autistic boys and men outnumber girls and women in diagnostic rates at a ratio of about 3:1 (a gender bias both sexist in nature, and an inaccurate representation of the rate at which autistic people divorce themselves from cisheteronormative expectations), and depictions of autistic characters in television and film reflect this not just in gender disparity, but in characterization as well. Many autistic characters, most of whom are male, are understood as insular creatures (when broken down etymologically, the word “autism,” a combination of “aut-” and “-ism,” roughly translates to “a condition of reliance on the self”) divorced from emotional intuition, and heavily endowed with logical perspective. They are so fixated on detail, rote performance of routine, and a narrow window of interests, that they cannot communicate with those around them. Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of the decades-long institutionalized autistic man Ray Babbitt in the 1988 drama film Rain Man (which was both the Best Picture winner and highest-grossing film of its respective year)is often recognized as the progenitor of such characterizations. However, as eugenicist rhetoric has focused on the impossible task of “curing” autism as soon as possible, more contemporary pop examples of these traits sometimes manifest themselves in teenagers, often to explore the contrast between characters so supposedly averse to change and emotion going through the abundance of both of these factors present in adolescence. Some of these examples include Freddie Highmore’s Shaun Murphy in the ABC medical drama The Good Doctor and Keir Gilchrist’s Sam Gardner in the Netflix sitcom Atypical.
This overabundance of cerebrality, and the near-absence of empathetic understanding, not only prioritizes and reiterates the carceral logic of contemporary psychiatric understandings of autistic people, but renders itself as recognizably white and male. That masculine-coded logic and insularity takes precedence over feminine-coded empathy and fluidity of perception. Even when such characters are depicted as “savants,” or having exceptional abilities beyond the neuroconformist realm of mere “expertise” (the aforementioned Rain Man’s Ray Babbitt, who has an astonishing eye for detail and can precisely count hundreds of small objects in a matter of seconds, is explicitly labeled with this term), this admission of autistic talent is not generosity on the part of neuroconformist imagination so much as a juxtaposition of inhumanity. Audiences are often meant to gawk at the opposing expressions of “deficit” and “ability” that are overshadowed by the core framework of disconnect from society. Though works like the 2017 comedy-drama film Please Stand By represent a tentative step in the right direction, presenting a young autistic woman (played by neuroconformist Dakota Fanning) coming to form a loving relationship with her older sister (a distinctly feminine bond) she still speaks with a stereotypical flat affect. Moreover, her journey towards freedom from her abusive group home (where she is subjected to potentially fatal restraint tactics) is measured by a gradual completion of “progress” through a neuroconformist lens. She endures dangerous situations alone just to be granted access to the right to her own family. Like other autistic characters in her lineage, she is depicted as a vacant shell of herself, a vessel to be made human by the neuroconformists around her.
Matilda’s characterization in Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is in stark contrast to these standards, in the best way. Creator Josh Thomas has spoken about the process of specifically seeking out autistic actors to play her role, which he assumed was a given when casting an autistic character. Casting Cromer was intentional: while other actors who read for the role could rely on robotic delivery, Cromer imbued the part with natural charisma that he saw as a cohesive fit with his vision of the character. This is evident in Cromer’s screen presence as Matilda, who is always bursting with enthusiastic, earnest exuberance, with a sense of frankness that is blunt without ever succumbing to callousness. Even in the show’s earliest moments, her character has always represented an understanding of autistic self-definition that is still cognizant of boundaries with others as much as any flawed teenager can be.
The show’s understanding of her character is even stronger in season two. Disappointed by her realization in the show’s previous season that she won’t be able to attend college as soon as she wishes, Matilda is introduced in season two in the hovel of her bedroom, in the midst of a furious online spree that has overshadowed leaving her bed in her internal priorities. When Genevieve discovers that this quarantine impulse has led to a days-long porn binge, she finally confronts Matilda about a secret she’s been hiding: that she fears she isn’t really sexually attracted to women, and that her relationship with her also-autistic girlfriend Drea (Lillian Carrier) will be made fraudulent if this is true.
After spending so much energy attempting to find a partner that understands her needs, in spite of expectations to date a neuroconformist boy in the first season, Matilda is understandably afraid of this possibility. She has stopped speaking with Drea, leading her to believe that they have broken up. However, upon confessing her dilemma to her sister, Matilda attempts to reconnect with Drea, calling her and asking her on various socially-distanced dates. Yet, when they discuss the possibility of being sexual with each other after social distance measures dim, Matilda finds herself initiating a conversation that Drea is reluctant to participate in, seemingly apprehensive about the matter and struggling to process potential sexual scenarios. Matilda struggles to keep track of her internal script, when she finally tells Drea she doesn’t think she’s queer after all.
The sincerity with which Kayla Cromer delivers this news is heartbreaking in its regretful yearning. Matilda is so clearly upset that she can’t give more to the person who has taken so much time to appreciate her. Yet, even in the wake of the anxious meltdown Drea has after their conversation, the two continue to interact with each other as friends. Drea regularly visits Matilda’s house, and their connection is made all the more poignant as they vow to accommodate each other through periods of uncertainty. One day, when the two reflect on their decision to split up their romantic partnership, Drea admits that she doesn’t regard sex as an important emotional barrier, merely another way to gain intimacy with someone, the same way she would a hug or a shared interest. Upon this realization, the two decide to rekindle their partnership, albeit with the mutual agreement that Matilda is allowed to explore her newfound sexual identity with men as long as she primarily maintains emotional dedication to her girlfriend.
Despite reluctance on Nicholas’ part, Matilda and Drea follow through on this decision with surprising ease as Matilda explores odd but no less exciting sexual escapades and hookups with local guys. Drea is initially wary of this decision too, but doesn’t regard it as a source of despair because she recognizes that it makes her girlfriend more content. Where an inferior show would likely use this additional nuance in their dynamic to establish a point of friction between the couple, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay navigates Matilda’s polyamorous inclinations with an open mind. The show’s realisation that identity is a continual process, rather than a rigid state of being, allows it to lean into the biggest strength of Matilda and Drea’s partnership: they find shared forms of intimacy beyond sexual encounters.
It is revealing that the only instance of Matilda hooking up with a guy onscreen is followed by a theatrical ritual performance of Matilda and Drea banishing his energy from her living room with sage. Though the show’s refusal to cooperate with Indigenous requests to end the co-opting of culturally specific practices reveals its at times myopic whiteness, their shared experience of joining together to ensure their emotional health by maintaining sexual and spiritual dedication to each other is reflective of a deeper understanding and gratitude for each other’s needs. One-night stands clearly pale in comparison. The decision to specifically highlight spirituality as a place of bonding for the two functions as a broader metaphor for the serenity Matilda and Drea feel when in each other’s presence. Scenes where Drea aligns Matilda’s chakra balances also show her providing Matilda with a sense of inward and outward harmony.
These shared moments of non-sexual intimacy are beautiful in their unorthodox tenderness. Their solo trip to Drea’s parents cabin is the culmination of the intimacy built between the couple. Intended as proof to themselves and their parents that they are capable of sustainable independence, their experience isn’t conflict free. The two argue about how to cook their dinner and heat the house when the night begins to settle, but after the two take a break from these moments of tension, their shared decompression leads to a pleasant remainder of the evening, including a final scene during which Matilda plays piano as a self-stimulatory exercise of her overflowing joy.
The camera is careful to call attention to the sensory experience of Matilda’s first delicate brush of the piano keys. She becomes accustomed to its specific timbre and texture as her fingers slowly graze the smooth tiles. As she gradually grows more accustomed to the instrument, she becomes more forceful in her playing, creating a melodious, propulsive time that corresponds audibly with her ecstatic feelings of romance. Itself a metaphor for the gradual confidence gained in a mutually trusting relationship, the scene displays a holistic expression of the glee that flows throughout her body and colors her smiling face as she clearly dedicates the performance to her girlfriend. While Drea is appreciative of the opportunity to listen to her partner passionately pursue her creative art form of choice, it interferes with the peace she needs to read. But instead of brashly requesting that Matilda stop the music, Drea simply informs her girlfriend of her gratitude and puts on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to assist her in focusing as the evening winds down.
After having completed a successful milestone of their shared reliance on each other, Matilda is even more eager to pursue security with her girlfriend. In the next episode, she announces that she plans on proposing to Drea. Nicholas and Genevieve are baffled by this sudden willingness to commit at her young age (she is only eighteen). Sure in their assumptions that she doesn’t understand the magnitude of what she is suggesting, they grant her permission to ask. Yet, when Matilda asks Drea’s father for permission to marry her, he responds affirmatively. Even though Nicholas attempts to prompt some more deliberate introspection by showing Matilda her late mother’s wedding ring, she only takes this as a further sign of how important it is that she propose.
Intended as a subtle warning, Nicholas’s decision to show Matilda her mother’s ring is a representation of what marriage means to Matilda finally spoken aloud. While the occasion is often seen in neuroconformist social circles as an excuse to throw a noisy party, what the ceremony symbolizes in Matilda’s perspective is the opportunity to show Drea that they are both willing to incorporate each other into their respective families. Their understanding of each other merits that gesture of dedication. When Matilda proposes to Drea, she chooses a quiet, serene location, a tent in the woods where she has decorated the walls with paper butterflies, a common motif in the show, delicate objects always morphing. Matilda knows what she feels is subject to change, similarly always in flux, but that her current dedication to her partner is just that, a willingness to better each other through a sustained experience that sees both of them at their most loving: a bond that is, in a way, sacred.
Though not without the traditional hallmarks like wedding dresses and a horse-drawn carriage, their wedding is small, only immediate family members and a couple of mutual friends at the ceremony. Such a low-key arrangement ensures the sensory accommodation of both participants, and that the focus remains on them at all times, even as they deliver their vows privately. In fact, the only diversion from the focus on their union is a brief speech Matilda writes for Genevieve; a parting gift as she moves away, passing down her enjoyment of public speaking to someone who is significantly less confident. In the speech, Matilda confesses that Genevieve has been her biggest and most consistent role model, a figure of patience and understanding that she can only strive to emulate as she takes steps to move away from home. If a bit confusing at first, the speech is so affecting because it ends not with a final word from Matilda, but with a dedication to Nicholas going forward, after he has recently realized that he is also autistic. He will have to come to terms with this knowledge in the same complicated, defiant process as the sister he’s come to know, and miss in her absence.
A broader focus on the cyclical nature of learning lessons from other members of the family is perhaps the most profound conclusion Everything’s Gonna Be Okay could’ve left for its season finale. Each facet of the final speech involves a family member expressing gratitude for the wisdom provided by a younger sibling, subverting the conventional assumption that age comes with more sage life experience. It is a poignant reminder of the season’s overarching theme, that each and every milestone in life is impermanent. Genevieve and Nicholas’s character arcs also reflect this. Genevieve finally grants herself permission to be vulnerable with others, first by posting videos online and then by exploring dating for the first time, and Nicholas learns through a devastating breakup that communication in a romantic relationship is not always what it seems, that even a healthy partnership can have fundamental fractures. The specific mention of Nicholas’ diagnosis is especially profound, as, shortly before the show’s second season premiered, actor and creator Josh Thomas revealed that he had recently realized he was also autistic, which he feels has led him to write and collaborate with autistic people with much more receptive ease (his former Please Like Me co-star Hannah Gadsby, who is now most well-recognized for her comedy specials Nanette and Douglas, is autistic as well).
All of these core conflicts represent ruptures in each character’s understanding of themselves, but they are celebrated as future steps towards new discoveries. These are positive outcomes that delight in the unknown, and the understanding that the only certainty is that the future will hold both challenges and opportunity. A momentous occasion like a wedding can often mark the end of a series in a network television show like Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, which has not been confirmed for a season three renewal at this time. Not only does this temporary ending serve as a remarkable interpretation of the benefits of quarantined introspection, it also offers an admirable embrace of the perpetually changing dynamics of television from season to season.