SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for “We Visit the Garden Gnome Emporium,” Episode 3 of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”
For fans of Rick Riordan‘s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” books, Medusa represents one of Percy’s first big victories: After being tricked into spending time with “Aunty Em,” he beheads the snake-haired woman, and her cursed, dead eyeballs are later used to turn another enemy into stone.
But for those with a deeper knowledge of Greek mythology, and for many women, Medusa is a symbol of something darker.
In the original myth, Medusa is a human woman who takes a vow of celibacy out of devotion to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. However, Medusa eventually enters a relationship with sea god Poseidon that becomes sexual one night. Many interpretations posit that the encounter, which took place in Athena’s temple, was nonconsensual, and that Poseidon raped Medusa. Athena decides to punish Medusa, robbing her of her beauty by turning her into a gorgon that petrifies anyone she makes eye contact with. The story ends with the demigod Perseus — who Percy Jackson is named after — decapitating Medusa and gifting her head to Athena.
The 2005 novel was written for a middle school audience and understandably didn’t delve into that backstory. But Percy is the son of Poseidon, and Annabeth, who joins him on his quest, is the daughter of Athena, so both have loaded lineages in the presence of Medusa. So in the TV adaptation of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” now airing on Disney+, the gorgon’s relationships with the kids’ parents gets unpacked with more depth.
Rebecca Riordan, who is married to Rick and executive produces the TV series, says that “the only reason Medusa is not more fleshed out in the books was that it was Percy’s narrative and we don’t have her perspective,” as the books are written in first-person. “As a 12-year-old boy in 2005, I don’t think he had the bandwidth for deconstructing the patriarchy,” adds Rick. “He was looking at it as, ‘This is a scary woman who’s trying to turn me into stone.’”
But that changed upon entering a TV writers room, where other perspectives become essential. “It was one of the first things we talked about, how to not have a patriarchal lens,” Rebecca says.
Medusa is first mentioned in the pilot episode, when Percy’s (Walker Scobell) mother Sally (Virginia Kull) takes her young son (played in a flashback by Azriel Dalman) to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and shows him Antonio Canova’s early 1800s statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s severed head. “Not everyone who looks like a hero is a hero, and not everyone who looks like a monster is a monster,” she says to Percy.
Then, in Episode 3, Percy and his quest-mates, Annabeth (Leah Sava Jeffries) and Grover (Aryan Simhadri), end up lunching with Medusa (Jessica Parker Kennedy). Unlike in the “Lightning Thief” book, the kids realize who the gorgon is immediately, but Percy decides to take his chances with her as she’s the kids’ only option for refuge while being chased by the Alecto (Megan Mullaly), one of the Furies sent by Hades to capture Percy. Annabeth and Grover reluctantly follow. Then Medusa, sensing Annabeth’s anger towards her and allegiance to Athena, tells her side of the story.
“Athena was everything to me. I worshipped her; I prayed to her; I made offerings. She never answered, not even an omen to suggest she appreciated my love,” Medusa says. Then, correctly assuming that Annabeth isn’t as close to her mother as she’d like to be, she adds, “I wasn’t like you, sweetheart. I was you. I would have worshipped her that way for a lifetime: in silence.”
“But then one day, another god came, and he broke that silence. Your father,” she continues, now speaking to Percy. “The sea god told me that he loved me. I felt as though he saw me in a way I had never felt seen before. But then Athena declared that I had embarrassed her and I needed to be punished. Not him. Me. She decided that I would never be seen again by anyone who would live to tell the tale.”
“Percy Jackson” co-creator and co-showrunner Jon Steinberg — who credits writer Daphne Olive for steering much of this storyline — explains how the episode gestures at the original myth while keeping it age-appropriate: “If you know what she’s talking about, you know what she’s talking about. If you’re too young to be in that conversation, it won’t bother you. You’re just in a scene about this woman who seems complicated. And everybody’s got an opinion about what went down. There’s no version that is the version. If Athena and Poseidon were in that room, you’d get three different versions of that story.”
And even though her character never uses the language of sexual assault, Kennedy felt resolute in her interpretation: “Jon wrote a story of [Medusa] thinking that [Poseidon] was someone she could trust, and he broke that trust. She was feeling safe, and then the situation turned unsafe,” she says. “So I chose to play that she was a victim of rape and total abandonment, not understanding why Athena would turn on her.”
Similarly, Rick’s explanation is simple: “There are many versions from ancient times of what happened in that temple with Medusa and Poseidon and Athena. Who’s to blame? Who’s the abuser? What’s the real story? It’s fiction, but it certainly is important to acknowledge that there is abuse involved here. Abuse of power.”
Since Medusa is traditionally thought of as a villain — and she does try to turn the kids into stone at the end of the episode — introducing a nuanced narrative of abuse required some care in the design of the character. She wears a flowy beige gown with a matching hat that just barely covers her dangerous eyes, along with high heels, red lipstick and a gold necklace. In short, she’s not monstrous. She’s beautiful.
“One of the most interesting changes that informed the way she looks is that in Medusa’s point of view, the real curse wasn’t making her ugly. It was making her invisible,” Rick says. “She has chosen, in this version, to own that. To be seen. To be elegant. She turns people into stone and uses that as art.”
Petrifying her enemies, as Rebecca points out, is how Medusa emotionally processes Athena’s curse: “She has been physically changed. She’s accepted herself the way she is, and the power that she has, but she’s also been traumatized,” she says.
Kennedy says she began to fully connect to this expression of Medusa once she received her costume. “She’s so stylish and grounded and calm, and that is hugely a front for the trauma she’s trying to hide,” she says. “She does all of these really awful things, and becomes a terrible person, but I wanted her to feel almost frighteningly calm and kind. I didn’t want her to have a scary voice. I wanted it to feel gentle, but I also wanted to leave a layer of how we know shit’s gonna go bad.”
“Another thing we did was show everybody the statue of Medusa holding Perseus’ head — the inverted story,” Rick says of Luciano Garbati’s 2008 statue that reimagines and reverses Medusa’s death. The piece has become a symbol of the #MeToo movement. “It’s a powerful piece of art to start a conversation about who’s telling the story.” Kennedy also credits this statue for helping her create her version of Medusa.
This nuanced, kinder version of Medusa starts off with some version of good intentions when she meets Percy. She recognizes that like her, he struggles with feeling that Poseidon abandoned him.
“The studio execs were like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a story about Percy gaining his father’s love and respect?’ And it’s like, ‘No, that’s not the story!’ He has to go through: ‘What has my father done? Has he changed? How do I see myself in relationship to that?’” Rebecca says. “Percy can only judge his father by the wreckage he has left behind,” says Rick.
Once she gets a moment alone with him, Medusa offers to help Percy save his mother from Hades, which is his real goal on the quest, even though he’s been instructed to prioritize retrieving Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt. But to save Sally, Medusa implies, they would need to petrify Annabeth and Grover — a punishment for their loyalty to the gods. “There’s a part of Medusa that really thinks she can turn Percy,” Kennedy says. “She’s looking for allies, while knowing, ‘I’m gonna have to kill these kids. But maybe I can convince them: I’m the good guy. Your mom is not a good person. Your dad is not a good person. I was there for them. They weren’t there for me.’”
Of course, Percy refuses to fall into her trap. He ends up following in the footsteps of his namesake and beheading Medusa. But he does this to protect his friends, not Poseidon and Athena. Despite her demise, Medusa does real damage to Percy and Annabeth’s perception of their parents.
“Where [Percy and Annabeth] are most different is in terms of their upbringing,” Steinberg says, as Annabeth had been at Camp Halfblood for years, while Percy has only known that he’s a demigod for a week. “Annabeth is fully steeped in the the Olympian culture, the family culture of what you owe up [to the gods] in tribute and obligation.”
So for the first time, Annabeth has that culture challenged. “She has a calcified vision of her mother that has to change in order to get through this season and develop as a person,” Becky says. “This is the episode where you see that start. ‘Maybe my mom is not who I think she is. Maybe I don’t have to revere her.’”
And Percy, who was already angry about his father’s absence in his life, is shaken by Medusa’s suggestion that his mother’s relationship to Poseidon may not have been as sunny as she made it seem.
“There’s a third act to that subplot of Medusa and Poseidon and Sally that you haven’t seen it yet. It comes in Episode 7, a really powerful flashback scene where you see Sally and Poseidon together,” Rick says.
“What’s most interesting to me [about Episode 3] is where it positions Medusa with respect to Sally, and an awareness that they both dated the same guy and had very different experiences,” Steinberg says. “I like that the story perceives that relationship from Percy’s point of view. It’s not entirely clear: Did they love each other? It seems like they did, but what went wrong? Did anything go wrong? Is it possible that Medusa had an awful experience with Poseidon and Sally didn’t?”
“It was important to leave that a mystery, but to not leave it unaddressed,” he concludes. “As we get deeper into the season, yes, this is Percy’s adventure, but parenting that kid is an adventure unto itself. A scary one. We wanted to tell that story too, and I don’t think you can tell that story without understanding what Poseidon and Sally were to each other. Long story short: They had a complicated relationship.”