Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Skins - You always say that you’re made of stories, and you are.

Skins 5x07: Grace.

Grace Violet Blood is like a princess in a fairytale: the strict and over-protective ruler of her kingdom who happens to be her father has allowed her to live amongst the ordinary folk for a bit, but this privilege can be revoked at any moment, and Grace would have to return to the confines of a private college (“It’s in the middle of nowhere and everyone is horrible and smells of horses.”) and the safely guarded bubble that is her parents’ house (which, with all the mirrors and the tapestry and Grace’s four-poster bed and the wall around the garden, looks like a castle).

“Remember: to stay, we must get As”.

Even her father’s promise sounds like it’s out of a fairy tale: “You may live your life as you want but the moment you achieve a grade less than A, starting with your A-Levels Drama examination, you will return to Mayberry’s College.” – you may keep your feet if you make a human fall in love with you, the prince must kiss you, at the stroke of midnight the spell will be broken and your carriage will turn into a pumpkin, etc. So, Grace’s hopes and wishes become entwined with all the drama and complications of her friends, and she has to navigate the minefield of their conflicts to make the play happen, otherwise she can’t stay.
The play is Twelfth Night by Shakespeare. Viola’s (played by Franky) ship is wrecked on the coast of Illyria, an enemy country. She believes her twin brother Sebastian to be dead but manages to rescue herself, along with a few countrymen. She then dresses up as a man (Cesario) to work for Orsino, the Duke of Illyria (played by Matty), who forges a friendship with her while she falls in love with him. He asks her to woo the countess Olivia for him (played by Liv, Mini is the alternate) who is in mourning over the loss of her brother – but Olivia falls in love with Cesario instead. (the conclusion of the play, which we don’t actually see in Skins, is Olivia finally falling in love with Viola’s twin brother who did survive after all, and Viola and Orsino getting engaged).

Grace: Performing Shakespeare is more than reading words from the script; it’s about catharsis, the outpouring of emotion you feel as the play finishes. A play is a promise to deliver that, and the only way to make sure that happens it to remember the most important thing about Shakespeare: that he knows more about you than you do. You’ve got to let his wisdom fill your souls. He makes us better people.
The problem is, of course, the Shakespeare really does know more about the characters than they know about themselves. Franky has complicated, overwhelming and increasingly obvious feelings for Matty (and either can’t or doesn’t bother to hide them), and the scenes she has to play with him, as a character terribly and secretly in love with his, reveal her feelings to everybody else, and especially Liv.
Orsino/Matty: My life upon't, young though thou art, thine eye, Hath stay'd upon some favour that it loves: Hath it not, boy? 
Cesario/Viola/Franky: A little, by your favour. 
Orsino/Matty: What kind of woman is't? 
Cesario/Viola/Franky: Of your complexion.
Grace reminds Franky: “You’re talking about him. You’re completely in love.” I’m not sure how long Liv has been noticing the meaningful looks that Matty and Franky constantly exchange, and the episode hints that Liv knows about Franky watching her and Matty (although that’s a bit of a weak aspect in the episode for me, because only Matty actually saw Franky watching in the previous episode and I can’t see him telling Liv). Where Mini would have reacted immediately and aggressively to see her relationship threatened, Liv calmly declares that she and Matty will no longer be acting (“not really bothered, right.”), and thus Grace’s attempts to keep it all together and make everyone happy begin. She promises Liv a party among friends to prove to her that her friends still love her, despite of what she did – “You’ll feel the love, I promise, it’ll be magic” – which is how fairytales always end (her dad actually tells her that her friends “must not breathe a word of what they see or hear” when they find out that he is her dad – which sounds like he is protecting the knowledge of some kind of magic kingdom).

The problem with trying to please everyone is that Grace herself disappears, in a way, in other people’s expectations of her, and Rich, who is so keen on authenticity and not compromising (and I think this hatred for everything that is fake goes beyond his preference for metal, it’s the other way around – metal symbolizes something to him that has always been his credo), notices.
Rich: We’re very different, Grace.
Grace: Maybe our parents are.
Rich: No, I mean you’re different with them, you’re not you.
She doesn’t tell Rich about the pact with her father, so he can’t understand why she is so desperate to keep things together and doesn’t really have time for this discussion.

“Okay, let’s all do cocaine”

I think Grace has much more insight into the conflicts between her friends than they do – she knows about Franky and Matty, she realizes how potentially dangerous Liv’s resentment is, and the unresolved issues between Liv and Mini (“you know, this and that”) hurt her personally because she used to feel save in her circle of friends and now it’s falling apart (actually, in that regard she isn’t unlike JJ).
Grace: The reason I know that this will be awesome is you’re all so much like your characters in the play. Liv, you’re playing Olivia, right. She’s beautiful, desired by all, but she’s also really vulnerable.
Mini: What’s Franky’s story then?
Liv: I can do this one. Franky is Viola, the girl dressed as a boy who can’t get what she wants, whatever that is.
Franky: I know what I want.
Liv: And what’s that?
Franky: What’s what?
Mini: Well, Franky, you haven’t really told us whether you’re a, er, or a…
Franky: A what or a what?
Liv: A lesbian.
Grace: Liv, that’s so…
Franky: No, it’s okay. I don’t mind. And the answer is: no. I’m not anything.
Mini: So you’re bisexual.
Franky: No, I’m into people.
Liv: Who are you into at the moment?
Grace: Who, I love this track, everyone dance, dance with me.
This scene perfectly demonstrated how the relationships of these characters have changed over the past few episodes. Liv, after realizing that Franky is a potential threat, relies on the same subtle and mean remarks Mini used against her – this is a stark contrast to how she was presented so far, as someone brutally honest who never holds back (and this scene also played out very differently to the supportive and understanding way Liv approached the issue with Franky in the previous episode, when it was just about Franky, not about Matty). Franky, for the first time, feel secure enough (both with her own feelings and in this circle of people) to give a definite answer to the question only to realize afterwards that Liv doesn’t really care what she is, but suspects and resents the fact that the person she is into, at the moment, is her boyfriend. And finally, Mini, with her “what does freak spell? You” and her fear of anything that is different has come to a point where Franky doesn’t feel like a threat anymore – even more than that, when Franky hesitates to join the others in their dancing because of the way Liv reacted, Mini is the one including her and reaching out to her (a beautiful symmetry to Franky’s “come and dance” which kind of started Mini’s transformation).
They go out. Mini dances because she feels safe, and Franky dances because Mini gives her a context that works.
Mini: Where are all those fucking men? […] There’s some. Come on, Franky, let’s get your balls wet.
Franky: No, it’s okay, you go.
Liv: Yeah, you go Mini, we’ll stay here and watch. Franky likes to watch, don’t you, Franky?
Franky: OK, let’s go.
Grace: Franky likes to watch?
Liv: It’s all good baby.
Franky dodges Liv and goes with Mini, and it seems to work until Matty enters the room, and the way it always happens, whenever Matty and Franky are in the same room, their eyes find each other. Matty notices that Franky feels uncomfortable with the random guy and instinctually, without even really thinking about it, goes to help her – and the way the scene was done is actually perfect because this is exactly what Matty and Franky’s relationship is like: it’s not articulate or pre-meditated at all, it’s chemistry and instinct. Mini screams at Matty for driving the random away, Liv screams at Matty for going over at all, and Franky slips away quietly, realizing that there really isn’t anything she can do to make this alright – and Grace watches, because actually, all these conflicts are the background of the episode and it is about how Grace desperately tries to keep it all together both for herself and because she doesn’t want this circle to fall apart (“Oh god, what do I do, Rich?”).

“All the world’s a stage?”

Rich is the kind of drunk that can’t help but be brutally honest (even more than usual) and he tells her exactly what he has been dealing with while Grace tried to make it all work.
Rich: I’m alright, Grace, cause I got you to look after me. It’s what you do. Everyone’s happy when Grace is around. You’re a shape shifter of happiness.
Grace: What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense.
Rich: I don’t know who you are, are you Grace Violet or Grace Blood? Are you daddy’s girl or my girl?
Grace: I’m who I need to be, Rich. We all are. Haven’t you heard the saying ‘All the world’s a stage’?
Rich: Yeah, but it’s not true, is it.
Grace: Rich, tell me why you’re unhappy.
Rich: Hey, the world is a stage right, so none of this happens. Doesn’t matter at all.
They go back to this discussion later when Rich is sober and Grace is even more discouraged about the state of her play, and Rich doesn’t take back what he said.
Rich: I’m sorry about being drunk but I meant what I said, I can remember.
Grace: What, all that stuff about me being fake, you meant it?
Rich: Not fake, I’m just saying you’re always performing, you’re an actress, not a director. You’re always playing the part of whoever the person you’re with needs you to be.
Grace: So, fake then?
Rich: You always say that you’re made of stories, and you are.
Grace: I don’t understand what’s wrong with that. What’s really going on, Rich?
Rich: Nothing. Nothing.
Grace: Come on, say it, say what you’re thinking.
Rich: I don’t know what we are, I don’t know if we’re right.
Grace: I know what’s going on. You’ve met my parents and now you’re freaking out.
Rich: Yeah. I am actually, yeah.
Grace: Don’t be such a girl. It’s not like we’re getting married. It’s one dinner.
Rich: Yeah, one mental dinner.
Grace: So, shall we just not bother then, just screw all this?
Rich: No. I don’t know, Grace, I just don’t know what to do about us.
Grace: Go away, Rich. Go away now.
Rich: Fine.
Rich goes back to this again and again: If Grace is a different person depending on what the people around her need her to be, then it’s impossible for him to tell what’s real. For Grace, it’s exactly the other way around: shaping herself to the expectations of others and playing whichever role is required to keep things together is her way of showing how much she cares, and she needs to do this because otherwise, the things she cares about (Rich, being allowed to stay in Roundview, her friends, her relationship with her dad) would be in danger and possibly lost. Rich’s realization that stories are meaningful takes place entirely in the background of the episode.

Love sought is good, but given unsought better

After Grace’s mum reminds her that she used to love fairytales – “Rapunzel had to let down her hair so the prince could climb up” – Grace decides to try everything to “make a happy ending” if all the characters in her play are so hesitant to work for it themselves. Now that Liv and Matty are no longer in the play, Mini, Liv’s alternate, has to perform the role of Olivia – “she’s beautiful, desired by all, but she’s also really vulnerable” – a description that fits Mini much better than Liv, only that Mini is a terrible actress who performs her lines like she does not understand their meaning, until Grace tells them to kiss.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause, 
For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause, 
But rather reason thus with reason fetter, 
Love sought is good, but given unsought better.
“Love sought is good, but given unsought better”. This is, essentially, what Franky has been doing all this time, being kind without any specific reason, and Mini has changed over the course of these episodes for a number of reasons but Franky’s constant reassuring presence has certainly helped. Mini is the one who gets anxious about the kiss – “there’s nothing about kissing in the script” – and she delivers the line more truthfully when she actually is vulnerable than she did before. I will probably eat my words after Thursday’s season finale but I think it’s pretty clear that Mini’s feelings for Franky are way more complex than just friendship (and they are meaningful because she REALLY didn’t look for this, it just happened) – there’s a moment after the kiss it takes her to recover and to regain her confidence (“Am I doing okay?”).

Shakespeare knows more about you than you do. Grace, on the verge of giving up because she can’t produce the play without Liv and Matty, enters the stage herself, and fills the space with Shakespeare.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; [and by a sleep to say we end]
She stops before the final line because she realizes that she doesn’t want to give up, she can’t give up because it means too much to her and she can’t lose this. “No fucking way”. She makes her happy ending. She goes to Matty and tells him to come back to the production, even though this causes further complications with Franky (“Matty and Franky, you need to work on that kiss”), and, after watching a hilarious video of Mini and Franky, she realizes that she needs Liv, as much as the role of Olivia actually fits Mini better.


Grace has been raised on fairytales, by a mother who has instilled her with the belief that you can create a happy ending as long as you work hard towards it (“Tell mummy and she’ll make it better”). She goes to find Liv asks her to come back to the production.
Grace: You have to come back.
Liv: What for?
Grace: For Matty, for Mini, for Franky, for me, for everything,.
Liv: What’s the point? Me and Matty, me and Mini, me and Franky, it’s all fucked, Grace. I don’t know how to be with them anymore.
Grace: Yes you do. I know you do. Just be with them.
Liv: What do you think of me, Grace? What I did, with Nick, with Mini. What do you think?
Grace: I think everything is going to be fine. Everyone is going to get what they want. I promise You, I know it.
Liv: How do you know that?
Grace: Because it’s the only thing I believe in. Because it’s the only thing I got left to count on.
The thing is though: everybody has to work on their own story. Grace can work hard to get a happy ending to her own story, but she can’t hold that promise for everybody else, because she is just an actress and not the director of their fate.
While the play succeeds, the stories of the characters collide and collapse behind the curtains. Liv confronts Matty about his feelings for Franky, and while he openly declares his love for Liv, he can’t deny also loving Franky – while Franky watches.
Liv: I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.
Grace: Whatever’s going on, you can’t go now. You can’t leave me.
Liv: You told me it would all be okay.
Grace: It will be, it will. We just have to finish. We just have to finish the play.
Liv [to Matty]: You forget her. Now. Okay?
Grace [to Franky]: You’re on in two. Come on. We need to finish. Just finish.
They do finish, but the ending of the story, of Twelfth Night, requires Olivia to give Viola’s hand to Orsino, requires Liv to give Franky’s hand to Matty – they finished the play, but apart from that, all the conflicts are in the open now and nothing is mended.

Grace has fulfilled her part of the deal, but she soon finds out that her father does not intend to honour his side (“I am doing this because I love you. I just want better for you.” / “No, David, you just want a different daughter.”
Grace: I’m going away Rich. For good.
Rich: What about us?
Grace: You were right, Rich, you were totally right. I’m not real.
Rich: Yes, you are. You are real to me.
Grace: I’m a story. A character. A fucking fiction. But you’re not, the others aren’t, my parents aren’t, and I don’t belong here.
Rich: Where are you going?
Grace: To a fucking castle in the clouds.
Stories give us meaning. They affect how we view the world and how we live in it. Grace’s belief in the stories she was told as a child has been shattered.
Mrs Blood: It kills me to see you like this, Grace. Everything will work out okay.
Grace: You know… you’ve spent my whole life filling me with stories, things that aren’t true, were never true. You told me everything was going to be okay as long as I tried. All these stories, all these lies I believed. ‘Great Expectations’ – lies. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ – lies. I believed it all and now I’m miserable and it’s your fault. And you can’t fix it.
There’s nothing Grace’s mum can do now; she failed to provide for her daughter what she has been promising her again and again; but then, there’s the sound of pebbles against a window pane and lines, recited outside.
Rich: Her eyes in heaven through the airy region stream so bright that birds would sing if it were not night. But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand. That I might touch that cheek!
Grace: What are you doing?
Rich: She speaks. Speak again, bright angel!
Grace: Be careful
Rich: For thou art as glorious to this night… as is a winged messenger of heaven. It is my lady, oh it is my love. Oh that she knew she were.
Grace: Be quiet, my parents are awake!
Rich: Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords.
Grace: You are very sweet but this can’t happen, Rich, there’s nothing we can do, it’s over.
Rich: O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?
Grace: Tell me, tell me what to do, what’s left to do.
Rich: The exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine. What do people in Shakespeare’s plays do when it’s all fucked, when they’re trapped, how do they work it all out? Maybe stories are just stories. Or maybe we can make our life a story. So marry me, Grace Violet Blood.
Grace: O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!
Skins, with its seemingly unlimited belief in true love, never hesitates to let the characters rely on grand gestures to prove their affection for each other without making them seen ridiculous for their effort.

Random notes:

If any of you have spent more time on Shakespeare than I have (we only read abridged versions of his plays in school) and there are some obvious connections between the play and the characters that I’ve missed, please point them out to me. I would have never finished this if I had actually thoroughly read Twelfth Night.

I take back all my snide comments about Jamie Brittain over-conceptualizing his stories. This was perfect and beautiful.

Also, for the record and because it didn’t really seem to fit in anywhere else: I am endlessly grateful for the way the story let Franky define her own sexuality. Franky likes people. Sometimes it bothers me when narratives (or viewers) try to define characters that don’t seem to fit into a specific category, and this is one of the most elegant way I’ve ever seen it executed (apart from the fact that I can’t really think of any other characters as complex as Franky Fitzgerald is).

Finally, because I don’t want to end the review of this episode on a sour note, a couple of things that I find irritating (this is all my fault because I know that I should just steer clear of certain comment sections, but I AM DRAWN LIKE A MOTH TO THE FLAMES):
  • The argument that Skins shouldn’t have non-straight relationships because “there have been gay characters in all previous generation” and “it would get repetitive”. SO THERE IS AN ENDLESS SUPPLY OF INTERESTING AND ENGAGING STORIES ABOUT STRAIGHT CHARACTERS but only a handful of stories that can be told about queer characters?
  • “This devalues something that happened in a previous generation of Skins”. No, it doesn’t. The only way something in this generation of Skins affects the meaning of the previous generation is if Freddie drops by to have a beer with Alo, or if Grace finds out from a grumpy Irish politics teacher that Naomi Campbell is now dating Emily Fitch’s twin sister.
  • “This generation isn’t as good as the previous generations because the ratings are declining, here, let me show you the numbers”. …
The first scene was comic gold: Rich, who might be the tallest character in the history of Skins, trying to fit into the confined space to hide, running outside and in classic Skins manner, getting mauled by a dog in the background without anyone inside noticing. Also, David Blood in a completely different context! (and he actually extends his arms miles away from Grace when she asks him to take her temperature).

The contrast of VIOLET and BLOOD, with the recurring theme of identity and choice and authenticity. Sometimes I really just want to draw little stars and hearts on my notepad.

Brilliantly, Rich and Alo play characters that are part of the comedic subplot of the play, not unlike they did in the beginning of this season.

Rich: This is really good, Mrs Blood. What do you call it again?

I also believe that Rich is wearing a fish tie.


And Rich looking like he fell down a rabbit hole to emerge in an absurd universe that only vaguely resembles his own.

Of course arrogant metalhead Rich would start to sing the most ridiculous pop songs when drunk. (says the girl who is occasionally reminded of the fact that Backstreet Boys lyrics never really leave you, you know, they are forever).

“Hey, are you even a girl? Do you have a secret winky, Gracie?” / “Let’s get your balls wet”. Mini says some terribly offensive things in this episode but she says them in such a loving, cheerful, friendly manner that it’s hard to resent her for it.

I am also quite found of her very enthusiastic finger pointing when she says “bisexual”.

“We should do cocaine every day, it’s marvellous.”

I think I could have done without Alo’s predictable reaction to Mini and Franky kissing, even though Will Merrick’s face is precious.

Doug appears out of nowhere after a long absence when Grace is on stage – this was really good continuity to the second season – “My mother was right. Do science. Do science. Science makes sense. But the lights drew me. Like a moth to a flame” – when Doug took over as director in a completely different production that brought lingering feelings to the light.

The book Liv is reading by the harbour is Blankets by Craig Thompson, which EVERYBODY SHOULD READ and if I didn’t love her (and the people who make decisions about what books characters on Skins read) before, I most certainly would now.

The song playing over the final scene of the play is “Heart in your Heartbreak” by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart:

And no matter what you pray,
It's never gonna take the pain away
And even if she'd stay you know it's wrong
And no matter what you pray,
it's never gonna take the pain away
Cuz even if she'd stay, you know she's gone

Remember when Tony recited the very same lines to Michelle but it was completely meaningless because HE didn’t mean it, he considered it an ironic gesture? And now Rich, with the very same lines, achieves the exact opposite because he considers them true and they give him meaning, the way stories sometimes do.