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‘Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger’ Team Talks Crafting a Sex Trafficking Story in Season 2

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the two-hour April 4 second season premiere of “Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger.”

“Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger’s” second season kicked off with its central duo Tandy (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) just starting to crack open the door of a very real, non-superpowered, problem: human trafficking.

“This is who Cloak and Dagger are in the comics,” showrunner Joe Polaski tells Variety. “They were introduced in the ‘80s and helped runaway kids and heroin addicts like that. Tandy and Tyrone are the patron saints of lost children. It felt like the right story for them to tell.”

Though the first season of “Cloak & Dagger” also tackled grounded issues, with the characters and their partnership established the second season gave the writers’ room opportunity to go a little deeper with darker issues. Pokaski, inspired by research he did for his previous show, “Underground,” realized the New Orleans setting of his current drama allowed them to dive into the underreported issue and push the central heroes outside of their comfort zone.

“I thought it would be nice for them to shine some light where there was not light shone before. We did a lot of research and tried to figure out how to dramatize it without sensationalizing it,” Pokaski says.

Pokaski tapped “Cloak & Dagger” writer Niceole Levy — a former police dispatcher he dubs “a superwoman in her own right” — and writers’ assistant Allie Kenyon to head up the research necessary to tackle the story.

Levy found inspiration, as well as websites and other resources’ information, in an episode of “48 Hours” on the topic. But from there she knew she had to get specific for “Cloak & Dagger.”

“I wanted to see what I could find specifically about the topic in New Orleans, since that’s where our show is set,” she continues. “Michael Kenneth Williams did this incredible documentary called ‘Shelter’ about Covenant House. It lays out how these kids fall through the cracks. … It was very eye-opening.”

The show also recruited experts such as women from Break the Cycle (“to help ensure we handled our domestic abuse and unhealthy relationships in a responsible manner,” Pokaski says) and the Polaris Project (a non-profit that works to prevent and combat trafficking and modern-day slavery), which partnered with the show for a PSA. Documentaries “Hot Girls Wanted,” “Tricked,” “What Happened to the Girl Next Door,” “In Plain Sight” and TED talks also made their list of valuable resources.

The show, which airs on Freeform, is aimed at a younger demographic, and therefore it did face some restrictions in what could be shown on-screen with such a dark and violent storyline. But Pokaski says “the suggestion itself could be scarier than the act” and in the end it was important for the show to imply “how scary this process is without showing something that would be inappropriate on-camera.”

The team behind the show also wanted to showcase the true weight of the trafficking experience on its victims, so rather than following one particular person, “Cloak & Dagger” will introduce a number of characters who have different degrees of experience with such a scenario as the second season unfolds.

“We’re basically turning over the rock in the first three episodes,” Pokaski says, adding that the show will specifically explore what it is “to be a woman and see these things being done to other women.” This gives Holt an opportunity to portray an emotional arc that sees her struggling with whether or not she’s “victim-blaming” at times and eventually “goes through a process of understanding and empathizing and hopefully coming out of the season a hero and a champion for people who don’t have anyone fighting for them.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Mayhem (Emma Lahana), a darker double of Detective Brigid O’Reilly. “If Mayhem has a superpower, she has no guilt,” Pokaski says. “In human trafficking, she doesn’t wait for someone to be judge and jury, she becomes executioner. She’s that part of us that wants to act without necessarily checking in.”

Levy also credits the characters in the show for allowing a proper balance between the heavy topic and the lighter elements of a superhero show. “Part of our ability to have fun, even though we’re dealing with a very heavy topic, is their personalities are so different,” she says. “They’re not weary detectives dealing with this situation; they are young kids being immersed, suddenly in a very sad, scary thing they didn’t know about. Keeping it grounded and what you would react to at that age helps us.”

But in tackling a very real, complex, issue, the scribes were cognizant to not give the storyline an artificial happy ending.

“In the context of a Marvel show and our heroes making a difference, we wanted to be careful that we weren’t going to present [as if], ‘We are going to solve human-trafficking issue for all of eternity!’” Levy stresses. “We tried to stay very real about what it is. One of the things we were so stunned by in our research is that girls who are trafficked are often forced to commit crimes or are doped up all the time, often against their will. And they’re prosecuted for their crimes, often because they’re unable to say they were made to do it.”

And while the goal is for the show to entertain viewers, the writers also stress they hope this makes people more aware of their surroundings. “I think we’ve all turned a little blind eye because it doesn’t impact us directly,” Pokaski says. “Hopefully this will open up a conversation for people who can learn a little more to at least curb this.“

Adds Levy: “It’s that push-pull of this problem is so big, we really want to make sure people are aware of how insidious it can be. But there are also good people out there doing work, trying to help the young women and young men to get out of the situation.”

“Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger” airs Thursdays on Freeform.

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