Amazon Prime’s ‘Class of 07’: High School Hang-Ups & Universal Trauma

Amazon Prime’s apocalypse comedy Class of ‘07, starring Emily Browning, is a surprising vessel through which to explore the nuances of relationships, forgiveness, and the necessity of accepting people as flawed but ever-evolving. It might not be obvious at first glance, but underneath the series’ absurdist premise and tone is a refreshingly honest look at the complexity of being human. At a time where it often feels like online discourse revolves around whether or not characters are good or moral people, Class of ‘07 says – quite loudly – “Fuck that; people are complicated.”

The wounds of high school relationships are hardly new ground, and Class of ‘07 kicks off using the most common of tropes: the reunion that brings them all back together and reopens those wounds. In doing so, it asks a familiar question: do people really change? So often in the media, the resounding answer is no: Once a mean girl, always a mean girl. Or a druggie, or a suck-up, or an invisible nerd.

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Emily Browning as Zoe in Class of ’07 (COURTESY: Amazon)

Class of ‘07 is more nuanced, exploring stagnancy and change by forcing its characters into extended proximity through the ridiculous plot device of an apocalyptic flood that leaves them isolated in their rural boarding school. The girls are both unsure whether the rest of humanity survived and forced to live together in the same environment they shared as teens.

As the series unfolds, it shows us time and again that people, relationships, and even our perception of personal experiences are always more than just one truth. This notion weaves itself through almost every relationship in the show, leading its characters to wonder whether fractured relationships can be repaired, whether friendships can survive when people outgrow who they once were, and whether new ones can grow after significant harm has been inflicted.

One of Class of 07‘s most interesting conceits, and the one that drives the plot for the first half of the season, is the challenge of striving for authenticity against others’ perceptions of you. As the reality of their situation starts to sink in and Amelia (Megan Smart) turns to Saskia (Caitlin Stasey) for leadership, we get our first glimpse at Saskia’s struggle with this. “I know that I hurt you and please know that I am sorry but this authority you all look to me with…it’s projected and I never asked for it,” she tells Amelia, in an effort to articulate her own feelings about her status within the group.  

But Amelia persists: “Don’t overthink it. We just need a bitch.”

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Caitlin Stasey as Saskia in Class of ’07 (COURTESY: Amazon)

There is a strange sort of irony to this interaction: while Saskia declares “I don’t do that shit anymore,” it only takes seeing her peers go to war over room allocations for her to change her mind. The truth of Saskia’s development as a person, as evidenced by her consistent displays of compassion in Class of ’07‘s first two episodes, is what drives her to be the bitch Amelia asks her to be – not because Saskia wants to be one, but because she cares about the survival of her peers.

But Saskia also bears the dual weight of the girls expecting she’ll ensure their survival and remaining skeptical of her motives. When Saskia makes decisions they don’t like, it’s all too easy for them to invoke her past as evidence that she’s still the same bully she was in high school. At one point, Renee (Emma Horn) mutters, “Too Cool’s privilege continues,” to murmurs of agreement from the others. And when Amelia later challenges her over her leadership decisions, Saskia herself articulates her own struggle: “’Don’t overthink it,’ you said. ‘We just need a bitch.’ So here I am…I’ll never forgive you for asking me to return to the person I worked very hard to leave behind.”

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Still from Class of ’07 (COURTESY: Amazon)

The familiarity of this role makes it harder for Saskia to maintain perspective on the balance between using the role of Bitch to get what she needs out of the group in service of building sustainable survival strategies and empathy. She begins to unravel in the discomfort of re-becoming the person she worked so hard to grow out of while dealing with resurfacing trauma. Saskia’s scenes with her mop head therapist are some of the most heart-wrenching of the whole show and provide us with a new layer through which to understand her.

The careful peeling of Saskia’s layers to show us how hard she’s tried to move on from who she was in High school is beautifully contrasted with example after example of how Genevieve has not. From bringing printed-out copies of her High school CV to the reunion to her initial attempts to take on the role of leader and her consistent attempts to rouse school spirit through song and school mottos, Genevieve (Claire Lovering) demonstrates that she has remained thoroughly entrenched in her High school experience, unable to enact agency in her life to move beyond it and simultaneously compelled to try to rewrite it this time around by slowly building a rebellion against Saskia.

When her classmates discover Saskia’s involvement in Sandy’s disappearance they are eager to join in Genevieve’s rage and punish her. Amelia’s insistence that Saskia must at least be given a fair trial brings this comparison of Saskia versus Genevieve, of change versus stagnancy, into crystal clear focus, with Saskia’s admission to Zoe at the beginning of the trial that what she feels is: “Relief, that I don’t have to be this person anymore,” and eventually Genevieve’s angry outburst that the trial isn’t really about Sandy, “It’s about what a fucking bitch Saskia is.”

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Caitlin Stasey as Saskia in Class of ’07 (COURTESY: Amazon)

Even at her bitchiest post-apocalypse, Saskia’s actions have always revolved around maintaining the group’s social cohesion in order to maximize their survival. Genevieve’s actions, by contrast, have revolved entirely around her own needs and desires, hiding the existence of a working toilet for her own private use, and putting Saskia on trial in the hope that punishing her will alleviate the pain she’s been holding onto.

Though Saskia is presented as the primary antagonist in the first half of the series, she is also beautifully deconstructed to demonstrate human complexity. Saskia was a bully who caused genuine harm to her peers as a teenager and that reality is never denied by her. At the same time, we are let in on her own experience of manipulation and abuse by a person with significantly more power over her than she had over her peers; a male school teacher who groomed her into a relationship in their final year of school.

The show doesn’t deny Genevieve her anger even after this revelation, allowing her to truthfully point out that, “Saskia was a bitch before grade twelve,” and that’s important. Saskia’s abuse is not treated as a twist designed to explain or justify her own bullying of other people but it does remind us that no person is just one thing. Saskia has been both a bully and a victim and she genuinely attempts to make herself accountable for the former while actively working through the trauma of the latter.

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Emily Browning as Zoe and Sana’a Shaik as Teresa in Class of ’07 (COURTESY: Amazon)

This allows us to contrast Saskia’s growth with Genevieve’s lack of. Even towards the end of the series, as the girls decide to throw a ‘Last Day on Earth’ party, Genevieve refuses to see Saskia and herself in any other roles than High school Bully and Victim. “Oh just shit on me already, this fake nice bullshit is worse,” she reacts when Saskia tries to give her rightful credit for the execution of the party.

By refusing to see that Saskia can change, she limits her own capacity for change and in the end still relies on Saskia’s treatment of her as a person to influence her decisions, lamenting not being able to engage in the party until Saskia feels compelled to explicitly gives her permission to, “I can’t change the fact that I fucked you up but you spent all of high school making things happen for everyone else and I think you deserve to enjoy yourself.”

As characters, Saskia, while undeniably flawed, embodies growth whereas Genevieve embodies stagnancy.

This theme is also delicately explored through the friendship between Tegan (Bernie Van Tiel) and Megan (Chi Nguyen.) For most of the series, they are depicted as teenagers utterly frozen in time, their only apparent interest in life: chasing a buzz. Yet as the series unfolds they are challenged to reassess their approach to both life and their friendship through a pivotal moment of conflict in which Megan reads Tegan’s letter to herself from the time capsule, revealing her hope that Megan wouldn’t be her only friend in ten years’ time.

Megan’s hurt over Tegan’s teenage hope that she wouldn’t be her only friend is acutely understandable. It cuts to the very heart of common insecurity, the feeling of not being enough. And yet Tegan’s hope to have more than one relationship in her life is not only relatable but a healthy aspiration. We see all too clearly how the lack of that has resulted in a codependent relationship that has allowed Megan’s alcoholism to thrive and is threatened when Tegan finally calls her out on it and declares that she doesn’t want to indulge it anymore.

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Still from Class of ’07 (COURTESY: Amazon)

Both their feelings of hurt and dissatisfaction within their relationship, in high school and in adulthood, are easily understandable; it forces them to examine whether or not they can move through those challenges to rebuild a relationship. In contrast to Saskia and Genevieve’s relationship, Megan and Tegan’s asks us to consider how we handle wounds in relationships that are hurtful but not actively malicious.

This is also the question at the center of Zoe and Amelia’s relationship which permeates the whole season and shows most acutely the complex emotional tug of war relationships can be.

As flashbacks reveal, Zoe and Amelia were best friends for a significant part of high school but gradually drifted apart as Zoe became more involved with Saskia. Their relationship is ultimately fractured for good when Amelia leaves school unexpectedly without explaining to Zoe why. This event as the culmination of their high school relationship has left the two of them just as wounded by each other as the rest of the girls were by Saskia’s acts of bullying.

Throughout the course of the season they move through more than a few attempts at reconciliation and connection but time and again find themselves in conflict, both because of the hurts they still harbor, and because of their different outlooks on life and relationships.

Amelia tends to be fatalistic whereas Zoe often presents as, perhaps naively, hopeful. During one of the confrontations about their friendship Amelia asserts that they wouldn’t have remained friends after high school anyway so it doesn’t matter if they aren’t friends now, basing this assertion on the notion that their lives are simply too different, asking Zoe, “What would we even talk about?” Zoe’s response to that is of course as simple as it is hopeful: “Our lives.”

Amelia’s perspective does touch on something very real; not all relationships transcend the specific phases of our lives in which they’re forged. Those losses can be felt deeply, as we see with both Amelia and Zoe, but they are often a reality of life.

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Emily Browning as Zoe and Megan Smart as Amelia in Class of ’07 (COURTESY: Amazon)

Nevertheless Class of ’07 specifically brings the two back together again and again to explore another complex truth: relationships also require active participation and work to maintain. They require vulnerability and acceptance of flaws and failures in order to grow and thrive. Zoe and Amelia’s friendship as teenagers were fractured by Zoe’s lack of courage to step outside of Saskia’s influence to maintain her friendship with Amelia and Amelia’s fear of vulnerability preventing her from being honest with Zoe about her reason for leaving school; she’s mother’s suicide. As young adults still learning who they were and how to navigate complex experiences they were unable to salvage their friendship.

As adults, they are presented with the opportunity to change that by being active participants in repairing and maintaining their friendship and it’s Zoe who steps up to that challenge most wholeheartedly. Throughout the season, most of Zoe’s choices – good and bad –  are ultimately driven by her desire to reconnect with Amelia, and thankfully we see those choices mature.

When Amelia’s fatalism drives her to give up on survival and she begins to mentally check out, Zoe refuses to let her do so alone. Despite Amelia’s attempts to push her away, Zoe remains determined to continue caring for her, hopeful in her belief that life is worth fighting for.

At times throughout the series, Zoe can feel the hardest to empathize with, and the hardest to forgive, because her failings are ultimately so simple. Time and again she acts primarily out of selfishness and cowardice. For Zoe, it’s easier to follow than to challenge. It’s easier to blame everyone else than accept valid criticism of herself. But Zoe is also the character who most commits to trying, again, and again, and again, no matter her mistakes.

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Megan Smart as Amelia in Class of ’07 (COURTESY: Amazon)

Because as Zoe herself declares rather gut wrenchingly in the final episode: she matters. Despite all her flaws and her failures, despite Amelia’s callous declaration that she doesn’t, Zoe refuses to abandon the belief that she matters.

This is the very crux of personal growth.

And it drives Zoe’s final actions in the finale — because she doesn’t just believe that she matters, she believes they all do and once again uses the radio to broadcast their coordinates in the hope of rescue as she sees the group at its absolute lowest.

More than that though, Zoe’s growth is most encapsulated by her commitment to caring for Amelia even in the wake of Amelia’s deliberate attempts to hurt her by using all of Zoe’s deepest insecurities against her. When she volunteers to be sacrificed instead of Megan, Zoe makes a drastic final effort to save Amelia from her own despair by knocking her out, putting her on a boat, and begging her to go out to sea where there’s a group of survivors who can help her get her antidepressant medication and find the will to continue surviving.

Zoe refuses to indulge Amelia’s fatalism or cynicism about friendship any longer telling her,

“This thing you refuse to call friendship because god forbid, ew yucky, this is all either of us have left. The difference between surviving and actually living up here is doing all the same shit but having somebody else to do it with. It’s a fucking privilege okay.”

It’s enough to pull Amelia out of her despondency and admit that, actually, she does want to keep feeling things, she does want to survive, and ultimately she wants to do that with Zoe’s friendship.

Class of ‘07 doesn’t pretend that time heals all wounds or that growth entitles you to absolution. Instead, it challenges us to consider whether we approach relationships from a place of acceptance that people are flawed, complex beings, or hold them to a kind of unending accountability for the mistakes of being human and, in doing so, risk isolating ourselves from authentic connection. The kind that’s messy and sometimes painful, but that ultimately defines the difference between surviving and living.

A relationship — and life itself — is a constant series of choices and because of Zoe’s relentless refusal to give up on their friendship Amelia finally understands this and gives us the final words of the first series as they ride their bike-boat out to sea together, encapsulating the ethos running through this show.

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