I’ve Never Done This Before: Why Mia and Vince Turn to Drugs in Pulp Fiction
Mia Wallace, pretty wife of renowned mobster Marcellus Wallace, sinks back into her plush white couch as she exhales smoke from the hand rolled cigarette she’s holding. Over the stereo plays Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon,” to which Mia bobs her head as she smokes. She plays with a Zippo lighter, twisting it back and forth. Mia snaps it closed and returns it to the pocket of the man’s overcoat she’s wearing, which swallows her petite frame. Her hand finds something else in the pocket, which she pulls out to lazily inspect. Her eyes, half-lidded with sleepy contentment, grow wider as she recognizes what she holds: a little baggie of white powder, whiter than the couch she sits on or the shirt she wears. She raises her eyebrows and greets the baggie like an old friend, with a “hello” that echoes through the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. She cuts the powder into lines with a practiced hand and it’s clear she’s done this before. Mia rubs her hands together, picks up her handily rolled hundred-dollar bill, and snorts the stuff. She quickly sits upright, ferociously rubbing her nose and squeezing her eyes shut. She whimpers at the realization that something is very wrong here. She moves her hand away from her nose and a line of blood, only slightly lighter than her shade of nail polish, is revealed leaking from her nostril. Mia shakes, her eyes roll around in her head, and she falls back into the couch. The song fades out, the scene cuts to black, and Mia becomes a woman.
In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, his characters seek out counterfeit highs to mask their unhappiness. Multiple times we see Mia, played by Uma Thurman, snorting cocaine, often before we even see Mia, which suggests how vital the drug is to the persona she’s created. By understanding the effects and background of cocaine, we can receive insight into the root problems behind Mia’s dependent personality and her excessive snorting.
Short term, it increases one’s heart rate and body temperature, heightening sensations. You feel intense euphoria and focus, becoming braver or wittier or more confident. You may just find you like yourself slightly better with cocaine. But then the nausea hits, and the tactile hallucinations aren’t so pretty anymore, and you’ve gotten so skinny — cocaine counts as a meal, right? — and the insomnia starts catching up with you as well as the intense cravings for one more bump. It causes your heart to speed up as your blood vessels constrict, a deadly combination that results in an enlarged heart that is less able to pump blood efficiently. Depriving yourself of it once addicted leads to severe depression (not something Mia needs more of in her life, but we’ll get to that later).
I Get By with a Little Help from my Heroin
As the prevalence of cocaine and other drugs was declining in the 1990s, heroin was on the come-up. The recreational use came after the medical one, and a look at the history of heroin could expose what faults Vince (John Travolta) feels he has that he attempts to cover with heroin.
Heroin is actually diamorphine, an opioid drug that is an offshoot of morphine. It was initially used in hospitals as a way to sever the addiction patients felt to the morphine they received during treatment, by instead making it your new addiction. The diamorphine locks onto opioid receptors in the brain, leaving one with a feeling of sleepy contentment, as well as a feeling of being outside of experiences. People begin “nodding,” in an alternately wakeful and drowsy state.
Lance says to Vince as he sells to him, “I’m out of balloons, is a baggie alright?” This line was not included in the original script, so why was it added? It’s because Mia would not have mistaken the heroin for cocaine if it had not been in a plastic baggie, as cocaine usually comes. Heroin is typically dealt in balloons so that, should someone with heroin on them run into some trouble with the law, they can swallow the balloon whole to retrieve intact later. Baggies would quickly degrade in the intestines due to gastric acid and lead to death by an overdose. Also, Vince buys an unusually large quantity of heroin at a time, about the amount a rich woman like Mia would expect to have of cocaine. This line was added to the movie to highlight the first mistake in a series of them that lead to her OD’ing on heroin.
Not all that Glitters
Mia Wallace may live in an impressively extravagant house and Vincent Vega may drive a bangin’ cherry-red Chevy Malibu convertible, but all these nice toys do not satisfy either character. They feel that something is missing from themselves and they try to fill the gaps in their characters with drugs. Though they turn to different substances, the effect is ultimately the same: they are creating alter egos.
Mia Wallace feels stifled. She is married to Marcellus Wallace, one of the most feared men in Los Angeles; this distinction affords her a cushy life but thwarts her attempts at making friends. Rumors even spread among Marcellus’s goons about what happens to people who get too friendly with Mrs. Wallace. She craves an individual image, something to set herself apart from others and even from herself. She creates an alter ego who is bolder, happier and less bored with her overprotective hubby’s house rules. Unfortunately, this vibrant alter ego only appears with the aid of cocaine. Her alter ego plays a larger role than the unedited version of Mia. We only see parts of the real Mia, never the whole. When Vincent arrives at Marcellus’s house we see her lips as she speaks into the intercom, the back of her head as she watches the monitors, and her feet as she pads barefoot to the room where Vince waits. We don’t see her whole until after she has already snorted the cocaine. Mia never wanted to be herself; she dreamt of becoming an actress where she could make a living off of pretending to be someone else. Her “fifteen minutes” came from a pilot episode that was almost, but not quite, good enough to go on for a full season. The character she plays in “Fox Force Five,” Raven McCoy, is the deadly, badass type; she is renowned as the “deadliest woman in the world with a knife”, so she has the notoriety that Mia wants for herself (pg 35). Raven is also an illusionist, which Mia attempts as she tries to convince Vince that who she is showing him is the truth.
Mia is not the only one with an alter ego. Vincent plays several characters, though his social one requires heroin to make debut. His first character is the thug he plays for Marcellus Wallace. Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) even says to him at one point that they needed to “get into character” before they went and roughed up some punk kids on Marcellous’s shit list (pg 14). His other character is a version of himself that is actually content with his life. Vincent may not outwardly express any discontent, but he dreams of a life away from the one he has. When Vince is first introduced he is speaking with Jules about the differences between America and Europe. He reminisces about his time in Amsterdam, a topic he revisits frequently. His wanderlust hints at his dissatisfaction with his life, which is where the heroin comes in. It produces a drowsy, satisfied state as well as a distancing from the surrounding world. With it, he is able to cope with the life he is stuck in but also dream of those faraway places he talks about. So while Mia chooses cocaine to spice up her boring, rich life, Vince chooses heroin to escape his.
Although the effects of cocaine and heroin are both pretty consistent across users, the overall experience is unique to each person. Users come out the other side with new realizations about their lives and desires. Bryan Lewis Saunders, an artist, did an experiment of testing a new drug or intoxicant every day and creating a self-portrait under the influence of each to find inspiration. His project is titled “Under the Influence.” He stated that his reason for the project is he was “looking for other experiences that might profoundly affect [his] perception of self.” His self-portraits are telling of his personality while under each influence, and also reflect Mia and Vince’s perceptions while on cocaine and heroin, respectively.
Saunder’s self-portrait that he created while “coked up” has excessive shading, bold and erratic lines, and drawings of random, unconnected scenes. The portrait depicts unpredictability and exaggeration of reality, which is what Mia is looking for when she snorts cocaine. She craves excitement to shake up her little gilded cage.
Saunders’ portrait while on heroin has an almost dream-like quality, a result of being “on the nod” and seeing things equally as fantastic while awake as asleep. The lines are drawn shakily, probably due to the side effect of heaviness in the extremities. The main focus of the portrait is not on the face but rather the elephant and bird above, showing that Saunders’ concern was more with his dream than himself. The portrait really appears unfinished. Vince prefers heroin because it makes his life feel more complete. It also allows him to make the transition between versions of himself more easily, as the shapeless face at the bottom demonstrates. It looks like it is dripping, malleable, something he can mold into whatever he needs it to be. It helps him bring on his alter ego.
Becoming a Woman/Resurrection
As the scene described in the beginning, Mia mistakes the baggie of heroin found in Vincent’s jacket as a bag of cocaine. The diegetic music playing suggests that Mia is going to have to do something she’s never done, something at which she is a virgin (like snorting madman heroin), to become a woman. When she first finds the little treasure she tells the bag a sweet “hello,” one that faintly echoes like her voice is overlapping itself. It sounds like a mistake, suggesting the possibility of other mistakes occurring. It adds an audible layer of depth to the importance behind Mia’s decision to snort the powder she finds, her nearly fatal mistake. As the rush hits her, the camera does a shaky close up, reflecting the wild disorientation of her thoughts. Her face fills up the screen and obscures the outside world like the heroin is doing to her brain, like Vince tries to use it for.
In an attempt to save her, Vince drives her unconscious form to Lance’s house, where he knows an emergency shot of adrenaline can be found. Adrenaline, or epinephrine, can be used to jumpstart a heart that has stopped because it is a hormone that stimulates the heart and promotes blood-flow, though four out of five people who receive adrenaline to restart their heart suffer significant brain damage. Epinephrine shots to the heart are reserved for patients suffering from cardiac arrest or opiate overdoses. But Vince just knows that it may be his only way to save the boss’s wife. When Mia is laid out on Lance’s floor, she is sprawled with her arms outstretched like she has been crucified, possibly for showing an image of herself she did not cultivate. Lance describes the motion necessary for reaching her heart as a stabbing motion and violently acts out stabbing her chest. Ironically, one of Mia’s alter egos, Raven McCoy, would likely have been the best option to perform this act given her expertise with stabbing. But she is even less real than the Mia we usually see and Vincent has to do the deed. He counts up until he says “three” as violently as he thrusts the needle down and as violently as Mia awakens. Finally we see the true Mia instead of her alter ego. All it took was her nearly dying to wake her up.
From Virgins to Veterans
In Pulp Fiction, Mia and Vince both look to the aid of illegal drugs to fulfill the parts of them they find lacking. Mia escapes her helicopter hubby by snorting snow, helping her to find contentment in her confined life. Vincent transcends the American borders with a needle in his arm, dreaming of Amsterdam and other foreign locales. Mia finds she needs cocaine to like herself and thinks that others will like her best like that too. It helps her find enjoyment in a life she is trapped in. Vincent uses heroin as a means of escape from his life, one that is always teetering in the balance between life and death. While Mia uses heroin to stay grounded in her life, Vince uses heroin to fly away from his.
“Heroin.” DrugFacts:. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.
Saunders, Bryan Lewis. “Bryan Lewis Saunders — DRUGS.” Bryan Lewis Saunders — DRUGS. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Thompson, Dennis. “Questioning Safety of Adrenaline Shots.” MedicineNet. HealthDay, 1 Dec. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
“Short- & Long-Term Side Effects of Cocaine — Brain Damage — Drug-Free World.” Short- & Long-Term Side Effects of Cocaine — Brain Damage — Drug-Free World. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.