In my last post, I mentioned that I was looking forward to when Cole Turner would enter the Charmed storyline because I had a feeling that I would have a very different take on his and Phoebe’s relationship than I did when I first watched the series years ago. Boy, was I right!
Perhaps Cole Turner is a tragic figure because he so desired to be good and it was not his choice to become The Source of All Evil. We could endlessly argue how much of his actions and choices were truly his and how much were The Source controlling him. In that case, however, maybe Cole is just a new twist on an old story: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Is Mr. Hyde not simply another side of Dr. Jekyll that had been lying dormant, now come out to play? And is Dr. Jekyll not still responsible for the choices and actions of this inner demon? Then could it not be so that The Source, once inside Cole, is not controlling him so much as bringing out a side of him that never truly died, making “The Source’s choices” just as much Cole’s?
We’ll never know.
But let’s explore for a moment the relationship of Cole Turner and Phoebe Halliwell through the lens of toxic and abusive relationships.
Many of the signs of toxicity and abuse actually start showing up after Phoebe and Cole are married, although their wedding itself is riddled with problems. In “Marry-Go-Round” (4.15), Cole sabatoges their wedding and orchestrates it all so that he can get Phoebe to marry him in a dark wedding without her even knowing it. The disregard for Phoebe’s consent is alarming, and it doesn’t stop there. In the episodes that follow, Cole is focused on getting Phoebe pregnant so they can raise the powerful, evil child The Seer forsaw. Cole trying to get Phoebe pregnant in this way is another violation of consent, not unlike the current phenomenon of “stealthing” in which a male partner removes or damages a condom without his partner’s consent. These types of violations turn consensual acts into nonconsensual ones and have dangerous physical, emotional, and psychological repurcussions for survivors.
After they are married, Cole begins the process of separating Phoebe from her family to make her more susceptible to bending to his will. This is a common move made by abusers because survivors are easier to control and manipulate when on their own. Paige sees Cole using his demonic powers, so Cole not only gaslights Paige but literally sends a demon after her to keep her quiet. Meanwhile, Piper is unknowingly serving as a flying monkey. Flying monkeys are people who, knowningly or unknowingly, aid in the abuse, often by lauding how great the abuser is through not seeing or turning a blind eye to their abuse. Every time Piper tells Paige to lay off Cole and that he can’t possibly be evil anymore, she thinks she is helping and protecting Phoebe, when in reality, she is aiding in Cole’s gaslighting of Paige and his abuse and incremental separation of Phoebe from them. Cole is eventually successful in sequestering Phoebe away in a new penthouse suite where he implements new rules such as Phoebe’s family not being allowed to orb into their new place. These rules that are about control are cleverly masked as reasonable requests from a newlywed who wants privacy with his new bride. Such rules are common in toxic and abusive relationships since they are all about control. Some rules, like Cole’s, are carefully masked as fairly reasonable requests or as being made out of concern for the survivor. Cole actively parades his control as concern, saying things like, “You have to know I would never do anything to hurt you,” even while the audience sees him actively continuing to make choices that hurt Phoebe.
During this time, we see Phoebe, in turn, make bad choices, such as choosing to be coronated as Queen of the Underworld alongside Cole, that go against who she really is. It is common for survivors to be degraded to the point that they lose their sense of identity and even start acting out of character in order to best survive the abuse and attempt to find some stability and equilibrium in their shaky lives. We also see how difficult it is for Phoebe to leave Cole, whom she loves deeply, even though she knows he is horrible for her. Survivors fall in love with toxic people and abusers because they have many wonderful qualities that they exhibit first, and they are later blindsided by the toxicity and abuse. Because the survivors genuinely fell for their abusers, and because the abusers often prey on those genuine feelings, it is extremely difficult for survivors to leave their abusers, much like Phoebe struggles to leave Cole.
After Phoebe gets pregnant, Cole violates her trust and consent yet again by giving her a tonic that is meant to destroy her good side under the guise of a tonic meant to strengthen the baby. Once Cole sees that Phoebe is no longer willing to take the tonic now knowing what it really does, he manipulates her into drinking it “of her own free will” by telling her that doing so will prove that she’s with him, evidence of her true love for him. Toxic people and abusers love to prey on the goodness and love of survivors, playing the role of victim through “if you love me, you’ll __________” scenarios just like Cole does here. He then reinforces the cycle by telling Phoebe he loves her after she drinks the tonic “of her own free will.” The survivor feels like they have been rewarded for their compliance, maybe even “saved” the relationship by making their partner happy by doing what they asked, and the abuser gets exactly what they want: compliance, control, and their way.
Phoebe finally realizes what Cole is doing and remembers who she is and what her values are. This leads to her vanquishing Cole with the help of her sisters, the ultimate form of no contact. Like many survivors, Phoebe recognizes that no contact is what she needs to put the toxic/abusive chapter in her life behind her and do the healing work she needs to do to move forward.
Up until this point, I would entertain the argument that these moments were orchestrated by The Source and that the moments in which Cole chose to be good, to help or save the sisters and the innocents, and to show genuine selflessness toward Phoebe in love were Cole’s true nature and intentions. However, what is to follow is exempt from the absolution provided by blaming the possession of The Source because they occurred when Cole was no longer possessed, and therefore, were choices made with Cole’s own free will.
Cole Turner is a classic example of obsession parading around as love.
After vanquishing Cole, Phoebe works on getting a divorce from him in the non-magical world. She doesn’t want to have to look over her shoulder and wonder if Cole got out of the demonic wasteland he went to when he was vanquished; if he comes back, she wants to be free from him legally. Cole, however, being both desperate and resourceful, naturally finds a way out and comes back for Phoebe. Although she still loves him, she never wants to get back together with him and tries to make that clear to him. Many survivors have to grieve the loss of the person they loved as much as they have to heal from the abuse and as much as they may genuinely want a life apart from their abuser.
Not hearing Phoebe’s words, Cole is persistent to the point of obsession. “I’ll keep my distnce, but I’m not going away,” he tells Phoebe. Toxic people and abusers can become particularly dangerous once they have been left by the survivor because they may stop at nothing to get the survivor back. Cole’s obsession ends up driving him insane, leading him to do insane things that hurt Phoebe and those she loves. He tries just about every possible way to manipulate and force her into returning to him, proving that he will stop at nothing to get Phoebe back, until Phoebe is forced to vanquish him again. Although Cole never tries to kill or physically hurt Phoebe, many survivors are not so lucky and are attacked or even killed by their abusers in retaliation for leaving them.
During Cole’s return and in the wake of his second vanquish, Phoebe exhibits many of the behaviors common in survivors. When Cole returns, Phoebe feels unraveled and too weak to deal with him; she just wants to run. This is how survivors can feel when toxic people or abusers resurface after they begin to move on from them. Phoebe wants so badly to escape from everything she’s feeling that she literally becomes a mermaid. Dissociating from oneself, although not usually quite to the extent of transforming into a magical creature, is also common among survivors, especially as they first begin to process the pain and other emotions brought on from their trauma. It’s also common for them not to trust themselves or others, which we also see in Phoebe in her distrust of others and her doubting her own ability to tell good guys from bad guys. This comes from the belief that many survivors have that they were at least partially responsible for the abuse because they “put up with it.” Part of the healing process is learning how to trust oneself and others again.
But in the end, does any of this matter? In the end, does it matter whether Cole himself made these choices or whether he was forced into them by another power that literally took over his body?
I would say no, my friends, it doesn’t matter whether within the context of the show Cole made those choices or not because the damage is already done. Not just to Phoebe mentally and emotionally, but to many viewers, particularly women, who consume various dangerous messages from this particular storyline. It is dangerous to believe that we can have in real life what Phoebe and Cole have in the moments when it’s good, that “true love conquers all,” especially for those in toxic or abusive relationships. Because the fact of the matter is, if the relationship is toxic and abusive, it doesn’t matter how much the survivor loves the abuser. They can’t love the abuse away. The abuse will only stop when the survivor leaves the situation or the abuser chooses of their own free will to make a lifelong change and continue putting the work in to make sure it sticks. For these same people, it is dangerous to believe that something other than their abuser’s own free will is causing the abuse. They can’t go on believing that their abuser can be “saved” and that they’re the one meant to do the saving.
So what about the fact that in Season 7, Cole briefly returns in the spirit realm with the sole aim of making sure that Phoebe never gives up on love? Sounds pretty redeeming except for the fact that it bolsters those dangerous messages, adding fuel to the fire by suggesting that after all that abuse and toxicity, an abuser can truly love the survivor and want what’s best for them. Which is possible but not likely, and giving false hope for such an outcome can cause survivors to stay in dangerous situation even longer rather than getting out.
And you can’t just throw your hands up and say, “Well, people should be able to distinguish between fiction and reality. They should know that Phoebe and Cole are a story, and it’s not possible to have what they have.” The fact of the matter is culture feeds television and television feeds culture; it’s a vicious cycle. Giving allowances to fictional characters like Cole leads to giving allowances to real-life people. We always need to be aware of the messages we’re sending in our art because they reflect our beliefs and values as a society.
So R.I.P. my old dreamy views of Cole Turner. I won’t be missing you.