Thursday, 19 August 2010

Skins – Sometimes I think I was born backwards.

Skins: 1x08 Effy.

Effy is fit and mysterious.
Everybody loves her.
Nobody breaks her heart.
Love, love love, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Sometimes I wonder where Effy comes from. She is such a highly conceptual character, it’s impossible not to wonder what the process of creating her was like. She has a specific function in the first generation: she is the perceptive outsider who only needs one tiny look to understand everything that is going on, and occasionally it entertains her to intervene. She doesn’t speak. She, more than once, breaks the fourth wall, looking directly at the camera as if she could see us, behind it, as if she could completely take us apart as well as she does the people surrounding her. Part of the reason why she needs to be such a strong character is because she has to be a match for her overbearing brother – she has to be the one person that Tony Stonem loves, the one person he would actually die for (since it was implied in “Michelle” that he doesn’t really feel that way about his girlfriend). There are so many intense sibling relationships in “Skins”, but this one is the most developed. I still think that the only good thing that came out of the “Effy has always been mad”-storyline that is otherwise horrible for her character is that the one thing Dr. Foster could not erase, the one trauma he was unable to fix, was Tony’s accident. He easily got rid of Freddie and Cook, but Tony is like the other side of the coin and a part of Effy that can not be deleted (by the way, while Tony was only mentioned in a throwaway-comment in season three by Katie, there is actually a season 3 video diary in which Effy, while still on the run with Cook, is sending Tony a video message in which she begs him to come and rescue her, but not hurt Cook). When she talks about him to Foster, it’s probably the first time that we hear actual awe in her voice, for his accomplishments, for how far he’s come, for how special he is, and it’s the same with Tony, talking about Effy here. I think it’s clear from the recaps so far that I am not very fond of Tony Stonem, but his relationship to Effy, his protectiveness of her, is the one exception.

So while this episode is Effy’s, it’s really about Tony, about how slowly every little thing he used to be sure of gets taken away from him. It’s really not the bus that transforms him, he is already going through a change here, walking the streets of Bristol alone because none of his friends wants to talk to him, because all of them are sticking with Michelle. There is a beautiful symmetry here to Effy after she hit Katie over the head with a rock: Sitting in her room, going through her directory, desperately trying to talk to someone.

This is probably not the right episode yet to talk about this, but another one of these magic moments of creation (also: casting) is Pandora. Pandora isn’t in this episode, but the friend Effy’s with, the horrible, obnoxious friend who never stops talking, makes her absence almost palpable. It’s probably a bit far-fetched to say that Effy is more stable when Pandora is around – but part of Effy’s crisis in season three came with Panda’s absence, and her spiral continued throughout season four, in which Panda was nowhere to be seen for the most part (which, of the many things that season got wrong, is probably one of the most unforgivable mistakes).

Even though the viewer follows both Effy and Tony, the moment where we realize that something is terribly wrong is probably only when Tony tries to pick up Effy from the police station, finds out that someone has already pretended to be her brother and signed her out, and then gets beaten up badly on the street when he tries to follow her. “Emily” was the most thoroughly exercised genre-episode of “Skins”, but this comes pretty close to following the structure of a classic thriller, in which the conspiracy is revealed step by step until we finally meet the man behind the curtain.

“Hi this is Effy’s phone. She’s currently cruising at 35000 feet and there’s definitely turbulence ahead.”
Friendship: even though he is mad at Tony, even though everybody has decided to shun him for Michelle’s sake, there is no question that Sid is going to help him once he sees his marks and hears about Effy. Sid sees Cassie everywhere they go (both of them chasing a ghost, in a way) – Tony even makes this idea explicit when he says, jokingly, “maybe she’s haunting you because she tried to kill herself over you.”
Sid: You know. She may be having a bit of fun, a joke at your expense.”
Tony: “That’s not her style. No. I know Effy. She’s cleverer than this. In fact she’s the cleverest fucking person I know.”
This episode is so perfectly assembled: we follow Tony and Sid and their odyssey to find Effy, although it should be clear by now that something has to allow them to go where she is, they won’t just find her. At the same time, we see Effy being led into this creepy villa in nowhere: “This is where rich kids come to die”, and finally, Josh reveals himself. “Hello Effy. I’m Jesus Christ”. Then, they inject her with heroin, and she speaks the first lines in the series, the lines she will be measured against for her entire run on the show:
“Sometimes I think I was born backwards. You know. Come out my mum the wrong way. I hear words go past me backwards. The people I should love, I hate. And the people I hate…”
I’ve never read this to mean that she is mad, or battling a mental illness. I think this episode spends so much time on establishing that her perception of the world is different than everybody else’s; that she doesn’t really fit, and especially not into the Stonem family. She, and to a certain degree Tony as well, are at odds with this world, and they don’t accept the rules. I think there was strength in this that got lost with the decision to name her monsters and her illness.

This is the last moment of the old Tony we get, before he realizes what he did when he set up Josh, that he is responsible for what is happening to Effy.
Sid: “Why did you do that? You know what Tony. Sometimes I don’t know why we’re friends anymore.”
Tony: “It's weird, isn't it? I'm from Mars, you're from Venus. I do things, you worry about them. I sleep with girls, you persuade them to attempt suicide.”
And then Tony slaps Sid. And then Tony punches Sid.

Tony: “Sid, you better not be crying.”
Sid: “I'm not crying cause you punched me.”
Tony: “Oh, crying for the kids in Africa?”
Sid: “You know I used to so look up to you, don’t you?”
Tony: “Of course I did. You were home every night wanking your brains out, oh some day I’ll be like Tony, some day I’ll be like Tony.”
Sid: “And now I could think of nothing worse than being you. You’ve always been selfish. You did things because you wanted something, fine, makes sense. But now, you do things because you can. You fuck with people. And I don’t get why. You got no friends, no girlfriends, only your parents left. Not even Effy is answering your calls. You’re right. She is clever.”
Tony: “Every time you talk Sid, little flecks of spit, they are coming out your mouths, and they go into my face.”
Tony has no idea whatsoever why Sid is his friend. I think he mostly keeps people around because he needs an audience – most of his existence is about performing, although he probably only realizes the extent of this at the end of this episode. Cassie appears more like a ghost here, someone who pops up mysteriously to remind Sid that he has options (once again, it’s not at all about her, sadly).
The moments Cassie and Sid get are incredibly romantic of course, especially compared to what happens between either Tony and Michelle or Michelle and Sid. It’s easy to love the small scene between them in the café, when Sid is waiting for her, not really sure whether he actually saw her or whether his mind was just playing tricks on him, and then she draws the ketchup moustache on his sugar smiley face (Mad Twatter, after all, brought them together in a way). Everything before the kiss (Tony punched me. / Wow. Really that’s excellent / Is it? / We had a course in it at the centre. Separation anxiety. He’s worried he’s losing you.) and after is about Tony, although this is the one instance where Sid going after Tony is a good thing – but this is where Cassie realizes that this is never going to be a fair game. At that point, Sid is the one person who has all the necessary information to know that Tony is in trouble (he knows that Tony played Josh, and that Tony is heading where Josh is, after Michelle calls him).

Tony getting picked up by the guy on the moped to go where “the rich kids come to die” seems like a descent into the underworld, almost. The sports club is such an amazing set – the strobing lights with Skream’s “Angry” playing in the background, making it almost impossible to perceive the place coherently, until Tony finally stumbles into Josh’s “lair”. He calls Michelle before that because he already knows that this isn’t going to end well, and it’s the first honest conversation they have in the entire series:
Tony: “This is the weirdest fucking night of my life.”
Michelle: “What do you want me to do Tony?”
Tony: “Nothing. Gotta go.”
Then it’s all about this strange sense the first scene of the episode established: the two Stonem siblings, aliens in their own family, completely out of place, and they kind of only have each other and most importantly, only really understand each other.
Then “wobbly” Josh, who says “I’m god”, tells Tony that the payback for putting naked pictures of his sister on his phone is making him fuck Effy. His transformation into an irrational yet, at the same time, completely calm and serious villain, works so well because he seemed so nice before in comparison to Tony. Josh was built up to be the contrast to Tony, for Michelle. At the end of season four, “Skins” tried to play to the same deep fears – that a person you thought you could depend on turns out to be crazy and willing to abuse his power – but the moment where Josh and his lackeys smash Tony’s telephone still seems more shocking and terrifying to me than Dr John Foster quietly approaching with the baseball bat. So far, “Skins” only had Mad Twatter and a couple of terribly inadequate parents. Josh comes out of nowhere. He is not ridiculous. There is no joke at the end of this at his expense (“You only need to ask. Here endeth the lesson” – and thus, Josh leaves “Skins” forever). This is the transformative moment for Tony, when he carries out his unconscious sister and Sid is there waiting for him, to drive them to the hospital. Considering how cruel he was before all this, he realizes that he needs Sid not just as an audience, but because he’d be helpless without him. At the hospital, when his parents blame Tony for what’s happened to Effy (without even knowing why he is to blame), Sid stands up for him.
Jim: “You and your horrid little ways, always at others people expense.”
Sid: “Hang on. That’s enough. He loves Effy. Don’t you think it’s hard enough?”
Jim: “And who the fuck are you?”
Sid: “I’m his best friend.”
Jim: “And I’m his fucking father.”
Sid: “I know what you are.”
“Skins” is all about how parents fuck up their children and how you make your own makeshift family that is more reliable – especially during the first gen. Being Tony’s father is completely irrelevant. Being his best friend, despite everything, is what matters.

I think it’s impossible to view the last scene in the hospital hallway and not remember the scene in the fourth season where Freddie is waiting outside after Effy’s suicide attempt, as his sister helps him to build the origami swan. All the pivotal scenes about Effy take place in hospitals (in season three, everybody abandoned her in a hospital hallway after she hit Katie over the head with a rock), and even though the circumstances are completely different here, the other characters define each other by how they react to what happens with her. Freddie can’t cope and wants to run away (which, as Jamie Brittain, ever so subtle,  so beautifully put it, is why he deserved to die), while Tony finds  out something essential about himself and about his friendship with Sid (which I guess is why he didn’t die).
Tony: “The thing is, I know I can be a wanker sometimes. But everyone likes that, don’t they?”
Sid: “We don’t have to do this now.”
Tony: “Then I start to feel distorted. Because, because I’m more than that. And I don’t wanna be a wanker. I don’t Sid. And Effy knows that. She loves me for who I really am. God. I sound like fucking Lionel Richie.”
Sid: “I quite like Lionel Richie.”
Tony: “All I know is I was scared tonight. And I was a bit, you know. And I wanted you there. Effy is different and I sort of own her because she is my sister but with you, I just really wanted you there. And then you were, in the car…”
Sid: “The thing is, Tony, you sort of own me too. Mostly in a good way.”
Now and then, “Skins” gets these moments so exactly right. No matter what happened before, when it’s really important, friendships prevail. Freddie comes to save Cook. Jal is there when Michelle needs someone to talk to, and Michelle is there when Jal is in trouble.

Random notes:

This is such a visual episode – and it’s really hard to describe most of it in words. There is always this trip-like feeling to Effy’s episodes (although in the fourth season, this probably applies more to “Freddie” than “Effy”), but this is the prime example, especially because she doesn’t talk and music plays such an important part.

I mentioned before how the scene where Effy sneaks out and Tony lies under her covers with one of her socks to trick the Stonems is one of my favourite involving Tony, right? IT IS. Siblings who wear each other’s clothes for some reason is a recurring theme in “Skins” (off the top of my head: Effy wearing Tony’s sweater while he’s in the hospital, Emily dressing up as Katie to sit her exam and getting rid of the dress at the love ball, Karen wearing Freddie’s t-shirt when he’s gone).

Everybody building that giant pyramid from sugar cubes might be one of my favourite group scenes in “Skins”, ever. Compare to the relative awkwardness of the pub scene in “Cook” – the only scene that comes close is the scene in the woods in “Effy”, season three, and that didn’t turn out so well.

Michelle: “It’s a sort of thing though, isn’t it? First loves?”
Jal: “You think Tony loves you?”
Michelle: “No. I don’t.”
Jal: “Sorry. That sounded far less harsh in my head.”

Jal is like Naomi, but with friends.

Josh’s “She’s dying over there Tony, you better get hard” – if you hadn’t realized that “Skins” wasn’t kidding around, that’s what really drove it home. Holy fuck, years of watching American television did not prepare me for this. I felt shell-shocked in that scene, like Tony.

I’m still not sure how I’ll deal with the “Tony” episode of season two because it seems very connected to this one but… SUBTLETLY. IT’S IMPORTANT.


Julipy said...

I've just watched this episode and at a certain point I was wondering, Could it be that Effy was part of the whole trap since the beginning? Yes, she loves Tony but maybe she was trying to get his attention. There is this moment just before she's getting the injection, when Josh (or the other bad guy) tells her something like "Only if you want to"(Don't know the exact words because I was watching an h̶o̶r̶r̶i̶b̶l̶e̶ dubbed version) Not so clever, if you're trusting those guys!

Also. I love how tripping/strange and visual are Effy's episodes. They make me so uncomfortable and attracted at the same time. I can't look away, even when things get really bad.

(That mad carnival scene in the 4th season! But maybe that was Freddy's)

cathy leaves said...

Hi! Gosh, I haven't thought about this show in such a long time but it still draws me in. I'd never really considered that option. In a way, what makes this episode so outstanding is that the characters almost transform into something that they usually aren't - it has this really weird mythical quality to it, at least thinking back on it it reminds me most of Roman or Greek legends. Tony travels into the underworld (and does so again when he goes to check out the University in the second season). Effy is mysterious, but in an even more elusive way than usual. Josh is a clear-cut, devilish villain. Effy's motives are so difficult to understand in those first two seasons, beyond the fact that she loves her brother. I would have thought that maybe Effy doesn't particularly care what happens to her and that is why she is taking these risks (because it's hard to imagine that someone as observant as Effy wouldn't realize that she might be in danger).

And yes, visually, Effy's episodes are absolutely stunning. The show has a way of just staying with you I think on such a primal level (for me, some of the other ones that just get me visually are Tony and Sid at the Crystal Castles concert, all of the trippy scenes in Effy's season three ep and Sophia, walking up to that platform).