Monday, 7 February 2011

Skins - This is me, this is who I am.

Skins 5x02: Rich.


Skins and identity: There are characters who introduce themselves like they are already done growing up, with a very clear idea of who they are and want to be in the future. “I’m Naomi. I hate injustice”, “I’m useless”, “You play the clarinet and I look shaggable”, “I’m Katie. I’ve never not had a boyfriend since I was seven”. For Richard Hardbeck, it’s being a metalhead. It’s a comfortable all-encompassing identity, music, style, opinions, expectations in others. It provides a filter through which he sees the rest of the world, and most of the things he sees and the people he meets don’t live up to his standards, so he meets them with arrogance and meanness that almost parallels Mini’s.
 It’s a safe niche he’s built for himself in the midst of the most suburban, middle class life possible – with a dad who washes the car, mows the lawn and gives him money to buy flowers for his mum’s birthday (“I love you”. / “Yeah, whatever.”), with moisturizer and a bathing cap. By Skins’ standards, Rich comes from the least dysfunctional family imaginable.
Apart from suburbia, another dent in Rich’s seemingly impenetrable fa├žade is the fact that he doesn’t actually have a membership card to an exclusive club, because the girl who, by his standards, should be his perfect match, at first brings out his socially awkward side and then shoots him down in the most brutal fashion. She is someone who shares his passion for metal, but this doesn’t provide them with a common ground to start from, like Rich thinks when he tells Alo that if he’d ask a metalhead out, she’d say yes. Rich learns that his identity is more meaningful if he finds way of sharing what he loves with others, rather than alienating them – and he learns to appreciate new things when he is forced, by circumstances, to change his perception of the world.


One of the reasons why I find Grace so immediately likeable is the fact that she doesn’t give in easily: once she settles on liking someone, or caring about them, she doesn’t give up on them. Rich spends a good part of this episode insulting her, calling her stupid (“That’s the worst idea since genocide, probably worse.”), ridiculing what she cares about most (ballet) – and yet she stays with him, until they share something important. He only hesitantly shares his identity with her, and explains himself mostly by excluding her, by pointing out how she is not like him and does not live up to his standards (“If I went with you, I wouldn’t want to go.”). Grace understands caring deeply for something most other people don’t understand, and she even has an understanding of music theory.
Grace: You need to be nicer to me, Rich.
Rich: Come on, you are never gonna like this CD.
Grace: You know, you called me stupid about three times today and I wanted it to stop. I bet you could not answer one question about ballet.
Rich: Yeah, that’s because ballet is lame and I really couldn’t give a fuck.
Grace: Ballet is everything to me, just like metal is to you. I’m trying to understand your way and you won’t let me.
Rich: You didn’t really like the stuff Toxic Bob played, did you?
Grace: I did like it. It had counterpoint, and melody, and everything I like in music, not that horrible noise you played me, that was just evil.
Rich: Right, well ballet is just for gays and grannies.
Grace: Stop treating me like an idiot and help me? Cause I’m trying to help you, aren’t I? Aren’t I? Suit yourself.
When Grace gets into character (“I’m Sub, short for Subrosa”), and meets Rich at his favourite tavern, he finally and slowly starts to see Grace for what she is – which he couldn’t do when she was herself – and he even gives a fairly adequate analysis of her situation – the fact that she allows Mini and Liv to treat her carelessly.
Grace: This girl then, who’s helping you, what do you think of her?
Rich: Honestly?
Grace: Honestly.
Rich: She’s alright. But… she lets people walk all over her, and her friends treat her like shit, and she doesn’t say a word.
Grace: Maybe she knows her friends love her?
Rich: Maybe she’s got no fucking self-respect.
Grace: You think you know me, Rich, no one fucking knows me. Not you, not Mini, not Liv. No one’s got a fucking clue who I am or what I can do.
Rich: You’re Grace now?
Grace: Yes. I am Grace. And I’m not gonna let you talk to me like that.
Rich: This is more like it Grace, you shouldn’t let me trashtalk you, Shouldn’t let anyone trashtalk to, especially your mates.
Grace: It makes me so fucking angry.
Rich: Be angry.
Grace: I am angry.
Rich: Never compromise.
Grace: Never compromise.
Rich: Yeah, like this track: I won’t do what you tell me.
Grace: Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Both of these characters feel misunderstood by their surroundings, but they deal differently with their frustration. Rich is mean and distant, Grace is too nice and too kind. Why does Grace allow Mini and Liv to treat her like this? Skins is portraying their relationship at an interesting point, where new people are starting to threaten an established power balance. Grace is changing because of Rich, and Rich is changing because of Grace. For a moment in the pub, seeing her on a table, he understands the potency of the music he cares so much about way better than he did before because he sees the liberating effect it has on someone else – and he sees Grace differently. But outside, on the street, he doesn’t admit anything. He decides to ask out the angel of death, instead of seeing what is right in front of him, and later, after the girl insults him, he turns Grace’s invitation down – instead of showing that he cares about the thing that defines her, he is rude and distant again.
Alo: What’s so fucking special about you? Why are you so different to everyone?
Rich: Cause I don’t compromise. Ever. I’m metal. That’s who I am. […]
Alo: Mate, listen to me, you can’t just go to life with this fucking…
Rich: No, why don’t you listen to me for once. See this, this is Barney, Napalm Death, he never let anyone tell him what to do, he never compromised, and his music is beautiful.
Alo: What the fuck does he know? He spent his life either sitting on a bus masturbating or playing unlistenable music in Swansea, he ain’t got a clue. Where are you going?
Rich: To prove you wrong.
Alo: You’re full of shit, Rich, you’re just scared. Man the fuck up.
Rich has built his identity on this one, strict thing, on a set of rules he invented for himself that keep him safe but also isolated. Rich buys the ultimate record – the record normal people can’t understand, because it is crazy, the record that is so loud that people only hear silence, the record that “Isn’t just a record” – and it betrays him. The holy grail betrays him and he becomes deaf. The character that is constantly listening to music in order to not listen to the world or anybody in it becomes loses his sense of hearing, and instead of limiting him, it actually opens up a whole new perspective. Rich goes to Grace’s ballet recital and without hearing the music, only relying on the shadows and the movement and the passion in Grace’s dancing, he realizes that this is beautiful too, that this is just as meaningful and relevant as his music. The experience transforms him – and Skins finds a beautiful way of portraying this moment, with the distant noises Rich can’t decipher, and the intense focus on what he sees.
And afterwards, when he can’t express his feelings (“I thought your dance was really beautiful”) to Grace both because they are basically inexpressible and because he can’t hear her, she gives him tickets to Napalm Death. He tore his up but she bought two, and suddenly he figures out that it all makes much more sense if he can share this with someone else. He can’t hear the concert, but he sees what the music and the experience does to Grace, how it transforms her into someone else, someone braver. Suddenly his identity isn’t a cage that isolates him from the world, but it’s something that lets him relate to other people.
The thing is though, it takes time for people to adapt to change. Rich knows that this was an important experience that changed him (his “something must have clicked last night” is about so much more than just his sense of hearing returning), and that his feelings about Grace are different now, but he isn’t brave enough yet to tell her that. And Grace knows that Rich is right about standing up to Mini and Liv, about not letting her friends walk over her and disregarding her feelings, but it’s a world she knows and feels safe in.
Rich: Hey, can I talk to you?
Grace: So you can hear again?
Rich: Yeah, something must have clicked last night.
Grace: Awesome. Look, I’m meeting Mini in a minute so you need to be quick.
Rich: Well, erm. I had a good time last night.
Grace: Me too. It was perfect, I loved it. I would have told you after, but you were deaf. You got my text though?
Rich: Yeah.
Grace: Oh, right. Things got pretty close last night, didn’t they?
Rich: Yeah. Grace, I…
Grace: It’s probably good nothing happened between us. Right?
Rich: Yeah. I…guess so.
Grace: Who are the flowers for?
Rich: My mum.
Grace: Really?
Rich: Really!
Grace: Right. […] I have to go. I’ll see you soon?
A lesser show would have ended with a kiss – instead, Skins ends with a simple gestures that has both characters acknowledge how important they are to each other and how they’ve influenced each other, but still staying firmly in their own world.

Random notes:

I think I might need someone to talk me down from my love for this gen. I LIKE EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE. (I also ship everyone with everyone, but that's a different story).

Subtlety still isn’t Jamie Brittain’s strength (The main character is an extension of the writer! Rich loses his sense of hearing and that makes him SEE NEW THINGS! Kevin earns the right to be called dad with deep insight into the relationship between men and women!), but his approach works well in this episode and all-in-all, this is probably my favourite episode of his so far.

This episode also does a very nice job at advancing the stories of the supporting characters, which gives it less of an insular feeling – Grace and Franky are obviously friends now (Franky seems to appreciate Grace’s dancing, and she knows where to find her), the conflict between Franky and Mini is still very much there, even though Mini pretends that it’s not (“Oh no. I can’t tell where you can or can’t be or stop you from talking to Gracie, can I.”), and Franky has found a way of dealing with Mini that apparently works (“No, you can’t”) – and makes Mini even angrier and reliant on slurs (Franky is smart enough not to respond). Franky is also friends with Rich and Alo (Rich calls her a friend), and they’ve developed a nice routine that includes Franky marvelling at the weird rituals Rich and Alo practice (“I’m sorry, was that like a conversation you two just had? That was like an outtake of Rain Man.”).

Two episodes in and only very little drug abuse, drinking, partying and no sex! The ridiculousness that usually came with the first few episodes of each gen is also almost completely missing – no Mad Twatter or Johnny White so far.

INCEST – A FRANK DISCUSSION. Rich has been looking for this book for AGES!

“I can’t help you. I mean, I don’t know anything about girls either. I don’t have a mum or a sister. My experience with girls has mostly been being beaten up by them.” – AWW, Franky.

I thought Skins did a really good job contrasting Rich’s Holier Than Thou mentality with the record store owner who has clearly dedicated his entire life to metal, yet welcomes Gracie and reads Heat (“You sell-out”), and also happens to be played be the lead singer of Fun Loving Criminals.

“Rich, let me tell you a story. […] DON’T BE AN ASSHAT, and people will like you more.”

I might have said “you wouldn’t like it” about music or a book or a film on occasion.

Also, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Skins doesn’t have an equivalent of Buffy’s “to the library”. Oh well.

So how did Rich manage to become best friends with a guy who doesn’t share his one and only passion?

“Why are we holding hands?”

And talking about Alo: he uses gay as a slur. That’s hard to take, even from a character that tends to be sympathetic. On the other hand, having been in a classroom with guys that age and still depending on public transport, this is highly realistic – I’d be nice to see someone address it, though. Franky seems willing to intervene when Alo goes too far (“You can see her vag through the leotard” – turns out, Franky is actually good at beating people up).

“Bollocks. You’re terrible. You need someone to teach you the ways of the woman. The method of the muff. The tao of titfuckery.”

College starts at a time that allows people to sleep until nine o’clock? I HAD TO GET UP AT HALF PAST SIX FOR 12 YEARS OF MY LIFE, FOR FUCK’S SAKE.

Mini’s blatant homophobia is a different story, and it actually fits in well with her character since (this isn’t based on spoilers OR on the scenes for next week’s episode) she doesn’t seem very comfortable with her own sexuality. It’s also refreshing that Franky’s reaction to it isn’t running around shouting “I’m not gay” (and yeah, their relationship is my favourite thing about this generation so far, along with Grace). Franky seems more like an “I’m many things” / “I’m not anything” person, and someone fairly good at not letting others define her (even though it must have been painful getting there).

No Matty, very little Nick.

LIV? I didn’t like her in this episode.

I'm not a metalhead, so I can't really judge this but... I've heard of all the bands played and mentioned in this episode, and something tells me that an actual metalhead would probably have a more distinguished taste? Or is metal THAT different from the whole indie thing about liking the least popular bands and rather inventing nonexisting bands than admitting to liking something someone else likes too?

I am ridiculously happy that Georgia Lester wrote Mini’s episode. She has a brilliant track record with characters that most other writers would paint as shallow. Can’t wait for next week.

Apparently there won't be any Unseens for this generation, which makes me incredibly sad - they've always helped to understand the characters better and to continue storylines that didn't have a place in the actual show.