MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #2: Never Really Over by Katy Perry

written by David Steffen

This is the second in a new series that I’m very excited about wherein I examine a music video by a well-known artist as a short film, trying to identify the story arcs and the character motivations, and consider the larger implications of things that we get glimpses of in the story. 

This time I will be discussing the 2019 fantasy film Never Really Over by Katy Perry about extreme measures taken to recover from depression after a breakup.

The film begins as a woman (Katy Perry) approaches a well-maintained bus stop on a country road marked with a modified yin-yang symbol that incorporates (cartoon-style) hearts in it. The heart sigil is a recurring motif throughout the film, visible from almost the first frame. She presses the call button at the stop and we get our first hint of the supernatural as the button exudes more heart-shapes into the air and in the space of another breath a VW Bus van arrives with another of the modified heart yin-yang on it. The van itself, besides its instant arrival, is notable in that it seems to run completely silently and its exhaust seems to be comprised of stylized sparkles–presumably this van runs very cleanly.

The van and its passenger are welcomed into a gated compound by people in loose, brightly colored clothing into a beautiful, grassy, tree-lined property, which appears to be a retreat or a commune. Alone in her spacious quarters, our protagonist laments “losing my self control, you’re starting to trickle back in” as she remembers the man from which she had a traumatic breakup from two years ago still isn’t over him. She is here for that express purpose, to recover from this traumatic event, but in these early moments she appears to be held prisoner by her longing for what was, gazing at a sketch of their matching tattooed hands and at the words “LET IT GO” etched in glass by her window as the other residents of the commune practice Tai chi outside on the lawn. “Cross my heart” she promises to herself that she won’t “fall down the rabbit hole”.

Their tattoos are a central and vital image in the story. His tattoo is in the palm of his left hand, and has a half-heart with a jagged boundary with the word “MISS”, and hers is the other matching half of the heart on her right hand with the word “YOU”. This seems an odd choice to me for a couple in love, since the entire message “MISS YOU” is only readable when their hands are together and the heart is complete, and when they are apart the half-heart is apparent but the words inside don’t form a complete thought alone. Even when they were together in the throes of love and at the tattoo parlor getting inked, were they even in that moment anticipating their breakup that they choose such melancholy sentiments that constantly remind them of their longing for each other and even more so when they are together and have no reason for such longing? Is this a hint at why they end up breaking up, that they are more in love with the idea of being together than they are each actually in love with , so that even when they are together their longing is still unfulfilled?

Soon she escapes from the isolation of her room and finds some solace in the social activities. Some of them are what you might expect at such a retreat (such as tai chi and dancing) while others appear somewhat baffling apart from being heart-laden metaphors for romantic struggle, such as tug-of-war with a heart-shaped hoops on either end of a chain. She also tries facial acupuncture and cupping therapy (with heart-shaped cups, natch).

But the most speculative of the therapies is the heart grove. Those participating in the heart grove wear devices around their eyes that look like eyeglasses but which harvest their anguished tears. These tears are then used to water the heart-fruits which are not only shaped like stylized hearts but actually throb with a “lub-dub” rhythm like actual hearts (but otherwise resemble apples). The heart-fruits have battles tied to the branches around them so that the fruit grows inside the bottles.

The next section is two scenes interspersed at intervals, though the ordering of the two is not clear. One shows our protagonist at a solemn campfire gathering, where a liquor has been made from the heart-fruits. One might expect that each person would drink from the bottle that they have personally tended, but before drinking they pass the bottles around, perhaps at random. Perhaps the best medicine for heartbreak is empathy, and drinking this liquor allows them to feel what the one who tended that fruit feels. After drinking their backs arch and they look up to the sky in what appears to be a spiritual epiphany.

The other scene interspersed with that shows our protagonist and her fellow residents dancing in a grassy field. She, for the first time in the film, appears to be genuinely happy and the entire dance centers completely around her (at turns joyous and sometimes boisterously grim as the dancers seem to mime self-harm in the form of stabbing themselves in the abdomen). It is never explained why she seems to suddenly be the center of all of the attention after having been a member of the crowd for the rest of the film proceeding this, but this question too may be answered by the epilogue where she is exiting the retreat compound alone on foot. Presumably she is believed to have been cured of her mental malady by the treatments she has received therein, and the gathering in the grass is meant to celebrate this and give her a joyous sendoff. Whether she has decided she is cured on her own or through consensus of others or some kind of authority at the compound is unclear, the question of who has organized this place and keeps it running is entirely unanswered.

In that final scene as she is walking along the road, the sparkle van passes by headed into the compound. She turns to glance back at it and she sees a tattoo hand with a fractured half-heart and the word “MISS” inside it. Her cured state appears to have been illusory in the face of seeing her beloved again, because she rushes to follow the van as the scene ends. This, combined with the title Never Really Over seems to imply that she will never be free of her heartache, that relapse is at any moment only one decision away, which in some ways mirrors twelve-step program philosophy such as AA–alcoholics never stop being alcoholics, the best they can hope for is to be “recovering alcoholics” who know that they can never allow themselves to drink again.

But the message of the end is overturned once again when you consider the image of the hand. The man’s tattoo shown in her flashbacks at the beginning is on his left hand, while this tattoo is on his right. One might wonder if perhaps this was merely an error in the film, that they showed a mirror image of the hand by accident or convenience. But, no, even this theory does not prove out, because the word “MISS” is not reversed, but the heart fragment itself is reversed.

Given these details it seems unlikely to be a mistake by the filmmakers, but then what is the meaning of this. It seems to be unclear and left up to the interpretation of the viewer.

Is it possible that the man has a tattoo on BOTH hands? Did he always have the second tattoo, or did he add that tattoo after the breakup? Is the purpose of the second tattoo to fit with the first one, to form the phrase “MISS MISS” in a complete heart? Has he since had a relationship with someone else whom he the “___ MISS” tattoo forms a complete thought? What thought would that be? “YOU MISS” perhaps? Or was this tattoo simply meant as a commentary on the meaningless of love and its sentiments in general, or an attempt to since his transporation into the commune suggests that’s not the case?

Or, is it possible that this isn’t him? Maybe there is some kind of social movement of the time that involves tattooing non-sequitor words-in-hearts on one’s hands? Or perhaps someone who knows about their relationship is sending in someone to trick her–but to what end? To lure her back into the commune and keep her there? To test her resolve and prove that she is not cured? I am curious what others think about the meaning of this because I am honestly not sure!

(Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Bad Blood by Taylor Swift)

DP FICTION #43A: “Glass in Frozen Time” by M.K. Hutchins

I freeze time. The frothing soap suds in the sink become glaciers. Dust motes hang in the air like stars. And I move.

I catch Sadie’s plate of mac n’ cheese before it splatters to the floor. While I’m there, I wipe down the table, fix Sadie’s pigtails, then — what the heck — I run downstairs and start a load of laundry.

Then I’m at the kitchen sink, water streaming, motes spinning, and Sadie’s three-year-old voice bubbling merrily on. “— I so happy to go to my Nana’s house!”

“Me too, sweet pea.”

She tells me about her grand plans for the day, including raiding the freezer for cookies. In the middle of it, a wild gesture knocks her juice cup. I freeze time and catch that, too, before any damage is done.

A warm thrill spreads over me as I finish the dishes. Tiny catastrophes make other parents late, but not me. We’ll arrive on time and spotless.

At least in my own home, I can control all the variables.


Eli comes home late. I can stop time, but I can’t stop his limp. My throat tightens, just hearing the uneven thud-thump of his real and his prosthetic foot. How can he be safe in the field now? He can still turn invisible, but he’s not exactly stealthy anymore.

Eli doesn’t glare at me. He folds me against his chest and kisses my cheek. Like always. “Did Sadie have a good time at your mom’s?”

“Of course.”

Eli glances around the house. My immaculate house. I alphabetized the spice rack today and organized the picture books by word count, starting with Moo, Baa, La La La! and ending with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.

But a frown creases Eli’s face. “I don’t think this is what the League had in mind when they gave you vacation time.”

“Mandatory leave time,” I correct, my breath twisting in my chest like an over-tightened screw. “Don’t lecture me again, Eli. I’m just…I’m just a little perfectionist. That’s all.”

Eli holds my gaze and speaks in his calm, rational voice — the one I’m used to hearing during mission planning meetings, not at home. “That isn’t all and it’s not a little. It’s not good for you or Sadie.”

Now he wants to bring our daughter into this? “Sadie’s safe. Of course that’s good for her.”

I slow time to watch his reaction: a tiny shift of his head, the tightening of the corners of his mouth. He disagrees, and he’s not ready to drop this yet. I wish he would. I let time flow.

“She’ll never learn to be careful or clean up after herself if you’re always making things perfect,” he says. “You can’t actually control everything.”

“I know.” But I can control my home. I have to be able to control something.

Eli lays a hand on my shoulder. “That card’s still on your nightstand, Allison.”

The card our League general gave me right before he kicked me out on mandatory leave. My throat constricts. “I don’t need it.”

“You ought to call,” Eli persists. “Go in.”

Eli should be the one having a hard time adjusting, not me. “You know,” I try to joke with him, “most people would be thrilled to have a spouse who never nags them to do the dishes. I can’t believe you’re complaining about a clean house.”

Eli doesn’t laugh. He holds me closer and strokes my hair.


I set down my water glass and get back to scrubbing the window track with a Q-tip. Soon, it will be as shiny as League Headquarters. No dead flies. No spots of grime.

“Thirsty,” Sadie declares, hopping down from the table and her crayons. Her feet patter across our spotless tile floor.

“Water, milk, or juice?” I ask, still bent over the window. It’s almost finished. Almost perfect.

The tinkle of broken glass and a sharp little “Ow!” cut through my ears and stab down at my heart.

Reflexively, I freeze time. I turn. My water glass is nothing but shards now between Sadie’s feet. A drop of scarlet blood wells up on her heel.

I am too late.

I freeze, too. My lungs refuse to work. Air becomes concrete in my lungs. My stomach tightens and tightens into a black hole. My tongue is a boulder, clogging my throat.

This isn’t a mission. There are no villains here. I should be able to control it.

But I can’t even hold onto time. It slips away. The glass skitters across the floor, Sadie turns her head, the motes spin.

But I am still frozen as panic crushes my throat.

Sadie turns her foot to look at the small gash. “Mommy!” she wails.

I can’t answer.

“Mommy!” she demands.

I couldn’t stop her from getting hurt.

Sadie plants two fists on her hips. “Mommy! You pick me up now!”

A thread of breath cracks through my throat, into my lungs. I can’t think straight, but I can obey her simple order. I pick up my child.

“To the sink!”

I step carefully around the glass.

“Wash it, Mommy.”

I wash.

“Now dry.”

I dry.


I set her on the counter and pull the first-aid kit down from the cupboard. Sadie holds still while I smooth the bandage over the tiny, angry wound.

“Kiss it better.”

I give her a tiny kiss. She smells like soap and cotton.

Sadie pats my cheek, smiling. “Mommy, you are silly. Nana knows how to do all that without being tolded.”


“Yup. And she has kitty band-aids.” Sadie glances at the floor. “Do you need help cleaning up your messes? Nana helps me.”

“You make messes at Nana’s?”

She giggles. “When you go on your last mission with Daddy, I open all the paints! I paint me, I paint the walls, I paint the carpet!”

My mother didn’t tell me that. Maybe she knew I had other things to worry about, after that mission.

I grab a broom. I sweep up the mess. I make cookies with Sadie and then build towers of blocks for her to crash. I ignore the window track. As soon as I get her nestled down for quiet time with a few books, I pick up the card on my nightstand.

Emily Perez, LPC. The League’s recommended counselor for traumatic stress. My throat squeezes tight, but I imagine Sadie’s voice giving me instructions.

Pick up your phone.

Dial the number.


Say hello.

© 2018 by M.K. Hutchins


Author’s Note: As a mom and as someone who daydreams about magic and super powers, this story came easily.


M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, Strange Horizons, IGMS, and elsewhereA long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at







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