(Throwback Thursday) An Owen Harper Character Study. Or: Why “Fragments” Shit All Over Poor Owen

March 1, 2018

"Throwback Thursdays" are for metas, rants, reviews, and the like that have already been written elsewhere, primarily on tumblr. Due to tumblr's specific culture there's often a slight difference in the language and tone of these posts. That is, less "professional scholar" and more "exasperated fangirl." Both are useful in their own right.


Originally posted Feb. 5th 2015 




The tl;dr


Owen’s backstory in “Fragments” makes absolutely no sense for his characterization and it was generally just shitty writing. (It’s also a lovely example of fridging a female character but that’s a discussion for another post).


The Ranty Explanation


Let’s go forth in chronological order.


We barely know anything about Owen’s childhood. What we primarily have is all from the episode “Adam” in which—following Jack’s orders to remember what makes them them—Owen speaks the following lines about his mother.


“It’s my birthday. I’m ten. Mum spends the whole day screaming, ‘I love you because you’re my son but that doesn’t mean I have to like you.”


“Turned sixteen. She packs my bags—‘That’s the nicest thing you’ve done for me in years, mother.’”


This is admittedly not a lot of information, but it’s enough to hint—none too subtly—that Owen’s childhood wasn’t a nice one. His mother “loves” him but doesn’t have to “like” him. That sounds a lot like a mother who only “loves” her son because she views that as the requirement of a parent. It doesn’t sound like love at all. This is only reinforced when, presumably, Owen leaves home at sixteen and his mom “packs [his] bags”—implying again that she either forced him to leave or heartily encouraged him going. Either way, getting away from her was the “nicest thing” that had happened to Owen in years. His father isn’t even mentioned.


So picture a sixteen-year-old boy coming out of that situation. He’s probably angry, confused, terrified out of his mind. Owen obviously doesn’t completely fall to pieces as he manages to go to school and become a top doctor, but his brilliance in the field is often praised, so that talent was no doubt a huge part of his career success. Emotionally, however, Owen probably turned toward certain coping mechanisms we see later—such as sarcasm, drinking, lots of unattached sex—in lieu of a stable, emotional environment. We could also look at how Owen reacts to Jack forgiving him in “End of Days.” His breakdown is coded very much as the relief of a son-figure being forgiven by a father/authority-figure. It’s the relief of someone who otherwise doesn’t have that in his life and has been terrified of losing it.



What I’m saying is that sixteen-year-old Owen probably looked a lot like the Owen we know now: a less purposeful, more chaotic version him. There’s a straight, logical line from his childhood to his adulthood. His characterization makes a fair bit of sense.




Except that “Fragments” gives us backstory that’s the equivalent of shoving a square peg in a round hole.

Alien-infestation aside, the Owen of “Fragments” appears to be living a near perfect life: he has the beautiful fiancé (Katie), a gorgeous home, a stable job as a doctor, and he’s planning a very traditional wedding. Now granted, all of this is reasonable. What’s not, however, is Owen himself. His personality is also just a little too perfect… he constantly wears well-tailored suits, speaks politely, and seems in no way eager to crack a joke or kick back with a slice of pizza and a beer. He’s poised instead of promiscuous and professional instead of cheeky. The most banter past!Owen engages in is about who will be sitting where during their wedding reception. He is, simply put, the exact opposite of the Owen we’ve gotten to know (and surprisingly settled in comparison to the Owen we’ve deduced from his childhood). This is an Owen that doesn’t fit into his past or his present. 


The answer I’ve seen most fans give is, “Well his wife died. He gets to be like that because of her death. He’s drowning his grief in sarcasm, alcohol, and sex.” 


Except that still doesn’t work for me. For two main reasons:

  1. There is no indication that Katie’s death had that huge of an impact on Owen (or really any impact at all).

  2. Even if it had, the death of a loved one doesn’t change a person’s every mannerism. Their personality is not erased in the way that we see here.

Let’s start with number 2 as that’s the less complicated point. This is the Owen we know:




From top to bottom this Owen radiates relaxation and casual immaturity. His hair is stylishly messy (if I remember correctly Dianne teases him for having beauty products in “Out of Time”). Though not pictured here, Owen often favors novelty t-shirts and casual layering. His coat—the symbol of his profession—is riddled with colorful buttons (which can be identified here). His posture is slouched, he’s got a pen stuck in his mouth, and none of this even touches on his crude personality filled with curse words, cruel jokes, and a sex life that doesn’t exactly favor monogamy.


In contrast, this is the Owen of “Fragments”: 




Dressed in suits and collared shirts, darker colors, neater hair, always kind, always polite, when he “slouches” it’s elegantly across his bed while planning that perfect wedding. There’s no anger, no mischief… none of the Owen we’d expect from his childhood and none of the Owen we’ve seen for two seasons. Apparently we’re meant to believe that Katie’s arrival changed him so completely and that her departure reverted him back.


Again, this could be possible. Again, the true--love--fixes--all is a problematic but incredibly popular trope. The issue—and here we come to point number one—is that there’s no evidence that Katie actually was the love of Owen’s life capable of "reforming" him in that manner… beyond the narrative trying to beat that over our heads in under twenty minutes.


Let’s again move in chronological order. Beyond his one night stands the first relationship we see Owen in is with Gwen. Though their partnering might best be termed “fuck buddies” and though they eventually break it off, there’s no doubt that Owen feels a great deal of love for Gwen, whether you choose to view that as romantic, platonic, brotherly, familial, etc. The point is that right off the bat we see that, after Katie, Owen is still capable of combining love with sexual relations. 


Then comes Dianne. A large chunk of “Out of Time” is spent showing the viewer just how hard Owen falls for Dianne. He knows her a WEEK (something another character comments on, though admittedly I forget who) but that’s more than enough time for her to arguably earn her the status as the “love of his life.” Her leaving (not even her assured death, just her leaving) sends Owen into a downward spiral that isn’t remotely comparable to his tears--by--the--graveside--and--punching--Jack reaction to Katie’s horrifying death. Owen begs Dianne not to leave and later he’s willing to tear open the rift just to get to her. The question this immediately raises for me is, why wasn’t he willing to tear open the rift for Katie? Go back and try to stop it all?


More important than even this, Owen has an entire speech in which he admits his love for Dianne. Crucially he says,


“I don’t know if I can do this any more. This isn’t how it works for me. I’ve slept with enough women, I’ve done the fuck buddies thing… this is not it. I can’t concentrate. All I see is you. All I can think about is what you’re wearing, what you’re thinking, what your… what your face looks like when you cum. It's been what? A week? And it’s like, when I’m not with you, um… I’m out of focus. How have you done this to me? I’m scared. I’m fucking scared.”

Dianne: “I love you too.”


Now I think originally you could make an argument that Owen is “fucking scared” of falling in love again—that he’s terrified of loving and losing for a second time—except that Dianne ends this scene with, “I love you too,” heavily implying that Owen is scared of love, period. The implication is that he’s never been in love before, he’s just done the “fuck buddies thing,” and now when he is in love he can’t even recognize it. Dianne has to tell him what he’s feeling.


It’s Dianne who gives Owen a whole arc focused on his grief. It’s Dianne who he wants to open the rift for. Not Katie.


Between Katie and Dianne, the only other person in competition for Owen’s affections is, obviously, Tosh.

It’s clear that Tosh loves Owen (the narrative allows for no ambiguity there) and there’s heavy evidence that Owen may love Tosh in turn. He agrees to go on that date after all and they share more than one tender moment towards the end of season two. However, I’m particularly interested in the episode “Adam” where Owen is reduced to a nerd-stereotype with a (supposedly) manufactured love for Tosh that drives his every action.




I say “supposedly” because Adam tells Jack that he made everyone “better.” In the case of Owen he did this by removing certain failings:


“Look at Owen. All his cynicism gone. He’s selfless. Happier.”


This makes Owen’s manipulation quite different from, say, Ianto’s whose own invasion can actually be seen as a contrast to Owen’s. In order to make Ianto into something he instinctually isn't—a murderer—Adam has to implant new memories, forcing them in where they don't rest easily. The process, if you recall, is incredibly long and painful. It doesn’t stick. Compare that to the ease with which Owen becomes this nerd stereotype. It’s not that Adam fully remolded him like he tried to do with Ianto, he simply removed Owen’s “cynicism.” The implication is that underneath this cynicism—under all the crude humor and cutting jabs—Owen is exactly just like the Owen in "Adam." At his core Owen’s defining traits are shown to be kindness and self-deprecation. It fits well with the Owen we’ve slowly come to see over two seasons: the jerk with a heart of gold (and more than a little self-hatred). 


Additionally, this Owen is also madly in love with Tosh.


And of course, absolutely none of these things fit with the suave, content, in--love--with--Katie Owen of “Fragments.”


Cynicism is a very broad thing for Adam to remove. Cynicism builds up over time, from awful childhoods and struggling teen years and a job that has you seeing some of the worst sides of the universe. Notably, Adam did not remove grief from Owen’s mind. Even if we choose to ignore how Owen’s bared personality does not match with his pre-Torchwood personality, Adam makes no mention of removing the grief of a lost love one. Whatever is driving Owen to be unhappy, Katie’s death doesn’t seem to be a major contributor.

Indeed, the only possible evidence of Katie’s death having an impact on Owen are in the deleted scenes. In one, when Gwen comes back from first seeing the Weevil, Suzie says that Owen was “crying like a baby” his first day on the job. The implication is that Weevils and other alien things proved overwhelming for him. Owen insists it was “hay feve.“ However, if you wanted you could read that as lingering grief over Katie’s death.


(In contrast, however, there’s another deleted scene from "Ghost Machine” where Owen picks up the alien technology that allows you to see the past/present and murmurs, “So we could really see the future…” It strikes me as odd that a man who supposedly loved someone so much would be more interested in seeing his future than in seeing his past).


Honestly? She really doesn't seem that important. 


Some additional notes: 


  • I find it significant that this bared Owen apparently loved Tosh as soon as they started working together (I believe Ianto says he immediately “idolized” her). If Adam’s manipulations reveal any truths—and I think they do—then Owen began loving Tosh as soon as he started working at Torchwood. Or, to put it another way, he fell in love just weeks after Katie’s death.


  • I find it significant that Jack convinces Owen to join Torchwood based on his love of being a doctor. He joins because he can save people in general. Not because he was unable to save his fiancé (and Jack knew not to play that card).


  • I find it significant that Owen’s tragedy stems from aliens yet he never shows any signs of hating extraterrestrials for personal reasons and he never seems to have difficulty utilizing alien tech. If Katie's death had truly had any sort of impact, we'd expect to see that in Owen's later years. 


  • I find it significant that we have an entire arc revolving around Owen’s death—about his fear of the darkness—and at no point does he lament not being reunited with his fiancé in that darkness.


  • I find it significant that we have Jack and Gray, Ianto and Lisa, Gwen and Rhys, snippets of Tosh and her mother, all these arcs involving loved ones… but Katie isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the series.


Beyond "Fragments," she's just not there. 


Of course, the easy answer to all this is that Katie wasn’t invented until “Fragments”… and that’s exactly my issue. If you’re going to devote an entire episode to backstories make sure the backstories work. Make sure they fit with the rest of the series because Owen’s story doesn’t. All these issues aside, we don’t even get to know poor Katie. How can we? She has only tiny bits of screen time, even fewer lines, and those are devoted almost entirely to how she’s losing her memories. We literally can’t know Katie because she’s ceasing to know herself and if we don’t know her, why in in the world should we care about her? How can we expect to sympathize with Owen in this instance when there’s so little to sympathize with? 


In truth Katie exists only to die and—presumably—give Owen a “touching” and “complicated” past. Well, I’m sorry to say, but that was a complete and epic flop. 


In happier news though...thanks for reading!




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