“There’s Nothing Happily-Ever-After About It”: ‘Thirteen’ Creator Marnie Dickens on the Drama of Survival

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BBC America’s Thirteen is not for the delicate viewer: It begins the moment 26-year-old Ivy Moxam (Jodie Comer) steps outside the house where she’s been held captive in a cellar for the past 13 years. Over five episodes, we watch as Ivy struggles to return to the life she left behind. Her mother’s worry is stifling; her father has returned home, having left his wife for another woman years before; her younger sister, Emma, has a fiancé, Craig; and her old crush, Tim, is married. To top it all off, she has to undergo repeated questioning by two police detectives, Elliott and Lisa, after her captor, Mark, kidnaps another child in the wake of her escape.

On Thursday’s series finale (there won’t be a second season, the BBC has confirmed), we finally meet Mark, who throughout the series remains a shadowy figure in the background of Ivy’s efforts to adjust to regular life. Flavorwire spoke to Thirteen’s creator and writer, Marnie Dickens, about Ivy’s trauma, its effect on the show’s male characters, and focusing on the survivor of abuse, not the perpetrator.

We learn over the course of the series that Mark had this delusion that he and Ivy were in love, and that he assigned them different names. Because the series is so focused on what happens after Ivy’s captivity rather than during, I wonder how you came to create the circumstances she was held in.

I very much started with the idea of wanting an escape, that was the first thing. And then I had this character Ivy that I started to build up. Because to be honest, that felt easy — to propel forward and then build the world around her, whereas thinking of this guy who had taken her and robbed her of all those years was less of an attractive prospect to me. It’s quite a dark thing to try and imagine someone who wants to do that. And so it kind of came almost begrudgingly afterwards, but I knew it had to be truthful — if this kind of thing can be — without me sitting and interviewing someone who’s done the same thing. I don’t think it’s as simple as there just being evil people out there who, for no reason at all, go and capture young girls and mistreat them. I just felt it had to be coming from his own damage, and so that’s where I started — what could have happened in his life to make him have such a distorted view of love and what a woman should be?

We see how Ivy is still stuck at age 13 — she tells Tim that everything’s changed except their love. When you were developing the character Ivy, did you think about how her views of romantic love might be skewed as a result of having been forced into this pseudo-romantic relationship with her captor?

It’s such a vital age that she got captured at, deliberately — on the cusp of puberty. The romance with Mark is, as you say, non-consensual, so it’s not a traditional romance but when she was taken she was in that kind of girlish, not very sexualized, crush phase with Tim, which was her only kind of understanding of a romantic relationship. And the next thing you know she’s in this cellar for 13 years, in a very different kind of relationship, so she only really has those two experiences to fall back on — which is why, when you see her come out, she has that kind of teenage, almost naïve quality when she’s with Tim. She’s just reverting to what she knew before. So she doesn’t really have an idea of what a normal relationship is, because her and Tim isn’t a viable relationship either, really, much as she might want it to be.

‘Thirteen’ creator Marnie Dickens

I appreciated that he didn’t take up too much screen time but I also liked how when we finally meet him, he’s not like some indescribable monster but just a sad, fucked up, lonely man.

[The show is] deliberately from Ivy’s perspective and I felt quite strongly that I didn’t want to give [Mark] too much airtime because sometimes dramas do that and I feel like it kind of diminishes what the survivor’s gone through. But obviously he had to be a credible character. I think we were really helped by the casting of Peter McDonald. You do get a sense of his damage and I suppose what I wanted to get across is, love and control feel like they’re really close to each other.

I think you even see that with Emma and Craig — he was so understanding at first but there’s a moment when he starts to feel neglected, and he gets upset. I thought it was really interesting how all the men in this series reacted to a situation that wasn’t really about them.

I do feel sorry for the men in the show, especially Craig, because what I have to try to get across in not much time is, what has that relationship been like for all those years, with Emma? Her sister’s been missing, presumed dead. He would have had to be such a ballast, and not just to her — Christina [Emma and Ivy’s mother] kind of clung onto him, too. So he kind of has every right to feel a bit jilted by the situation, and I know that sounds like him being childish considering everything Ivy’s gone through. But what I really wanted to show was, there’s nothing simple about Ivy coming back. There’s nothing purely happily-ever-after about it. Everyone wants it to be that, but it can’t possibly be. It inevitably undermines Emma and Craig’s relationship.

We see how Elliott’s attachment to Ivy is clouding his ability to do his job, and then we see Tim also being swept up in the desire to save her. I love when Ivy and Tim’s friend Eloise says, “The whole night in shining armor routine’s a bit dated.” Can you tell me a little bit about how that aspect of the story came about?

Now that you pointed it out I can see the parallel with Tim. I wasn’t completely aware of that at the time but I was definitely aware of wanting Elliott to have that journey. Lots of people in the UK reacted badly to Lisa and really loved Elliott, and kept saying, “Why is she such a bitch?” And by the end of the series they were like, “Oh wow, she’s kind of doing her job.” I suppose what I feel is the norm in TV over here [in the U.K.] is that traditionally the man is very logical and unemotional and can see things for what they are, and the woman can be a bit histrionic and get easily upset. So I felt quite strongly that it should be the other way around. Lisa just had that objectivity and could see that Ivy is very damaged. She’s not horrible to her, she really is just trying to do her job. Whereas Elliott has this thing instantly of being really unnerved by what’s happened to Ivy and kicking into this protective role. But it means he completely loses sight of objectivity. That was a very deliberate choice.