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"Roswell" (2009): In Defense of Tess Harding

Updated on May 16, 2020
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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

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Roswell is a science fiction show that debuted on the WB in 1999.

As someone who has loved the show for twenty years now (to say nothing of the tacky reboot), I’ve always felt like one of very few people who didn’t hate and despise Tess Harding (and not just because Emilie de Ravin is freakin’ hot, though that’s a huge part of it).

Tess is actually a pretty sympathetic character, to the point that even the other characters admit to treating her poorly. When she first shows up in Roswell, her very existence stirs up the lives of the others. She brings them the truth of their past, and none of them can handle the truth, instead seeking to punish her for bringing it. It is very much a “kill the messenger” scenario, in which Tess is demonized for being unhappy and trying to survive her total isolation.

In the end, Tess wasn’t evil or bad. She was just a person trying to survive and did not deserve to be hated from day one. If anything, the other characters hating her is what eventually drove her to villainy.

I’m not saying that Tess isn’t personally responsible for her actions — she is. But the other characters are partially responsible for the person she eventually became in the way they abused and mistreated her.

Let’s look at a few key points.

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Tess was raised by Nasedo, a man who happened to be a cold-blooded killer, and unlike Max, Isabel, and Micheal, she didn’t have anyone she could confide in except for Nasedo, who she refers to in one episode as not exactly Ward Cleaver.

In other words, Tess was utterly alone. She didn’t have anyone who was like her growing up that she could talk to. No one her age. No one who understood. What’s more, she grew up knowing about her past and who she truly was. She wasn’t in the dark like the others and had more time to process the truth.

So Tess led a very lonely life, one where she spent her time daydreaming about finally meeting Max, Micheal, and Isabel and having a family of her own, people who loved her and accepted her.

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Is it any wonder, then, that the first person she reaches out to is Isabel, who was her sister-in-law in another life? She and Isabel immediately become close, at the cost of putting a distance between Isabel and Alex.

Tess isn’t doing this on purpose. She has no idea that Isabel and Alex are dating. All she knows is that Isabel is supposed to be with Micheal but is completely unaware of the truth and needs that truth to be awakened before the four of them can return home.

Tess just wants to have a family. She doesn’t mean any harm, but in the perspective of the viewers, she is just an annoying slur who is getting in the way of their Isabel/Alex ship.

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Tess was also crushing hard on Max, this handsome young man who she’s been told since childhood is her soulmate, her great love, and once her king.

When she first arrives in Roswell, she mind warps him, giving him visions of the two of them making out on tables.

She is trying to awaken him, remind him that they were once married and are “destined” to be together.

I’m not saying it was a good thing that she intruded on his mind. I’m giving the reasoning behind it. All she knew was that she was “supposed” to be with Max, and that he was her husband from another life, who she was still in love with and who she had clear memories of.

Also, it could be that Tess expected Max to remember her. Keep in mind that she is surprised to discover Max, Micheal, and Isabel can’t seem to remember their past lives.

There’s also an episode in Season 2 where Tess reveals (during Brody’s standoff with the police) that she is perfectly capable of remembering all the details of her past life with Max. For her, it must be excruciating to see him now in love with another.

My own screenshot of Max being a bastard.
My own screenshot of Max being a bastard.

Unfortunately, Tess’ close friendship with Isabel quickly diminishes when the others realize she is an alien. Max violently assaults her out in the desert, calls her evil, shakes her by the collar, body-slams her to the ground, and holds her down by the face until she cries while he angrily demands she reveal herself as Nasedo (all of this without real proof that she was a killer).

Not exactly the romantic reunion Tess had always dreamed of, huh?

Max will display more violence toward women as the show progresses (namely Isabel and Liz), showing that he’s not such a great guy after all and is, in fact, a huge asshole. The fact that Antar fell to an invasion suddenly makes sense in light of Max’s ego, pride, and violence. He is continuously seen trying to control and manipulate others through bossiness and bullying. He even does it toward Tess many times. Why wouldn’t she eventually betray him?

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When Nasedo kidnaps Liz at the end of Season 1, the others are again cruel to Tess. Micheal grabs her by the arm and violently throws her in the car, saying she’s coming with them if she likes it or not. The others are fully aware that she’s innocent in what is happening but treat her like the enemy anyway. When she says that they shouldn’t go after Nasedo and that Micheal, Max, and Isabel are her family, they tell her coldly that she is not their family. You can’t help but feel bad for Tess when she turns away and it looks like she’s going to cry.

Tess has spent her life in isolation with no one she can share her secret with, no friends, no family, only Nasedo. Micheal, Max, and Isabel are the one group of people on the entire planet who are supposed to love and accept her unconditionally — and they reject her completely.

Sounds like family to me.

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After the Skins kill Nasedo at the beginning of Season 2, Tess is now suddenly on her own, living with Kyle and his dad in their house.

No one seems to care about Tess’ loss or the fact that she is mourning or the fact that she is now utterly alone in the world.

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The show takes a moment to give Tess’ perspective when Kyle walks in on her in his room, wearing his jersey and going through his things. He begins to lecture her but quickly feels guilty when she laments that she has no family or friends, no home, no where to go, and the one guy she loves is in love with someone else. Ouch.

I believe Nasedo’s death was Tess’ turning point. She was miserable after the way the others treated her and became so desperate to escape the situation that she made a deal with the Skins during Season 2.

I don’t believe that Nasedo ever knew about the deal or had any part in it, because everything he did in Season 1 just wouldn’t make sense. Tess pinning everything on Nasedo was her way of backing out of her mistakes. And she had to back out because she knew Max would never empathize with her situation or care.

There’s an episode in Season 2 that illustrates this perfectly.

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When Tess is kidnapped by Congresswoman Whitaker in the episode “Surprise,” she doesn’t reach out to Micheal or even Max. She reaches out to Isabel, screaming for help. Why? Because she knew the other two didn’t give a damn about her but that maybe, just maybe Isabel would remember their brief friendship and would come.

Fortunately, Tess was right. Isabel came to save Tess, killing Whitaker in order to protect her — and at the same time remembering that she was Vilondra.

I think Tess was kidnapped because the Skins really thought she was Vilondra and that Max was actually General Rath (Micheal’s alter ego from his past life).

In other words, Tess didn’t strike a deal with the Skins until the episode “Harvest.” In the episode, she still appears to be on the “pod squad’s” side. She spies on the Skins and reports her findings to Isabel, and she is visibly hurt when Isabel snaps at her for interrupting her conversation with Nicholas, the leader of the Skins.

If you pay close attention to the episode, you can see how hard Tess is working to belong, to gain the approval and acceptance of the rest of the Royal Four and their friends. She is actually nice to Liz and they have a chat about Kyle (who they were both romantically involved with). It is also clear how much she loves Max and Isabel in the loyal and fierce way she stands beside them, always trying to help them and protect them, no matter how unappreciated it is.

The moment where Isabel snaps at Tess is, to me, the moment where I think Tess started to just think “Fuck it.”

There is also a scene where Max confronts Liz. Even though the two of them have broken up and he has supposedly moved on to Tess, it is very clear that he is still in love with Liz and that Tess is just a rebound (someone he is using for comfort and emotional support but has no real emotional investment in). He can’t seem to leave Liz alone and keeps cornering her behind Tess’ back, demanding an explanation instead of respecting her agency.

This is classic controlling behavior. Max won’t let Liz walk away from him and refuses to respect her decision, instead being a passive-aggressive asshole and continuously trying to punish her for choosing to end the relationship. And Tess is watching all of this while coming to the slow realization that Max is an asshole and probably not worth all the fuss.

So Max is still in love with Liz, while Isabel and Micheal are still treating Tess like shit. Is it any wonder that Tess started to feel as if she was never going to be accepted?

The episode “Harvest” would have been the perfect time for the Skins to approach Tess and offer her a way out. And why wouldn’t she take it? She probably thought she’d go home to Antar and live in luxury while her son ruled as a puppet king, and it was better than staying on Earth, being treated like crap all the time.

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In the very next episode, “Wipeout!” the Skins corner the Royal Four in the high school, where Nicholas insults Max as an incompetent king who always did trust the wrong people. He seems to be indicating Isabel (who allegedly betrayed him) but the camera pans to Tess.

Now, keep in mind that Tess becoming a villain wasn’t really planned. They decided to have her kill Alex when his actor, Colin Hanks, decided to leave the show. And even then, Tess still wasn’t a villain, in that she killed Alex on accident (while keeping him horribly enslaved, I know).

But because Alex died in Season 2, I think there was room enough for the writers to insert subtle clues and hints that Tess could no longer be trusted. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that Colin Hanks doesn’t appear in many episodes in Season 2, and when he does appear, it’s very brief. This is because he already had one foot out the door. The writers wrote him a way out and used Tess to do it.

In other words, I’m saying that there was enough time that the writers could have been purposely dropping clues in “Harvest” about Tess’ eventual betrayal.

Even though Nicholas has likely struck up a deal with Tess at this point (and has attempted to strike one up with Isabel) he seems to have no qualms about betraying her now by torturing her right alongside Micheal and Isabel. The three of them are tormented in an attempt to glean information from Max.

It should be noted that Tess doesn’t get angry until Nicholas starts torturing her. Before this, Nicholas was just torturing Max, trying to get into his head to get the Granolith’s location. When he resorted to torturing Tess and the others as well, Tess flipped out, causing a mind warp that made it seem as if the Skins were destroyed.

Here is where things get tricky.

I don’t believe the Skins were destroyed.

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I believe what Tess did was a huge mind warp, where she tricked the Skins and the rest of the Royal Four into thinking something had happened that. . . just didn’t.

Nicholas and the Skins were tricked into thinking an explosion was happening, so they ran and were able to escape before the “fire” reached them.

Micheal, Max, and Isabel, meanwhile, were tricked into thinking the Skins were dead. Later, Max talks to Tess about her incredible power, and Tess puts on an act, pretending as if she feels bad for “killing” the Skins and saying she doesn’t want to use that sort of power again.

In reality, Tess frightened away her allies after they betrayed her trust, while tricking the other members of the Royal Four into thinking she had saved them.

You are probably wondering why Tess didn’t just turn everyone over to Nicholas during “Wipeout!” if she had made a deal with the Skins.

Well. It wouldn’t make sense to. The deal was that Tess would get pregnant by Max, and she was still working on that. Also, Tess’ deal was with Kivar, not really Nicholas, who was just a go-between, enjoyed chaos, and didn’t care if he pissed off Kivar by killing the Royal Four. He could easily tell his master that he had no choice but to kill them.

At the end of the episode, a boy who looks very much like Nicholas rides by on a scooter and slams into Tess and Max. I’m pretty convinced the boy was Nicholas, likely screwing with Tess for mind warping him.

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Only two episodes later, Nicholas appears at the summit in “Max in the City,” perfectly alive and just as snarky as ever. At this point, we have also met the dupes — four copies of the Royal Four who are suggested to be the real clones, while Max, Micheal, Isabel, and Tess were dumped in the desert for being “too human.”

As Nicholas points out, Lonnie (the “Isabel” dupe) was obviously lying, though. Because she and her set were dumped in a gutter while Max, Micheal, Isabel, and Tess were carefully hidden away in a pod chamber in a remote location with the Granolith. The dupes weren’t exactly valued.

This is another perfectly good reason why Nicholas wouldn’t have hesitated to kill Tess and the others with her: he knew there was another set of royal clones out there that he could send to Kivar instead.

Tess knows this as well. She is shown to possess more knowledge than Max, Micheal, and Isabel because she was raised by Nasedo. Why wouldn’t she know about the other clones? She knows it’s a race against time, that she must get to Kivar and strike a deal before the other clones do.

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I don’t believe Tess was actually kidnapped by Lonnie and Rath during the summit of Five Worlds. I believe she went off with them to strike up a deal: she gets impregnated by Max, then they meet up again and go to Antar.

At this point, the dupes had already cast aside Ava (their “Tess”) because she protested the murder of Zan (their “Max”). Getting a new “Queen Ava” to return with them would only make Lonnie and Rath more acceptable. And if Tess promised to take them home with her (even if it was a lie), why wouldn’t they believe her?

My screenshot of Liz saving Ava from Isabel and Micheal.
My screenshot of Liz saving Ava from Isabel and Micheal.

Meanwhile back in Roswell, Isabel and Micheal violently interrogate Ava, trying to figure out if Lonnie and Rath are going to betray Max. Micheal smashes things to intimidate her, while Isabel grabs her by the arm and physically threatens her in a shocking display. They are both demanding information from her that she doesn’t have. She is completely innocent, but they don’t give her the slightest benefit of the doubt. It’s like the others have a blind instinct to treat all variations of Tess abhorrently, and Liz is the only one with a shred of pity for her. (So ironic considering that Liz fans blindly hate Tess.)

It’s my opinion that each of the “dupes” represents the true nature of Micheal, Max, Tess, and Isabel.

Lonnie is manipulative, cold, and self-centered. She is all of Isabel’s flaws taken to the extreme, just as Rath is a loud-mouthed loose canon who kills people, and Zan is an arrogant jerk who doesn’t care about Antar and just likes controlling other people — basically all of Micheal and Max’s flaws taken to the extreme.

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But, interestingly enough, Ava is not a horrible, dark, manipulative person like the other dupes. In fact, she’s a doormat. Tess’ one ultimate flaw is that she just lays down and lets the others treat her like crap, and Ava embodies this flaw— to the point that she just stands by as Zan, her lover, is murdered by Lonnie and Rath. To the point that she is willing to sleep in a dumpster (too afraid to ask for help) before Liz notices her and takes her in (the same way Tess had to be taken in by the Valentis).

Just like Tess, Ava is strong, capable, but also sad and alone. And because she is so lonely, she is desperate for love and acceptance, allowing the other dupes to control, bully, and manipulate her until she eventually runs away on her own.

Tess is in the middle of doing the same thing in the same episode, only her personality is on the opposite side of the spectrum to Ava. So instead of hiding and running, Tess is going to ensure her own survival by getting the best deal she can out of the situation, even if it means screwing over the others — who have been so cruel to her anyway.

I think Ava existed to show us what Tess was going through. It’s not a mistake that Liz is the only one who sees how Ava is hurting and tries to help her. Liz is the biggest reason most people hate Tess. I think by using Liz as a mouthpiece, the writers were saying, “Hey, give Tess a break.”

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Now that Tess has struck up a deal with Kivar, she needs to make good on that deal. She sets to work seducing Max, and at the same time, uses Alex to decode the Royal Four’s book, that she might use the Granolith to go home.

Tess was so desperate to escape her isolation, she pushed Alex’s mind to the brink and he died. It was an accident and she felt terrible about it, even crying during the episode “I Cry Your Name.” And yet, people insist that Tess is this evil monster who just didn’t care about human life.

She cared.

But she made a series of unfortunate mistakes while trying to secure her own survival and make a better life for herself — this after being mistreated and abused repeatedly by the people who were supposed to be her family.

In other words, Tess was utterly flawed and human, not a cold and evil monster who didn’t care about people. She was alone and unloved and sought to escape it by literally escaping the planet.

It’s a little sad and ironic. Tess wasn’t actually alone. She managed to make a life for herself with Kyle and Sheriff Valenti, who welcomed her into their home like family. She didn’t need the Royal Four. She already had it pretty good. But she was so wrapped up in feelings of isolation and despair, she couldn’t see how life on Earth could be good.

What’s interesting is that Micheal was the same way in the first season. His home life was abusive and pretty messed up, and because he was so wrapped up in despairing about that, he couldn’t see that Isabel, Max, and Maria all loved him and were there for him.

He spends most of Season 1 chasing Nasedo because he wants a father figure. There’s an episode where he sends up a signal hoping Nasedo will come, and when nothing happens, he mutters sadly, “No one ever comes for me.” Isabel immediately replies that she’ll always come for him, and as loving as she is toward him, her never sees it and takes it for granted.

Tess is the exact same way. It’s not surprising given the rumor that Tess was going to be Micheal’s sister.

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I don’t think Tess ever intended to take the others with her. I think she meant to eventually slip off on her own, leaving Max, Micheal, and Isabel behind. But Liz, determined to find her friend’s killer, stumbled across the translation for the book — which Tess already had — showing the others how to activate the Granolith and leave the planet.

Max, Micheal, and Isabel then decide to leave Earth for Antar, and Tess can’t say anything to stop them because it would mean revealing her deal with Kivar. She is now so bitter and angry, why would she stop them at this point? She’s done nothing but repeatedly protect them and try to befriend them, and all three of them have treated her like trash. She was probably at a point where she had just stopped caring either way what happened to the others.

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When Tess later returns with Max’s baby, it’s revealed that the baby was completely human the entire time. Having failed to deliver an alien heir, she was kicked off Antar and returned to Roswell.

It kinda makes no sense that she returned to Roswell knowing everyone there hated her and that there was an entire FBI segment there devoted to hunting her. I guess they did it for plot convenience? And also because she likely thought the Valentis would take her in.

Sadly, all of them are ready to kill Tess the moment she appears — No compassion for her situation whatsoever. And why would they sympathize with her? In their mind, she’s an evil monster who killed their friend. None of them make the connection that their horrid treatment of her was what drove her to accidentally killing Alex in her desperation to leave the planet.

Liz — who now has alien powers after a silly season-long arc about them — has a ridiculously anti-climatic scene where she throws Tess to the ground and shouts, “Get up, bitch!” or something equally stupid.

The scene is a sad example of a bad cliffhanger, there solely to keep the audience on the edge of their seat and bearing no weight whatsoever. Because immediately after the commercial break, Liz doesn’t get in a epic fight with Tess. Instead, Tess backs down (which is totally in step with her doormat personality), and Liz is dragged away and prevented from fighting Tess.

Such a sad waste of Liz’s new powers. Why give them to her if she never uses them?

Much as she did with Ava, Liz is ultimately the one who winds up showing compassion to Tess. When the others vote that Tess should sacrifice herself as penance for Alex, Liz is the only one who doesn’t. Tess later asks her why and Liz says, “Because I’m not a killer, Tess.” It was a nasty, passive-aggressive attempt to jab Tess for killing Alex, something she already felt bad about.

What people who love Max/Liz as a pair seem to forget is that Liz is actually pretty cold and manipulative. She spends most of Season 1 lying to Kyle, stringing him along, and using him, then dumps him without conscience because of something his friends did to Max behind his back. Honestly, she is just as toxic as Max and they deserve each other.

Tess deserved better than to sacrifice herself stopping the FBI at the end of the series. The writers failed her. They didn’t do a good job showing that she was a human being (or half human, rather) that could be sympathized with. Instead, they played her up as a villain, as if to appease the Max/Liz shippers in the audience. They even had her assure Liz that Max loved her — the same way Ava assured Liz that Zan was always distant, as if he was waiting for his one true love, because Max/Liz fans needed their validation.

The writers never really bothered to elaborate on how or why Tess would have betrayed the others. Even though it was painfully obvious from the start — I mean, everyone treated her like crap — Tess’ arc still needed elaboration, if the Tess-hating fans of the show are anything to go by.

Tess was not evil and she deserved a better arc.

Roswell - Seasons 1-3
Roswell - Seasons 1-3
Own all three seasons now!
 

© 2019 Ash

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