Thursday 4 July 2013

Skins - I was good in there.

Skins: 7x01 Fire, Part 1.

Who is Effy Stonem? She stopped speaking for a year and the first words we ever heard her say were a riddle. Her brother almost died in front of her and struggle to get everything back he had lost. Someone she knew died suddenly and unexpectedly. Her family fell apart, and despite everything you’d expect, it hurt her so much that it was the one unique fact she shared on her first day in Roundview, the burden of carrying that secret for her mother. She had a mental breakdown and tried to commit suicide, and then Freddie was killed by the therapist who was also psychologically abusing her. Her mother described her as a beautiful bomb, JJ as fit and mysterious, and she barely made it out of Roundview and Bristol alive. 
To me, Effy’s most striking feature has always been how observant she was – an interest in analysing other people, figuring them out, reading them, and occasionally meddling in their affairs when she felt like it, but never quite using that incredible talent on herself. There are rare moments throughout the show when Effy speaks about herself, reveals something about how she feels, what drives her, but they don’t happen often. She is more affected by her parents’ breaking up (“They fuck you up”). In Pandora (one of my favourites, always), she is called out for not being a very good friend. And then there’s “when do I ever get to be upset? When do I ever get to be anyone but me?” – a difficult sentence to parse, considering how little we actually do know about her, except maybe it’s impossible to never appear to genuinely want anything, to remain distant and seemingly unaffected all the time (but then it’s when she’s closest to someone when she starts losing it completely, so who knows). 
We don’t know what happen in the time between, how Effy ended up working at a hedge fund in the City. It’s more interesting to try and figure out what drives her, how being so good at reading situations and people translates to the kind of ambition she shows now. Like before, she never explicitly discusses her motivation or her feelings with anyone else, she remains difficult to read, and her actions are everything we get in terms of information. Effy makes it a point not to be the assistant whose name nobody knows; she goes the extra mile, she’s focused on this (the collages she used to have on her walls, the one Foster replaced with a deadly structure of control, is now spread sheets and diagrams), she understands it enough to be able to identify mistakes and to successfully meet a client without being asked to. In the evenings (or rather, nights) she goes back home to the flat she shares with Naomi, usually finds her in the midst of a party, drunk and stoned, goes to her room, works some more, and then sneaks out to secretly dance the night away, sober but drunk on the music and the light and the people the way she used to. She doesn’t seem to sleep, ever, and she’s still absolutely awake and aware the next morning, more than anyone else. 
The contrast to Naomi is interesting, because in a way, they started out the same: sometimes in their first few weeks together, it seemed like it was a competition between them, figuring each other out, reading each other, calling each other out on their feelings. Naomi knew about Effy and Freddie before anyone else; Effy figured out Emily and Naomi way before everybody else. Significantly, during the weeks that Naomi’s relationship with Emily was at its worst, she sought out Effy to talk to her about it, not anyone else. The difference between them was that Naomi’s power of observation had a focus, an outlet: she was an explicitly political character, someone with articulated grievances about the state of the world – Effy used her ability to read people for personal relationships, first for her brother’s circle of friends, then for her own, but with Naomi it always seemed connected to her hatred of injustice (again, the thing she chose to share on their first day of college). Now, years later, things have changed: Effy chose to apply this ability to something specific, and is successfully and quickly climbing the ladder, while Naomi seems to have completely lost her footing, stuck in a city she hates because her girlfriend left for her career and she hasn’t found her place yet, without anything to focus on but still as angry and frustrated as she used to be.  
We don’t know what happened exactly to derail Naomi so entirely either, but it’s not out of nowhere. One of my favourite moments between her and Emily was in Naomi’s third season episode, when Emily talked Naomi into running for student president – insisting that she could do anything she put her mind to, making the ridiculous flyers “in anticipation”, pushing her to do something she knew Naomi would excel at and cared about profoundly, even if meant all the pain of realizing that everyone else didn’t care as much as she did. I like this moment so much because it kind of got lost in the misery of season four – suddenly all Emily wanted was to be with Naomi, she never really voiced any plans of the future beyond that, and when Naomi tried to build her own future, something she wanted for herself – going to university straight away – she had to keep it a secret. Naomi’s struggle with that relationship, with how she felt about Emily (regardless of how I feel about “I think I was twelve” retroactively insisting on changing everything that happened in season three, suddenly it’s no longer a falling-in-love story, etc.), was about figuring out how she could still be herself in a relationship with someone else (“it’s not as simple as that, being with someone”). This is also what that gorgeous Rilke quote is about – love as a mutual consent that “robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development”, but, when it succeeds, allowing both to “succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky”. Whatever happened to Naomi to leave her so entirely lost, Emily has found her path. She’s in New York, and she’s no longer telling Naomi that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to, but blames her for being stoned, again, and for being too busy entertaining guests to talk to her girlfriend. And of course Naomi would see the fault in everyone but herself – it’s the city that is draining her, that made Emily leave, and the people Effy associates are disgusting (they are disgusting, but part of growing up is realizing that the moral outrage alone just doesn’t cut it anymore, doesn’t lead anywhere) – but still, Effy is probably the one who ends up paying the rent and who re-stocks the liquid cabinet, the person who paid for that steak in the fridge. That’s the impossible dichotomy: being outraged about the immorality of a particular business, about someone just losing ₤1,000 on a gambling table while you don’t have enough money to buy food or pay for the rent, but still relying on someone else to do the work for you. We don’t know what drives Effy – if she is still running, in a way, from what happened to her, by focusing on this, if she just enjoys being so good at something, getting the extra attention, rising from assistant to trader in one swift move, to star trader via insider trading.
It’s bitter and terrible to see Naomi like this, so without orientation that a random career in stand-up seems feasible (and ends in a hilarious catastrophe, not unlike her political career in Roundview ended, except the stakes now are much higher). But on the other hand, the other thing about Skins is still true – there’s never a promise of a light at the end of the tunnel, of things just turning out well, because that would be lies, but the only way to survive and to face how randomly cruel the world can sometimes be is to surround yourself with people who can share the burden. Effy rises through the ranks, and entertains people that she would have seen through and ridiculed years ago (the other Ravenclaw danger – Naomi’s suffering from the more severe one, having nothing to put all that energy into - focusing so much you end up losing sight of the greater picture), meanwhile Naomi drops hints of medical appointments, inexplicable pains, and ends up facing her diagnosis entirely alone, because her only friend in London is otherwise occupied, and her girlfriend is chasing her career in New York, hours away. Effy is so caught up in it she doesn’t even realize what she’s doing, really – her break at the firm came through something that was illegal, getting information from Dominic (and this is another thing about growing up, the rules of the world colliding with ideas of friendship), she is surrounding herself with arrogant people who only care about money and laugh at her friends (“money is war”, says her boss, and “he needs to think he’s winning” applies to all of them as well – everyone thinks they’re winning, until they’re not, until reality catches up with them and the house of cards falls down). 
And then there are some things you can never outrun. Like thinking that London is the problem, when the place itself is just a scapegoat for whatever went wrong with Naomi since she left school, like thinking that whatever sleepless Effy is running from will never catch up with her – Naomi goes up to the roof of their ridiculously expansive apartment and turns up the music in defiance of the city she hates so much because the only certain thing in her life is no longer here, and when Effy follows her, she can just whisper the truth – she has cancer. It’s not really about winning, it’s about surviving. 
Random notes: 

This is still the prettiest show. 

For the record: I wasn’t entirely happy, but the episode immediately had me thinking, and sometimes that’s enough? I never thought I’d get the chance to write about these characters again. 

That being said, “not actually sure how this part works, let’s turn up the music and do close-ups of faces and gestures” isn’t exactly elegant writing, neither is giving the impression that the complexities of finance can be explained with chalk, on a rooftop, or that “check out the following algorithm” is something anyone would ever say, ever. Like, one of the biggest issues with finance, and the financial crisis, is the sheer interpretational elusiveness of it, the fact that calling out the bullshit seems impossible because of the complexity of it all, so this kind of writing makes me a bit angry. It’s not a good way to make an important point. 

It's just ridiculous that the most significant relationships of Effy's life are entirely missing - Tony and Pandora. And Katie would have deserved a place here as well. 

I like the implication that Effy totally knows how to deal with Dominic because of JJ – and she knows to cherish his particular knowledge, and is eager to share it. 

“You’re the only one who understands Excel.”

"I've been on my own all day"

Lily Loveless is so good at physical comedy. As hard as it was to see Naomi sort of reduced to this for most of the episode, she just really excels at that kind of comedy. 

I think it’s pointless to argue out-of-character here, and if anything, Naomi’s path is very much in-character – “it’s almost half eleven”, and all that; losing her path without Emily, drifting off – she’s always sort of derived her ambition from Emily, that’s part of the underlying problem of their relationship. But it’s still incredibly sad to see someone as driven and idealistic as Naomi so completely derailed. Also, fucking cancer. I don’t care if it’s realistic or not (it is, it always happens out of nowhere, especially with young people), but that’s an example of where I wish fiction didn’t reflect reality.

The acting in the roof top scene was incredible though. You could tell that Naomi remembered the last time. And Effy’s inability to comfort her – the isolation of it – was incredibly well acted and portrayed. 

I considered writing the review after the next episode airs because my ultimate judgement depends so much on the resolution – but let’s just say that I wouldn’t appreciate a “having cancer teaches you about the value of life” storyline, because sickness as opportunity is such a fucked-up and flawed concept. 


clarewaves said...

Wow! I agreed with so much of this. (Especially the part about the how the season 4 ending speech totally disavowed the entire third season.) However I would argue that it was in fact out of character for Naomi to be so lost. Naomi did not in fact get her ambitions from Emily. She had gotten her own application to run for president before Emily brought one over. Also, she had visited the university on her own and wanted to get going! Yes people get lost. Maybe something happened to lose faith in her cause but I still didn't see a total lack of responsibilty and becoming a wasteout a likely option. Especially w Emily as her partner. Also, why was she such a bitch to effy. I was waiting to see how after the terrible season 4 speech she was going to be changed. If she was a bitch because she had loved Emily and needed to protect herself then the honesty and the insight of that moment along with actually totally giving herself to Emily should have changed her. I don't understand the person she became at all. Still I suppose it's a moot point as we have no idea what happened to her over the interviening years. 

Where the he'll was Gina??? Effy could have called on her and she totally would have talked some sense into Naomi. But now I'm commenting on pt 2. So i'm off to read your pt 2 commentary and it's 5:45am so I really should go to sleep soon but it seems that I can talk naomily all night long.

cathy leaves said...

Thanks for the comment!
Hm, I think what I did get about her character, at least after the first episode, was the loss of focus - but what definitely is out of character is this apparent lack of interest in the world, the way she just doesn't seem to engage with anything beyond partying anymore, and I would have also expected a different or more complex reaction to Effy's disgusting colleagues (like, I would imagine that Naomi would have a more articulate criticism of that world, if that makes any sense?). Just from personal experience, what can and does happen to people like Naomi is that the transition from academic surroundings (theory etc.) to the real world doesn't quite work out. But did Naomi even go to University at all, does it fit in, time-wise? From the way Effy talks to her, she's been like this for a long time. It was definitely too vague to really make sense. Her behaviour towards Effy, especially in the second episode, made no sense at all. The only thing I liked and felt natural to me was the way her relationship with Emily developed, their dynamic at the table.
The ambition thing is just my interpretation of her third season episode. Emily is the one who tells her that she can do anything she puts her mind to (what a haunting statement, in retrospect), and she doesn't really seem to be willing to run for student government. By the way, the second application came from Kieran! She's opinionated, smart, but I've always felt like the drive to put all that energy into something specific came from other people (But also there was an Unseen where she had organized a protest if I remember correctly, so maybe I'm completely off - it's really just my interpretation of her character, based on my own experiences etc.)!
Gina!! (Olivia Colman was SO perfect, probably one of my favourite casting for a Skins parent) At least in the fourth season finale they bothered to have Naomi call her, even if she wasn't in the season. She was sorely missed. As was continuity, coherence and the certain something that the show always used to have, that made me fall in love with it in the first place.

Jardley said...

Hey Cellar Door, used to go by "Junkster" something or other, & frequently commented on your Skins recaps couple of years ago. Hopefully you remember that name. I've frequented your site from time to time in the years after Skins recaps but not as much as before. When I've come by I've always gotten excited seeing that you've watched shows or movies I was watching at the time like Pariah, or Orphan Black but didn't put the time out to comment on any of these posts.
I've been wanting to ask do you like & plan to recap Orange is the New Black?

My thoughts on Skins Fire 1 is apart from Naomi, who's characterization was just too confusing, I couldn't say the Effy I got in Skins Fire wasn't her at all or that they changed her completely because it makes sense that people can't be a replica of their past selves. I looked at her now as trying to be stable, & responsible for her life. But, she can't really leave the person she used to be, maybe longs or is nostalgic for that person judging from the quick snippets of her clubbing. I loved those parts. Maybe she feels more herself in that person, more alive. Some moments I could still feel old Effy in like her intro scene in this ep where she's staring out on the bridge, away from everyone else, it's still as if no one else is on the same plane as her, like she's not a part of their world or like her insulting Jane(?) Because Effy would when someone tries to make someone else feel inferior. At the same time of course Effy wouldn't shut her down/dismiss her because overrall, Jane's harmless even if she appears desperate & nervous. But, Jane would never be Effy's confidante, nor Naomi to an extent though she'd have a stronger chance. I know you've watched the 2nd part so had it not been for that demise of her relationship with Dominic, I think he'dve been the one she'dve opened up to. I don't think she's happy right now except within the field she's in. She doesn't appear to have friends other than Naomi, a social life apart from work, seems to have no contact with her family (which I agree at least Tony & Pandora would be in her life), & does the same thing day after day. It's almost too stable from the Effy I remember. But, I can see her forcing the blocks into the hole this way. She still is the girl who doesn't tell anyone what she feels, I agree I still can't read her. I wonder what she's doing here. Why here? she seems to really want this job which I wondered as to why? Does she think of Freddie at all? of Tony?

I completely agree with Effy "entertains people that she would have seen through and ridiculed years ago". Some actions I imagined teenage Effy would be shocked at let alone at being a secretary. The old Effy would've used each situation to her advantage, she would always be the one in control while allowing the manipulated to think otherwise, this one didn't feel like that she was aware of that. She genuinely seemed invested in her job, the investors, her boss, how she was viewed at her job. So I thought maybe her breakdown that opened her emotions & the vulnerability she had with Freddie at the end of Skins 4, still leave traces on her.

I do want to say that I agree with both above comments on Naomi being out-of character while still not coming out of nowhere but I think this Naomi is on the extreme side of "transition from academic surroundings (theory etc.) to the real world doesn't quite work out". Only once did I feel it was her in her anger at the stockbrokers. By the end of the ep I concluded she's in this state because she's not living up to her potential. I didn't really see the point in Naomi being in the story other than to placate Naomily fans. She didn't feel needed though I buy that her and Effy would remain friends. I wondered why Naomi would not still be talking to Cook at least since they seemed to have been on good terms.

cathy leaves said...

Hi Jardley, of course I remember! Thanks for the comment. It's always been hard to judge "out-of-character" even before, without the years in-between, and in the case of Fire, we really got nothing in terms of explanation of how everyone got to this point. I agree, there were moments where Effy very much reminded me of scenes from the past (and it's always Kaya, after all), but I still think the more interesting, more compelling story would have been about the bits that were missing, because in the end, I didn't care about the insider trading mainplot, couldn't bring myself to care about it.
If I were to believe that Effy would be in a way captured by this world or even the idea that she could succeed in it, it would have needed to be... more evolved, more fleshed out? Even Victoria was more interesting than Jake, whom I found terribly boring for a character that is supposed to draw Effy into this world.
Regarding Naomi, if I ever go back to these episodes, maybe I'd spend more time considering Naomi's kind of ambition which she showed during season three and season four and Jal's, and why I'd have felt like Jal completely losing focus and ending up that way would have been unbelievable, which I didn't with Naomi. Maybe it's really just a question of having this seen happen to people who remind me of Naomi (which, again, is a highly subjective judgement to make). Also, obviously, I don't think it's a big secret that she's my favourite, and I wonder how I'd have judged the episode over-all if she hadn't been in it.

I really enjoyed the first season of Orange is the New Black, especially once it hit its stride around episode 8 or 9. I'll decide on reviews once Skins is over, but it's very tempting. The fact that all the episodes are released at once makes it a bit more difficult, otherwise it would be a perfect candidate for episode-by-episode reviews.

Jardley said...

I get what you mean on Orange is the New Black, how can one really review an ep if they already know what'll happen next. But (and this isn't me suggesting to you what you could do) I think it can be done if one rewatches each individual ep, looks at it individually and takes notes on it. It's what I've thought to do cause I'm thinking of starting a podcast with a friend and reviewing Orange as one of the shows. A real life ex.? this past week I've started listening to a podcast called the Buffy Rewatch.