Daybreak is a fun show full of campy goodness and a lot of progressive concepts, until the end where it starts spewing conventional garbage.
“I’ve got a killer origin story”
This line is uttered in the first episode and is a pretty good encapsulation of the tone Netflix’s Daybreak consistently hits in its first season. The story follows Josh Wheeler, an “average” high schooler (if being the most conventionally good-looking male character is what passes for average these days) in the apocalypse.
The premise is really simple: everyone over the age of 18 has turned into zombified creatures called “ghoulies,” leaving the kids to run the world, which they do with the same kind of cliques and tribes and stereotypical high school groupings with which we’re all too familiar. There are the Jocks, The Cheermazons, The Disciples of Kardashia, and so on.
Daybreak itself is a pretty tidy encapsulation of media in the late 2010s: light, fun, self-aware, and trying to be nihilistically positive about the end of the world. Like Stranger Things, Daybreak samples a ton of teen classics, from Ferris Bueller (Wheeler?) to Revenge of the Nerds, and blends them together in a different aesthetic. At its best, the result is funny and fresh.
Its cast of characters and music are progressively diverse. A leader of the Cheermazons speaks in ASL. Josh’s new best friend is a gay black nerd samurai stoner named Wesley Fists. An episode prominently features this Chinese-Canadian rapper that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since. Hell, there’s even an app for sexual consent.
That’s all great stuff! But things take a dark turn towards the end of the season and not necessarily in the way the creators meant to.
Spoilers for the end of Daybreak ahead
The driving story of Daybreak’s first season is Josh’s quest to save the love of his life Sam, essentially the prettiest and most popular girl in school, who also inexplicably has a British accent. The damsel in distress trope is tired, but ultimately not a bad motivator for a season of TV, so long as that’s not all Sam turns out to be. Or at least that seems to be what the writers of Daybreak believe.
Throughout his journey and flashbacks, we learn that Josh was actually a really shitty boyfriend. He slut shamed her immediately after having sex with her for the first time and then a time or two after that. He told her he loved her after having known her for approximately 72 hours, and then got mad when she was like “yo, it hasn’t even been a week.” So maybe Josh chasing after Sam and trying to save her isn’t quite as noble as it seemed before.
The real twist comes when the dust finally settles and Josh’s quest is complete: Sam seizes power as supreme overlord of the teens and sits very evil-y on her newly acquired throne.
There is certainly nothing wrong with giving Sam the capacity for a wide variety of human emotion, including corruption, greed, and villainy. In fact, it’s good! But Daybreak adds a really sinister layer to this turn by tying it directly to her rebuking Josh’s continued romantic advances, something that Sam has every right to think and feel and is something that even checks out logically after he slut shamed her and used his dad’s death as an excuse without ever apologizing.
This twist is totally untrue to what we’ve seen of her character, which is more than just what Josh has seen. She is the most popular girl in school because she connects with people on an empathetic level, and if she was going to look to gain power, I see no reason she wouldn’t have done so in a landslide electoral victory.
Instead, it’s a sort of double whammy. She dumps Josh (again, they weren’t dating and he was a bad boyfriend when they were) and then seizes power. The show treats this as a “betrayal” of Josh simply because he’s the hero, and then lingers on it and codifies it in villainous connotations by essentially having her twirl her metaphorical moustache and laugh maniacally. It’s a sort of distorted reading of 500 Days of Summer where Tom is totally right to feel entitled to his dream girl, and she’s not just a bitch for not wanting him back. She’s also a bitch because she wants to take control.
A major difference between Daybreak and 500 Days of Summer or Scott Pilgrim is the show’s clear appeal to a younger generation. The references, the style, the dialogue, the language all market the show to a younger audience. But what they’re telling that audience about pining after women is not healthy.
Sam should be a well-rounded, 3D character so I can see why they would choose to try to achieve this through making her the villain.
See, she’s not just a pretty face? She also has some fascist leanings! She’s ~complicated~.
Sure, it’d be an interesting story to have a guy pining after the girl who goes on to become Eva Braun and in the last minute of the movie you hear her name for the first time and it’s Eva Braun and the guy she’s left our main character for is Adolf Hitler. Shit, I want to see that.
But what I’m actually trying to get at is that Sam becoming evil is not necessarily bad or lazy — I think it actually hints at a really strong instinct — but the way they go about it undermines that noble goal. Instead, her becoming an evil(?) dictator is not something that was a part of her character that we just didn’t see, but it is a direct response to Josh’s advances. Up to that point, she is a totally sympathetic character. Her character trait was that she was nice to, and had empathy for, everyone.
It is a betrayal of the group (that again seems to be pretty clearly behind her without any use of force or violence) that’s paralleled with the fact that she “betrayed” Josh.
Why wouldn’t she want to date Josh “Good Guy” Wheeler? He did everything for her right? He earned this! Sure he called her a slut, but that’s because his dad died. So that’s fine! It’s definitely not like she was like “hey I know you’re upset but don’t take it out on me” before he crossed a few more lines and called her a slut. And he definitely didn’t do it because he was intimidated by her sexual experience.
The crumbs are here. The show is trying to tell Josh (and other dudes like him) that they don’t actually know Sam as a person, and have just idealized her. She doesn’t owe him anything and there’s no way he could actually already love her in any real, meaningful sense.
That’s the intent behind the twist: See? He didn’t really know her at all. She was a fascist dictator! Wow. Really makes you think.
The not-so-subtle implication here is that the reason she wouldn’t want to be with Josh was because she was Evil. Why couldn’t the revelation be that she had a really weird hobby? Or that she just doesn’t love him and stop there? Or that she just doesn’t want him? No, no, no it’s because she was secretly a dictator. That’s the real reason why Sam didn’t want to be with Josh “Good Guy” Wheeler (who is not actually a good guy).
Again, Sam being a dictator isn’t something that can coexist with what character development we did get. She was shown to be compassionate and listened to others, hallmarks of a strong, democratically elected leader. Come on, even the morons over on The Society had it together enough to hold elections.
Instead, we’re left with this troubling ending from Daybreak: Sam and Josh break up because Josh is a dick. Josh decides to “rescue” Sam. Sam does not want to get back together with Josh. Oh, and now she’s also power hungry and evil because of it.