This year’s World AIDS Day hits differently in entertainment now that we have one of our first major bisexual, HIV-positive characters on Netflix to celebrate. Hurray for visibility!
Merli Season 2 might’ve been released in May, but we’re still thinking about the whirlwind of a storyline creator Hector Lozano delivered.
Spoiler alert in case you haven’t binged the Spanish queer drama yet!
Pol (Carlos Cuevas) finds himself sans his former lover Bruno (David Solans), but not without drama. Replacing the cute twink is bearded hunk Axel (Jordi Coll), so we’re not mad about it. Pol stepping comfortably into the gayness of his bisexuality promised that the sex scenes would be even more elevated this season; however, viewers realize Axel is an old-fashioned gal by the second episode. He tells Pol that he wants to take things slow. Pol is giddy with butterflies, but – as the cruelty of Television would have it – he shortly runs into a former lover who informs him that he might’ve unknowingly exposed him to HIV when they were hooking up.
“But I always use a condom,” says Pol.
“Not with me.”
Pol immediately refuses to get tested as if the screening itself is what transmits the virus. But he comes to his senses, and we find him at the clinic doing a rapid test, unfortunately, carried out by an amateur bozo who reacts to his positive diagnosis as if a zombie bit him. So, understandably, he gets the hell out of there.
“Why do I have this disease inside my body?” Pol exasperatedly asks his doctor. At last, a voice of reason enters the series and quickly puts Pol in check, beginning by correcting his wrongful use of “HIV” and “AIDS” interchangeably.
Most importantly, he educates Paul that a person can live a completely normal life thanks to the existing medications. But, of course, none of this is revolutionary to any queer person watching. We’re living in the golden era of PrEP, after all.
As the philosophy student gradually accepts his new reality, the plot becomes less about his fear of HIV and more about who has the right to know. His lover? His family? His friends? His teachers? His boss? Professor María Bolaño (María Pujalte) seemingly sets the stage during her lecture: “Ethics is not synonymous with telling the truth.”
Ethics is an underlying theme during Pol’s journey, especially when he realizes that he, too, unknowingly infected a close friend, who had a fit of rage and dropped out of school as a result. Pol’s insatiable anger towards the person he contracted HIV from is put harshly into perspective.
Pol’s former professor, Merlí (Francesc Orella), is the first person he tells. This is a crucial stepping stone in Pol understanding that living with HIV will not uproot your life or relationships. Probably most effective in getting Pol to accept himself is his friend Oti (Claudia Vega) offering to sleep with him, which was how she reacted to his diagnosis during a university party. She explains that he’s on treatment and they can use a condom so there isn’t a reason why they can’t. He declines, but his self-esteem is thankful for the gesture.
There’s probably a handful of shows in history, undoubtedly all of them queer, that feature a protagonist as HIV-positive. However, what makes Merli Even more vital for visibility is that it breaks free from the chains of the diagnosis to explore life after. As Pol struggles to tell those who love him most – deciding to refrain from revealing the truth to his parents – viewers ponder who he is obligated to inform. Of course, the answer is anyone he might want to have sex with, in other words, Axel.
Interestingly enough, his dread shifts from having the virus to how others might perceive him. “A sick person” materializes as the identity he is running away from. The trauma is not from the potential of death but from living with this secret. That is, until Dino (Eusebio Poncela), his new boss, asks him: “Do I look like a sick person?”
The bar owner reminds Pol to be grateful to live in the 21st century.
“Here are my dearest friend, anti-retroviral, keeping my enemy away for 25 years now, 1995. My friends disappeared before an effective drug combination was found. Of all of them, only I remain.”
Creator Lozano relieves our hearts when Axel accepts Pol’s confession during a weekend away together. This is followed by the universal celebration of a blow job. Ultimately, there’s so much relatability for the countless gay men that found themselves in Pol’s shoes, and Lozano does a great job at not sugarcoating the situation. Living with HIV appears like having the medical burden of needing to come out again and again and again.
Who you tell is mostly no one’s business, as long as you’re acting responsibly. Merli manifests as a reminder of the stigma and miseducation that still exists, but characters like Pol help bring that narrative to the future.
“A path with no end in sight,” Paul says to his doctor.
But, he wisely replies, “Aren’t you happy?”