Recovery Road's shocking nightmare sequence proves Freeform isn't for kids (PHOTOS)

Jan 26, 2016 at 1:05 a.m. ET
Image: Freeform/YouTube

Recovery Road is the latest show to premiere on the newly rebranded Freeform, and it may be the one that most clearly demonstrates how the network is moving away from its family-friendly roots. Whereas ABC Family programming has always been known for dramatic yet ultimately uplifting programming for children and teens of all ages, Recovery Road — which, in its pilot alone, addresses grief, addiction, rape and violence — is geared toward the most mature teenage demographic.

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Recovery Road stars Jessica Sula (of the British incarnation of Skins) as Maddie Graham, a 17-year-old girl whose drinking and drug addictions land her in a 90-day live-in substance abuse treatment program. Maddie still goes to school during the day, but for the next three months, she'll be spending every morning, night and weekend moment at Spring Meadows. Maddie is rebellious and doesn't see herself as truly belonging at the facility, but since her only other option is expulsion, she makes the effort to give it a fair chance.

Recovery Road_Dream
Image: ABC Family/Eric McCandless

The first clue that Maddie's journey will be a bit more intense than the sort of journey typically seen on a family show comes about halfway through the pilot. During her first night at Spring Meadows, Maddie has a dream about her deceased father. He was killed by a drunk driver when Maddie was 14, and although common sense would suggest that such an experience would encourage her to be cautious with substances, we all know that the grief process is never that simple. It might not come as a shock, then, that her grief has pushed her in the complete opposite direction, one embracing of alcoholism and risky behavior.

Maddie's dream about her father starts out nicely — he offers her support and comfort as she transitions into this new living situation. But quickly, the dream morphs into a nightmare and we see a glimpse of what Maddie's father must have looked like after he was hit by the drunk driver.

Recovery Road_Nightmare
Image: ABC Family/Eric McCandless

When Maddie sees her bloody, bruised father, she screams in terror and wakes up. Whether it was first night jitters or a recurring nightmare is unknown at this point. As terrifying as the image was, I would be interested in seeing the show continue to use dreams and nightmares as a way of tapping into Maddie's subconscious and addressing the trauma and fears that have contributed to her struggle with addiction. Perhaps dreams will be a safer place than group therapy for Maddie to process her demons.

What we do know right now is that Recovery Road isn't afraid to show the very real, frightening and dark sides of difficult issues. Substance abuse on its own isn't exactly a picnic, but Recovery Road isn't interested in sugarcoating it one bit.

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The intensity heats up again toward the end of the episode, when Maddie's mother visits her at Spring Meadows. During the conversation, her mother takes out a condom wrapper that she discovered in Maddie's car, expressing gratitude that, at the very least, her daughter is engaging in safe sex. But this reveal is more shocking to Maddie than she's willing to let on.

Earlier in the episode, Maddie mentions that she is a virgin. When she sees the condom wrapper, she realizes that she's engaged in sexual activity under the influence — but she doesn't know with whom or when or how often. She can't remember any of it. And although she knows that this makes the sex non-consensual (and therefore rape, not sex), she tells her roommate that she feels guilt and fear that she may have initiated or vocalized consent anyway. That wakeup call leads her to take her work in rehab much more seriously than she had previously.

Recovery Road_Doug in jacket
Image: ABC Family/Adam Taylor

Shortly after this, Maddie and the others receive a surprise visitor: newly discharged patient Doug. When we meet Doug earlier in the episode, his Spring Meadows peers gift him a leather jacket as a parting gift once he finishes the program. But sobriety doesn't stick for him and he shows up at the house drunk (or high or both), physically and sexually threatening housemate Rebecca. Doug's actions lead to his arrest, but not before several violent altercations make the residents fear for their safety and well-being.

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Recovery Road's pilot is certainly a strong one, and audiences can look forward to a compelling, thoughtful look at addiction and recovery. But what's more notable than its quality is its extremely mature and disturbing content. Although nothing appears to be included solely for shock value, this is a far more shocking (and, potentially, controversial) show than one might be accustomed to seeing on ABC Family. Does the rebranding of Freeform mean that we have many new shows as dark and as serious as Recovery Road to look forward to? Hopefully so, because if this episode is any indication, Freeform is a network that truly knows how to address dark and challenging issues with a huge amount of sensitivity and grace. Just don't let the little ones stay up for it or they'll have nightmares as terrifying as Maddie's.