Tuesday 24 January 2012

Skins – Life was just a ferris wheel.

Skins: 6x01 Everyone. 

I’ve spent almost a week watching and re-watching this episode. As a consequence, there are now three versions of this review co-existing in my head, and one of the most difficult undertakings was sorting out which one I should actually write, or how to generate a coherent culmination of the three. One is just angry ranting, basically: voicing how upset I am about all the things that didn’t work, about what felt to me were completely re-written characters, the flawed central premise of the episode. The second one, filled with “buts”: trying to make it work. Inventing what happened in these inaccessible gaps that would explain the changes (the scientific term for this is “fanwanking”, I think). The third one… well, the third one is actually just the thought that this was an Everyone, and it only set up the season, but didn’t really provide a deeper insight into the characters, the way Skins episodes usually do. Everyones are only rarely episodes that end up on my favourites-lists for precisely that reason – and the fact that season five’s is an exception to the rule didn’t exactly make this any easier.  
There were things I really liked about the episode. It established very quickly that the group has grown closer over the summer – there are still smaller units within the group that have a tighter connection, but as a whole, they get along well and genuinely like each other, with many of the looming conflicts from last season resolved after the finale brought them together. Nick isn’t an outsider anymore. The girls are as close as ever. Grace and Rich arrive late and have grown into the kind of inseparable couple that still manages to remain distinctive individuals. They love each other for their differences. I think this is established particularly well when the episode contrasts it with Matty and Franky, who presumably share more interests than Grace and Rich do but have failed to find ways to productively resolve their conflicts when they aren’t on the same wave-length. 

Franky and Matty 

Disregarding the general question of “what happened to Franky” and “is this even Franky anymore” and “perhaps a space alien possessed Franky while they were in Tunisia?”, I really liked the way the episode introduced Matty and Franky, crashing into the holiday spirit with all their anger and frustration, screaming over the sound of the Smiths. It’s horrible, of course, because last we saw them, they were sharing smiles and the promise that things might get better for once instead of continuously worse, and we don’t get to see that, it happened during a time that will forever remain inaccessible, but the way their relationship eventually turned out is entirely believable. Matty was still mostly a mystery at the end of last season, not a fully-developed character. They both probably had very clear ideas of each other going into the relationship, based on the fact that they shared interests and tastes and a certain detachment (that Matty embraced and Franky tried to fight by forging a community for herself, with mixed results) – but trapped in a car for weeks, in another country, with nobody else to talk to, all their minor differences magnified over time. They mostly share their taste in literature, but Franky still doesn’t want to hear endless lectures on Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex to pass the time. They might have a lot of music in common, but not Morrissey, who Matty plays in the car and sings along to. Where Grace and Rich gently tease each other about their quirks, Franky starts a war and Matty in his frustration doesn’t know how to respond. 
If there is a theme to this episode at all, it’s harmony, destroyed by things from the outside (but not always uninvited). My favourite moment: Grace and Rich, finally enjoying a bit of serenity and quiet by themselves (even if Rich is complaining of the lack of a roof over their head and water and electricity to listen to Slayer). Grace tells him to just relax and sort of enchants him with her dress (“You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”) and her singing that Françoise Hardy song. He is completely smitten – and then the music from the distance intrudes on their solitude and takes the moment away from them, because inevitably, they will end up in that jeep trailing Alo (their guide dog, imparted with super-human hearing) to seek out someone else’s party. The same thing happens again and again in the episode, until the very end, when the summer holiday seamlessly turns into Roundview, later, and everything has changed. 

And now, to the central plot of the episode, the thing that objectively has to work because it sets up the season, and yet… well. For one, usually, when Skins does these dramatic storylines (and by “dramatic” I don’t mean the personal drama, the relationship drama, the identity drama, but the thriller-murder-crime stuff), something goes wrong. I am not a fan of the two “humorous” entries into this category, Mad Twatter and Johnny White, and I am even less fond of “for some reason, Bristol police is really concerned about this one teenage suicide”, “Cook becomes a fugitive” and “the psychiatrist is a psychopathic killer” (and just a general thought: the one thing that I do not want to be reminded of, if possible ever again, is the second half of season four). The one time it did work, and that was in part because the entire episode was such a trip, so the style perfectly fit the content, was Josh in Effy’s first episode. But Luke is no Josh. He is so awfully obviously the big bad man from the kind of stories that are told to kids (Don’t Take Candy From Strangers!) that Franky’s ignorance and worse, the way she falls for it, is just utterly and incredibly painful, even if we disregard (which we do because there is a special category for Franky at the end of this) that the Franky that was introduced last season with her intimacy issues and her personal boundaries would have run away halfway through their first encounter. 
I think I understand the idea behind it, but it does not work with the characters and it is not well executed. Luke is the opposite of Matty, not just physically, but also in terms of resources, style, philosophy. He promises a kind of mindless refuge (and eventually, escape) instead of the analytical intense intellectual relationship that Matty wanted, the one that Franky now finds “boring”.
Matty: I’m sorry I talk too much about stuff.
Franky: It’s okay, Matty, it’s fine.
Matty: We were having a fucking classic summer holiday. So what’s going on?
Franky: Do we have to do this?
Matty: It’s us. We’re great together.
Franky: Is this what it’s like, being with someone?
Matty: You loved it. Tunisia. The beach. Making love to me.
Franky: It gets boring, Matty. All the fucking, and the talking, and just… all the stuff, okay.
Matty: That’s not fair.
Franky: What’s fair got to do with it?  
I like this conversation in part because it finally provides a much-needed insight into Matty’s character and it’s so well-acted, and I like the final line too, because fairness does have absolutely nothing to do with it when a necessary emotion is absent – but I am trying to figure out how this fits in with Franky’s character, this idea that she is bored by the banal aspects of a relationship. It’s well-established that Franky has the capacity to be mean when she feels vulnerable and trapped (“I’m not a bulimic fucking Barbie”), but this goes beyond that. 
She exits the conversation by running away (and refusing a kiss), goes up on a balcony and Luke, who’s spent the better part of the evening glaring at her like she’s the prey he’ll soon hunt down, talks to her. 
Luke: Tell me something I don’t know, little girl.
Franky: That’s hard. You seem so wise.
Luke: Okay. Then I suggest we dance our fucking dicks off.
And then they dance. And this is where I completely lost it because fuck, this whole motif of dancing was so meaningful in the last season, and this really only works if this is Franky completely out of control, so out of control that all her instincts and issues make her act in exactly the opposite way in which she would usually act. Luke doesn’t come across as wise – he just seems creepy and stalkerish (a trait that everybody but Franky recognizes immediately, especially Mini – “Hi kids.” / “Hi, er, older dude.”)

Mini and Alo

This also feels like something that will be easier to write about once it has developed further. At the beginning of the season, I would have found a romantic relationship between these characters entirely plausible, if well-written. It wouldn’t be entirely un-founded. Personally I’d have preferred a solid friendship because when was the last time that Skins did a friendship between a female and a male character that didn’t end in a relationship (not that I don’t appreciate Chris and Jal) – I guess Naomi and Cook count, but apart from that? I like Alo a lot, but his character would have profited from being exposed to the idea that girls can be more than just wanking material. 
I’m not sure where the show is going with these two now. I go back and forth on their first sex scene because on the one hand, I like that it’s from Mini’s perspective, that she figures out how to turn on the water and they have this thinly-veiled conversation about low-self-esteem and how to deal with it (what an unexpected parallel between the two!) and then she makes that choice because she feels in control of the situation and Alo doesn’t ask her to be someone she’s not (the perfect song choice also helped – Dark Dark Dark covers Elephant Micah’s Wild Goose Chase) – but on the other hand, in terms of compelling and well-executed and heart-breakingly well-acted storylines last season, Mini’s body issues were probably my absolute favourite one. Georgia Lester wrote such an incredible episode, and just magically solving all this in one sweep and arguing that all Mini needed was Alo and his secret knowledge of sex acquired during hours and hours of ultrawank (REALLY, Skins?) feels like a massive let-down. The second scene didn’t help. A random shag in front of the toilets of a massive beach party, preluded by a conversation about how Alo “banged her brains out”? “Romantic”, as Naomi would have said. How a meaningful relationship with any emotional investment (from both the viewers and the characters) could come out of this, I do not know (I have a very specific fear and fingers crossed that doesn’t happen!) It works as a platonic sexual relationship and they are kind of endearing in their mutual disregard of each other’s worst character traits, but I genuinely hope that something better will come out of this. 

Evil Luke’s evil plan of evil

So, turns out that Luke is this creepy drug king pin who earns his money by hiding drugs in abandoned holiday homes and then blackmailing kids who have made questionable life choices into transporting them all over the country! He also likes to lure victims into his traps by using How To Be A Creeper 101 textbook lines. 
Luke: You’re thinking, why is life so fucking predictable. You’re seventeen…
Franky: I’m 18, actually…
Luke: You’re 18. You’re gonna go back to school, gonna go back to your mum and dad.
Franky: Not exactly.
Luke: It’s all inevitable. It’s all gonna go down.
Franky: And?
Luke: You don’t owe anybody anything. You owe nothing. Come with me.
Franky: Where?
Luke: Anywhere. Till we get bored and whatever. This is real life. This is it.
Franky: And we go right now?
Luke: Right now.
I mean, I get that this was perfectly phrased to fit in with Franky’s complaint about being bored by the everyday stuff of being in a relationship, and that maybe, to Franky, the idea of running away is another attempt to deal with her issues (the exact opposite of what she tried to do at the beginning of last season, in fact). But… “it’s all inevitable”? “This is real life”? And this isn’t even the thing that I have the most issues with. The worst moment is when, after being told that something horrible is going to happen to Franky if he doesn’t deliver the drugs that Luke’s minions have hidden in his car, Matty watches Franky get in the car and drive off. At any point throughout all this, any normal person would have just stopped things, perhaps by pointing out to Franky that she was about to get in a car with a drug-smuggling psychopath (and he drives a BMW! How did you not see all of this coming?) Instead, Matty patiently waits in the car filled with drugs that would presumably disappear him in the Moroccan justice system forever if he got caught (the one thing that wasn’t completely unbelievable about all of this was that Matty ran away – he is older than the others, he is the car holder – if anything it’s a miracle that Liv and Grace somehow managed to get out of the country without any repercussions), and then, after Grace got in the car to talk to him about how his relationship is falling apart and when Liv, informed by a local that Luke is a drug-smuggling psychopath, screams “Stop them, Matty, you pussy, stop them!”, he gets into a car chase with a BMW sports car. Because that’s what you do if the episode requires you to get into a dramatic (and costly!) car crash that will leave one of your best friends in a coma and you on the run from the police. 
The moment when Rich realizes, even though he is far away – Matty, running away because there really isn’t anything else he can do – and the music that will carry us over – all of this is perfect. The problem is how the episode builds up to this. 


Did anybody else get this weird feeling from the beautiful cut between Morocco and Roundview that everything before was just an absurd dream? When the camera finally reveals the Roundview assembly hall and the orchestra playing Vivaldi (Concerto for Two Mandolins in G played by marimbas?), it felt like a homecoming. The show finally looked like Skins again. The point of it was probably to contrast the sunshine and holiday! of Morocco with the terrible awakening after the car crash, the grave reality of the aftermath, but to me, it was a reminder of how good this show can be without spending massive amounts of money. 
They sit spread out, with a palatable distance between them, while Doug reads out a letter from David Blood thanking the school for supporting the family, and this feels so real; the way in which they specifically are affected by this while everybody else isn’t really, the loneliness that comes with this, particularly if the group itself is also divided. Franky comes in late and sits by herself while trying to make herself invisible. She blames herself, and we don’t see that confrontation, but I think the others do, too. 
Nick also carries the additional burden of dealing with the fact that his brother is on the run from the police. Josie, now with another new position at the school (“I’m your responsible adult. Obviously I have my moments, but…”) tells him that he needs to inform her if Matty calls, and she will talk to the police. Nick seems so changed, and that feeling is only amplified by the fact that he just spent months in a drug-fuelled stupor and this is the first time that we see him sober. And he seems so absolutely alone – the shot of him standing in the hallway is perfect – until Mini comes along. 
Mini: You okay?
Nick: Not really.
Mini: No. She’s gonna be all right, you know?
Nick: Yeah. I know. She’ll be fine.
Matty: Why did he run like that?
Nick: Stuff in his car… I suppose. I guess he’ll explain it, I guess he was a bit obsessed with Franky.
Mini: Yeah. I wonder how that feels. Weird I suppose. This probably sounds a bit fucked coming from me but if I could help you with anything, I would, Nick.
Nick: Tell me why he doesn’t ring.
Mini: Because he loves her.
We never know if he picks up when Matty does call, but he watches Franky, who seems as alone as he is, and smiles at her because he understands. This too, seems like the beginning of something, especially with the accompanying lyrics from Scott Matthews: Your eyes are wider than before. So little has changed but your eyes now see much more.


The ending almost makes me forget my issues with the middle part of the episode. It’s a perfect portrayal of Rich’s situation, and Alex Arnold shines in these scenes. Everybody else is still basking in their misery, but he can’t, because Grace needs him. He tries to hand in her music coursework (“I’m Grace’s boyfriend Rich… Richard” – so much meaning in this simple decision that he needs to act more grown-up now), and points out to the teacher that Grace IS very talented because he uses the past tense – and then he goes to the hospital but can’t see her, because her father has decided that her friends can’t visit. 
As the nurse puts in the CD with the song (“love is such a tender pain, all because of you”), we see how dire the situation is: Grace is in a coma, attached to a ventilator, and there are ill-boding CT scan images of her brain attached to the wall. Rich won’t be able to keep his promise not to change. 

Unsorted thoughts on Franky: 

First of, I really, really want to come back to this in a couple of weeks and think, hey, it all makes sense now. I am not giving up on the show or anything (like I ever could…), and I am curious how it all pans out, especially after those final shots of Franky in Roundview. 

Yes, summers can change a lot. Not that school completely absorbs kids and keeps them from evolving, but it’s the space and freedom of summer holidays that allow leaps (at least it always felt this way to me – but then, for me, “leaps” was reading the entire works of one particular author, or finding new bands) But: the kind of issues that Franky had, that were so well-established throughout the show, wouldn’t just go away over the summer. She trusts Matty now because he gained her trust, but it took a really long time before she even let Grace, Liv and Mini close (some of my favourite intimacy-related scenes of the show are Grace in the first episode, using the lipstick on Franky’s reflection because she sensed that anything else would be crossing a line, and Liv, kissing her hand in Alo’s episode). There is no way that Franky could go from the cautious yet happy closeness of the finale to the full-on dancing with Luke (and also the kind of weird lack of personal space in all her other encounters). If anything, it’s a waste of potential by disregarding one of the best-written storylines of the last season. How do you go from the intimacy of “visible boxer line” to the random “sleeping half-naked on Mini”? 

This is neither here nor there but the fact that Matty and Franky didn’t work out under the extreme circumstances of crossing a desert in a jeep isn’t exactly a good basis to find that she “can’t do” relationships. I have really good friends that I love to be around but if I were trapped with them in a car for weeks, we would probably do irreparable emotional harm to each other as well. 

The clothes… okay, so it was explicitly stated in the first episode that Franky’s androgynous clothes were her choice, not something that was caused by lack of confidence or unhappiness. She wore the “oh wow look” clothes and decided that it wasn’t her, so she discarded them. And then the season in its beautiful awesome subtlety introduced the idea that the presence of Mini would influence her, but not completely change her personal style (better yet: they influenced each other!). Again, no trace of unhappiness = androgynous clothes. And now Franky comes crashing in with her new wardrobe, almost unrecognizable, but she is UNHAPPY and TRAPPED and ANGRY and FRUSTRATED, right? We never see her at the stage of the whole Tunisia adventure where she was still happy or hopeful. Then the accident happens because she’s gotten in a car with a drug-dealing psychopath and her boyfriend is on the run from the Moroccan police and one of her best friend is in a coma, so we see her… wearing clothes that kind of resemble what she used to wear at the beginning of the season. So where in all of this does the wardrobe department's problematic description of Franky's clothes fit in? 
A lot happens to Franky this year. The more messed up her head is, the more her wardrobe suffers. The happier she feels, the better she looks.

As the series develops we'll see her take control of who she is. Gone are the button up shirts, Franky has started to embrace her sexuality and she's not afraid of exposing some flesh and finally being noticed by all.
Random notes: 

Oh man, Liv, sunshine of my life. 

Despite all this, I thought the acting was excellent. I liked many of the music choices. I feel like I need to think about this episode in the context of the season as a whole and I really, really can’t predict how this will turn out eventually, so this is it for now. I do predict however that I will at some point look back at all the potential interesting and engaging storylines that could have come out of this wonderful, almost perfect fifth season and weep, regardless whether the stories they choose to tell instead are moving and good. 

Also, just as a slightly bitter side note: It felt kind of extra awful that the episode that invalidated the established non-straightness of two main characters also featured the highest count of homophobic remarks per minute. Well done, Bryan, it’s a dead end!
Mini: All right, ginger binge, which way?
Alo: I think this map might be a little bit shit.
Mini: This isn’t a map. It’s a multiple choice test for retarded twats.
Alo: Yeah. I confuse easily.
Mini: Yeah. You find the fucking airport Alo and I’ll check if my tits are still there. Teamwork, right?
I think we should just be grateful that they didn’t all die because they got lost in the desert. By the way, my parents were always really trusting that I wouldn’t get myself into massive trouble even when travelling alone but if I’d asked to go to Tunisia to just ramble the country with my girlfriend, I think they’d taken away my passport (“Okay, Styria it is!”). Franky’s parents seemed very protective and concerned, so unless she lied to them or ran away, I don’t really see how they would have allowed her to go. Also, good to see that Alo and Mini were able to afford the trip (I assume we are meant to believe that they worked highly paid jobs during the preceding weeks or something, but still… requires suspension disbelief! And I actually like it when Skins takes into account that the characters come from different economic backgrounds.)

“Rufus? No, he’s just imaginative!”

This is exactly how it would have happened: “It was all decided democratically. Mini chose her room, and we all drew lots.”

Liv’s dry “I don’t think Rider put on the water yet.” after Alo magically managed to break his neck after jumping into the barbecue pit was perfectly delivered by Laya Lewis. 

Just “for your consideration” because I have to see more of Mini’s story and character this season to put it into context: Mini literally entangles herself from a half-naked Franky, passes by her naked ex-boyfriend and cleans herself before having sex with Alo. That’s like… pretty obvious symbolism, right? And it’s not like Skins doesn’t love its obvious symbolism, so I assume that this was intentional. It also sort of (mostly aesthetically, not sure if there are thematic parallels) reminded me of Cassie, magically ascending from the super-messy party entirely untarnished. 

Loads of hints of doom throughout the episode regarding Rich and Grace: 
Rich: If I die tomorrow, then I’d go happy.
Grace: What about me, I wouldn’t be happy?
“Is that what life’s all about then, not upsetting our boyfriends? Fuck’s sake.”

There were several very small moments of Mini saying kind of strange things about Franky that hinted that perhaps, not all is well between them after all: her exasperated “oh, the relief” when Franky told her Luke only drove her home (that sounded, well, jealous), the “I liked her better when she might or might not have been a lesbian.” That Liv answered with an agreeing “yeah”, but keep in mind that Liv is the only one in the group who actually knows of Mini’s “blatant girl crush”, and the final line to Nick, when he talked about Matty being obsessed with Franky and she responded with a very telling “Yeah. I wonder how that feels. Weird I suppose.” I don’t know if they are going anywhere with this and if yes, where, but it seems like Mini isn’t entirely over whatever the show has decided she was feeling last season. 

“Responsible FANNY FUCKER.” Obviously a comic relief moment from a beloved guest star but also meaningful because Josie is completely overwhelmed by this responsibility and by the fact that something so awful has happened. Josie doesn’t swear, but when she does, it’s doubly effective.

Awesome wardrobe department moment: Mini's earrings perfectly matched the stripes on Nick's shirt.

Also, a note: I am hilariously awful at transcribing mumbly English, as proven by the upset/obsessed mishap, so this is an advance-apology for all the inevitable future mistakes. 


grifter said...

Having just discovered Skins myself, I wanted to drop by to tell you how much I appreciated your Commentary while watching it; really enhanced the rush of watching series 1-5 back-to-back even more!

6x01 was a weird episode: I appreciated the whole acid-tripy-ness of the summer vacation, though one can only hope that some of the headscratchers (like Frankie´s personality transplant or Mini´s not-a-lesbian-after-all) will be revealed to be meaningful rather then oversights later on in the series.

And also, how awesome was Doug´s pathetic-yet-heartfelt oggie-oggie-oggie attempt?

cathy leaves said...

Thank you!
I had this weird experience watching the episode again this Monday - this genuine excitement during the first minutes of the episode, so I thought that maybe I'd gotten over my initial disappointment. But the episode still kind of falls apart in the middle.
It was so nice to see Doug again! The oggie-oggie moment was perfect because it showcased how badly the staff is equipped to handle the trauma. I hope he's around for more episodes this season (I also wouldn't mind seeing Professor "original punk Charlotte Brontë" return).