“The Horror of Dolores Roach” Signals a Shift Toward Embracing Flawed and Multifaceted Latine Characters
Picture this: It’s the early 2000s, and you’re a typical New Yorker living with the love of your life, who happens to run the block. You’re stashing money in your cozy apartment and saving for that dream house in Jersey, but one fateful day, while alone at home, you get busted by the police during a simple cannabis transaction. The next 16 years of your life are spent behind bars because you steadfastly refused to snitch on your hustler soulmate, whose phone line has suddenly become unreachable.
Having lost over a decade of your life for a substance that can now be found at a local shop in your not-so-recognizable gentrified Washington Heights, you’re desperately in need of a place to stay, a job, and answers as to why your no-good ex left you to rot. Then you stumble across an old but charmingly unconventional neighbor, the owner of the only familiar establishment on the block: your favorite empanada shop. He offers you a spare room, and you start offering unlicensed massages to anyone willing to pay.
However, after your first client gropes you, something inside you SNAPS, and you murder him. In your mind, you had no other choice. The first kill, as well as the subsequent ones, were a means of survival. Although, you’re willing to admit the empanadas, created from their flesh by your kind but psychopathic friend, may have taken things a step too far.
This is the premise of Amazon Prime Video’s latest comedy-thriller series “The Horror of Dolores Roach,” starring the talented Justina Machado as the anti-villain no one saw coming. Admittedly a fan of shows like Showtime’s “Dexter,” Netflix’s “You,” and the show’s original inspiration, “Sweeney Todd,” I eagerly binged this eight-part series in one sitting, so I had to know, is Dolores anything like her white male counterparts? Is she secretly a psychopath waiting for prey, or is she situationally deranged?
The world of Dolores Roach was 10 years in the making. It started as a one-woman show written by Aaron Mark and developed alongside the legendary Daphne Rubin-Vega, who portrayed Dolores in the play and subsequent Gimlet Media original podcast and who serves as the series’s executive producer. “The Horror of Dolores Roach” has a dark-comedy approach that adds a little sabor to an eerily familiar genre. It adapts a podcast into a series that once again invites us into the mind of a killer seamlessly utilizing a recognizable voice-over technique. However, in an age where we’re accustomed to hearing the inner monologue of self-indulgent men, is it time we encounter a new breed of monster?
“She absolutely considers herself a victim of circumstances,” Machado says. “Dolores thinks she’s a good person, [after her first kill] she says, ‘I’m not a bad person’ . . . she’s thinking about surviving . . . She doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong. She thinks . . . THEY made her do it.”
Setting aside cannibalism, murder, and overall chaos, this show showcases a true survival story. Its charm lies in the predicament of when in a difficult circumstance and in an attempt to survive, what other choice does this human have?
“The reason I loved Dolores so much was because . . . It’s layered . . . It was so liberating to play a part that had no boundaries, no limits, no judgment. [It’s a series] that just went for it . . . [with characters that] didn’t care about being likable or lovable . . . it’s just telling a really incredible, unique, outrageous story through the lens of people you don’t usually see playing these kinds of stories,” Machado says, referring to the lack of women – particularly women of color – who get to play these types of complex roles.
“You usually see a white man playing this and usually see us getting killed right away,” she adds. “So, it’s all of those things that attracted me to this project. It’s just like a wild, incredible, fun ride.”
Entertainment holds a special place in the hearts of Latine individuals. Despite our status as avid consumers, the movies we immerse ourselves in often fall short of representing our broad human experience. Despite comprising almost 20 percent of the US population, our representation in TV roles stands at a mere 5.3 percent. Sadly, our encounters with onscreen depictions of ourselves too often result in one-dimensional portrayals and narratives steeped in stereotypes and tropes. This glaring reality creates a disheartening paradox that challenges the true essence of representation.
Can one story, one Latine character, really represent a large majority? Should we be subject to constantly looking for relatability because of the lack of visibility? Despite featuring a wonderfully diverse Latine cast and production staff, should our focus shift? Should we turn our attention toward discussing the root issue of white writers and creators conceptualizing our narratives? Are they treating our stories as nothing more than ingredients in a freshly folded empanada? Could this be an underlying cause of this ongoing problem?
Regardless, Dolores’s fate speaks to the reality of life for many after incarceration – including the falsely accused. Although one could make the case that Dolores embodies yet another simplistic portrayal of a Latina, burdened by stereotypes as a criminal and a murderer with a past tied to her drug-dealing partner, she also emerges as a character brimming with anguish, shadows of betrayal, and an unquenchable wrath.
Do we, as a community, purposely evade acknowledging this nuance? Is there a notable reluctance in embracing the notion that women can exhibit cruelty and abuse and even commit acts of murder? Are we prepared for narratives that delve into such ethically intricate territory?
We live in a world where white male actors are granted the opportunity to portray flawed and complex characters, including psychopaths and criminals. But given the inadequate respectful and affirming depiction of Latine characters in film and television, it’s understandable that there is hesitancy within the community when it comes to seeing Latine characters on screen who are criminals or touch on any negative stereotype.
“We all know that entertainment can hurt us and can help us, can hurt us in the fact that for many many years, we as Latinos have been portrayed as the bad person. Entertainment changes people’s minds, so I think that you can sympathize with [Dolores] and empathize with that situation . . . she’s a serial killer . . . I would never do that,” Machado says. “I’ve never wanted to kill anybody, that’s not even anything that’s gone through my head, I’ve never had that much rage. But that’s what was so great about playing her, to be able to play somebody that has that much rage. That will go that far. That will do [whatever] it takes to survive.”
But is there significance in Machado portraying a flawed and intricate Latine protagonist? What milestones must the Latine community reach before we are ready to embrace such portrayals? Have we finally reached a stage where Latine actors can embody a wide range of characters, including heroines and unrepentant villains? If the goal is to encompass a multitude of Latine stories, characters, and experiences, could “The Horror of Dolores Roach” open new, unexpected doors that promote authenticity, variety, and the multifaceted nature of inclusion? Can it be enough to indulge in a story riddled with cracks allowing us to question the complexities of the human experience?
I believe Machado is actively challenging the oversimplified perceptions that confine Latina actors in portraying roles exclusively as sweet, loving, and flawless caregivers. The show immerses us in a continuous struggle between supporting and questioning the main characters, all while maintaining a playful unpredictability and refusing to take itself too seriously.
It left me contemplating how many of us exist as bundles of contradictions, constantly teetering on the edge, just one circumstance away from potentially becoming unrecognizable versions of ourselves.