Tuesday 16 March 2010

Skins - You can’t change what’s already happened. I wish you could.

Skins: 4x07 Effy.

I’ve changed my opinion on this episode and whether or not certain aspects of it worked a couple of times since last Thursday and I’ll probably continue this at least until the finale has aired and there is a definite ending to it – so this is merely a snap-shot of how I currently feel about it.
Since this is clearly the companion piece to “Freddie”, I’ve structured the review in a similar manner – and in an interesting turn of events, it’s almost perfectly symmetric, as I was content with Effy’s storyline this episode, but utterly frustrated with Freddie’s this time around.


Effy is being treated by Dr John Foster. His method is to make her replace all her bad memories with good ones. When she returns home, she tries to start a new life with a strict schedule, but soon we realize that every single thing she does is determined by John, who has enough influence over her to alter her perception of reality. She tells Freddie and her friends that she is “finished with everything” and becomes Elizabeth. She meets Cook in a park and he doesn’t realize that she means it when she introduces herself like she never met him before. They go out and party together, but when they end the night with a walk, she comes to the corner where her brother was hit by a bus and all the suppressed memories return to her. She tells Cook to bring her to Freddie, who has already packed his bag to run away from his broken heart. Eventually, she ends up right where she started: with demon voices in her head, in the hospital room. Freddie, who has decided to stay and help after Cook tells him to “grow up”, realizes that John is bad for Effy’s state of mind and tells him to stay away, but when John asks him to see him in his home, John Foster turns out to be a psychopath and beats Freddie to death with a baseball bat. Then, to the sound of thousands of hateful fans tweeting Jamie Brittain, Nick Cave sings “Into My Arms”.


We’ve been with Effy for four years now. She was the silent observer, the mysterious girl even before she was given her own story, from the beginning of the show. “Freddie” rewrote some of her history in retrospect, when Effy told him that she has been battling demons forever now, that her actions can be explained with the knowledge that she is fighting against a mental illness. Now, I’ve made it clear in my review of that episode that I wasn’t very fond of this because it took something away from the strength I always perceived Effy to have, and there is generally a problem with introducing elements late into a show that change events prior (especially if it’s not part of a grand master plan, but something you just come up with as you go). Interestingly enough, we’ll have to return to this next week.
The way the supposed “building up process” was portrayed in this episode, on the other hand, was well-done. Effy has lost all the things she used to be able to hide behind: the tough exterior, the drugs – and now her counsellor, John Foster, is working on her memory, to delete all the parts that he thinks damaged her and made her unable to function.

John: “What are you thinking about?”
Effy: “My brother.”
John: “What about him?”
Effy: “Nothing.”
John: “Something happened to him, didn’t it?”
Effy: “Lots of things happened to him. He was born almost a month late, won a poetry competition when he was eight and met Sarah Ferguson, had the highest marks in a first year essay in Cardiff’s history…”
John: “And somewhere in there, he was hit by a bus, and nearly killed, right? Why don’t you tell me about that?”
Effy: “Why that? Why not the good stuff?”
John: “Because I’m not interested in it. Tell me what happened to your brother, Elizabeth. From the start.”
I love that the episode breaks with the unwritten rule of “Skins” that the previous generation can be subtly hinted at (Sid’s locker, in the premier) but never explicitly mentioned. The one exception before was Katie, asking Effy whether her brother “didn’t go mental or something?” – Effy didn’t answer back then. Yet, the one thing that we see John work through with Effy isn’t Cook, or Freddie, or Anthea: it’s Tony, her brother. I wasn’t a very big fan of Tony in the first season of “Skins” except when he shared scenes with his sister, because their relationship was always something that made me love the first generation of “Skins”. They suffer from the same condition: being too smart for the rest of the world – and deal with it in different ways. Tony had to fall from his high horse, and Effy eventually had to start talking again. No matter what happened, they were there for each other (the scene in which Tony lies in her bed with her socks on so she can sneak out is one of my secret favourites). Effy took care of him after the accident, when Anthea was overwhelmed by the responsibilities. The first scene was beautiful because it recalled Tony, describing Effy as the smartest person he knew, and now Effy talks about him with the same love and awe (two feelings that we usually don’t see her express). The memory of him being hit by a bus is the one John finds hardest to alter.
I can’t really pinpoint when I first caught on that John’s “therapy” was actually something horrible that would eventually go wrong, although the episode is actually constructed in a fashion that should make us catch on, early. John says “imagine it never happened” and Effy does – and later, when Naomi comes to visit her, Effy asks her why she doesn’t do the same thing with Sophia, and Naomi points out that it’s impossible, not just because other people also have memories, but because you can’t make yourself forget.
Naomi: “Afternoon.”
Effy: “How is the real world?”
Naomi: “Fine. Well. I don’t know, actually. Me and Emily, we’re all, since, the, you know, and I don’t know what we’re doing, if we’re okay, or if we’re about to break up. Sometimes I think she can read my mind, I seriously do, I mean, is that normal, is that what you…Eff?”
Effy: “You think you’re going mad, so you came to see me, to see what a mad person looks like.”
Naomi: “No. No. No. Yes.”
Effy: “Listen to me very carefully Naomi, you need to get a message to the dog lord of Azerbaijan, he’s got my toilet ticket.”
Naomi: “Oh god, what are they giving you, and can I have some?”
Effy: “This whole thing with this girl, Sophia. Why don’t you imagine it never happened?”
Naomi: “But it did.”
Yeah. But you try to think like it didn’t.
Naomi: “But. Am I missing something? You can’t change what’s already happened. I wish you could. But you just can’t.”
The exchange is my second-favourite bit of the episode (Panda wins, hands-down), because for the first time in what feels like ages (and actually really has been, months on the show), Naomi talks about what is going on. She’s not portrayed as helplessly and passively staring as the catastrophe (and Emily) unfolds. It’s interesting that she mentions the possibility that they might be “okay” (the concept seems pretty far gone from their relationship for the viewers), so maybe she really doesn’t know what Emily has been doing all these months, and her reaction in “JJ” wasn’t self-betrayal, but real surprise. It’s also the first time that she articulates in her own words how much the intensity of their relationship scares her (the only previous hint of this comes from Sophia’s diary: the “I feel trapped”).
Naomi and Cook seem to be the only ones in this episode who understand that you can’t become a new and better person by altering your memory – after all, the importance of dealing with the things they did wrong, of taking responsibility for their actions, is what their story arcs are all about. Anthea for one doesn’t understand, although it’s nice to see her trying (but I’ve always believed that Anthea won’t be able to cope, because she has never been strong enough for Effy). She’s put all the contents of Effy’s room into her closet and put a literal clean slate on her wall, so she can structure her days and follow a schedule. This schedule is what paces the episode from this point on.
Effy, reduced to the basic things, returns to Freddie, and says “But you know what’s left? Love. All I feel for you now is love, nothing else.”, and later, mostly to convince herself, “we’re okay, we’re okay”. By this point, the rebuilding process seems fragile, but at the same time, we feel like Effy is getting better.
That feeling continues into the next scene: how couldn’t you smile when Pandora calls and screams an almost intelligible “oh my god Effy, I can’t believe I haven’t spoken to you for so long AAAAAH” into the phone. I loved Effy’s introduction into the fourth season: not in a scene with Cook or Freddie, but as Panda’s friend after she broke up with Thomas, making pop tarts, giving good advice. Their friendship after “Pandora” seemed damaged, especially after Pandora chose not to tell Effy the truth in “Effy” later – but they seemed okay, in the first episode this season, and after all, they have a lot of history together, and on a very basic level, I think Effy cares very much about Pandora, even if their friendship seems so unlikely. Sometimes, things are easy: like Effy and Pandora, walking hand in hand into school to pick up their exam results (well, Pandora’s). “So you’re mental and I’m useless.” / “It’s a shame. We would have fit right into Cambridge.” Something about this scene makes me think that we haven’t seen them together because things immediately seem okay and fixable whenever they share a scene, and that is not exactly a feeling that fits into the tone of this season.
It’s the last bit of happiness we get from this episode. The very next moment, David Blood blames Effy for bringing down the school average with her marks and proposes a bit of memory-altering on his own. He is doing the same thing that John does, but Effy only questions this for a moment before John talks her out of it (“It feels like cheating. It’s like cheating at life. And now I’m wondering about everything.”). He tells her that “there are bigger things happening here. Bigger than school, bigger than friends, even bigger than love” – and she soaks it up, and it changes her. She leaves everyone behind in the pub: school, friends, and love – without even hesitating (“none of this matters” / “I think, I think I’m finished. I think I’ve had enough.”). Cook, outside, is the exact opposite of everything John has been trying to do: “If this was us meeting for the first time, I’d do it all again, everything, the fucks, the fuck-ups, everything, I’d do it all again”. He understands that the bad thing are part of life, and that you can’t have the good stuff without the bad.
The person emerging, once John is almost done, isn’t Effy anymore. She burns all her old clothes, and sheds Effy’s personality to become Elizabeth. When Cook finds her, sitting on a park bench, he doesn’t realize that she isn’t playing a game.
Cook: “Come on Eff.”
Effy: “Eff? Who is Eff?”
Cook: “Yeah, of course, sorry, you’re not Effy. I’ve mistaken you for someone else.”
Effy: “Looks like it.”
Cook: “So what is your name?”
Effy: “Elizabeth.”
Cook: “Elizabeth. Nice to meet ya. I’m James.”
It’s important that partying with Cook isn’t what brings Effy back – it’s arriving at the very place where Tony was hit by a bus three years ago, when the new person John created disappears. It’s not Cook saying: “Come on Eff, I know you, you know me. We have dated. We have fucked in every sense of the word. We are Cook and Effy.” – Cook is all kinds of heartbreaking here, so desperately asserting that their story is important and memorable, even though she doesn’t love him back. He is trying so hard to be recognized, but she just doesn’t, and when she does, finally (“how could I forget? You’re my friend”), after he saves her life, she asks to be taken to Freddie.


When the episode ended, and Freddie’s death almost seemed like an afterthought, I felt really weird about having quoted Naomi’s lines from Freddie’s episode last year in the review for his episode. I thought it was a nice reminder of how single-minded his character has been throughout these two seasons of “Skins”, but now, instead, it has earned a whole lot of foreshadowing meaning. So, to bring it up again:
“Hamlet's basically a teenage boy. He's got these desires, but he doesn't have the bottle to reach out for them. So he goes mad and wanks off about Ophelia and ends up so boring that somebody has to kill him.”
The concept of “going mad”, and Freddie’s assertion that this is exactly what love is supposed to do, is interesting to investigate in relation to Freddie. When he said this to Effy, it was hard not to think of him as rather selfish and completely out of place here, telling the girl that has just tried to commit suicide that this was a perfectly normal reaction to having all these feelings.
Effy: “Don’t do that. I went crazy when I was with you. I can’t have that happen again. Love’s not supposed to do that, you made me go mad.”
Freddie: “You’re making me god mad now, Effy, and that’s exactly what’s love supposed to do.”
Naomi, in the first part of the episode, asks Effy whether this is what love is supposed to do, but never finishes the sentence (“is this what…”) and it scares her, it’s nothing she celebrates, because in her current situation, she experiences the fall-out. The answer would probably be: no, love is supposed to make you ride around on a silly moped, kiss in front of the entire school and not care who sees, and make public declarations. “Going mad” is a symptom of something going wrong.
Second: I thought Freddie’s conflict in his episode was handled well. He is trying to save her all by himself but in the end, he has to accept that he can’t. It’s too much for one person to handle. His return into Effy’s life in this episode negated his development completely. The first thing he does after the reunion (in the 30 seconds in which I actually like him this episode) is blaming her for not letting him see her. His girlfriend has just been in a clinic for weeks after she tried to commit suicide and instead of accepting her, he questions her, he blames her, he makes her say “I’m sorry” all over. I am wondering how consciously he was portrayed as selfish in this episode, or whether that’s just my interpretation – but there is also the fact that Cook functions as a negative to him. Cook figures out what Effy needs. He doesn’t criticize her.  He is always there when she needs him, and chases after her when she runs away, instead of waiting. It’s a heartbreaking moment when, after saving her life, she tells him that he is “her friend” – because he doesn’t appreciate that her memory has returned to her, that his grand gesture only earns him that, that she still wants Freddie, after that, especially since Freddie, when they find him, has packed his bags and is ready to run away.
Cook. “You fucking skipping out of me, man?”
Freddie: “Yeah. I’m leaving. I was gonna go tonight.”
Cook: “You are gonna fuck off, leave her?”
Freddie: “Cook, she broke my heart.”
Cook: “She broke my heart, as well. You broke my heart. I bet you’ve broken hers at some point. So what are we gonna do, are we just three losers screwing each other forever, or are we something better than that? Fuck me, grow up. Cause I’m done here.”
Freddie: “Thanks for bringing her to me.”
Cook: “Where the fuck else was I gonna bring her? Don’t screw it up.”
It’s not about whether or not it is okay to kill off a character in the last few seconds of an episode. It’s not about whether the manner of death (getting beaten to death with a baseball bat by a psychopathic psychiatrist) is respectful to the character, or even realistic. The problem I have with Freddie’s ending here is that the entire episode prior to his death portrayed him in the worst possible light. It made me lose the little respect for him I had after his own episode. It takes a speech by Cook, the character who got his great redemption (even though he broke out of prison, but here he says “he did his time” – he allowed himself to leave because he did all the growing he had to do?), to make Freddie realize that he’s a selfish twat, but the only good thing he does in this episode, the only right thing he does (realizing how bad John is for Effy not because he’s jealous of how close he is to her, but because he sees that she is worse off after the treatment), gets him killed in the end. I am probably in the minority here thinking that the execution was done rather well: the not-at-all creepy music carried on throughout the beginning of the scene in which Freddie walked into the mansion, it carried on throughout as John’s mask dropped, and all of a sudden nothing was okay anymore, the door was locked, and he didn’t even drop his game face as he walked upstairs with the baseball bat, delivering the grand villain’s speech:
John: “I admit I was arrogant, stupid, I made mistakes. I got too close. I feel terrible. I care too much.”
Freddie: “Stay away from her.”
John: “I’m too human. We are essentially creatures of instincts, passing whims, are really our most profound moments…I can’t let you have her, I’m afraid. She really does love you, you know.”
Freddie: “Hey come on. Just open the door, okay?”
Then there is screaming, and cries of pain, and blood on the frosted glass (somehow, the scene seemed even creepier when the camera pulled back to reveal that this all happens in the room under the staircase).
“Skins” has done “killing off a character completely surprisingly in the penultimate episode” before, so it’s difficult not to compare and contrast. Chris didn’t die in his own episode: he died early in Cassie’s, and the first thing we saw, the first function it had within this episode, was Cassie’s running away to New York. Still, despite the fact that it was a small and shocking scene in someone else’s episode, it was heartbreaking, authentic. Freddie? Naomi said it in her re-interpretation of Hamlet: “so boring that somebody has to kill him”. It’s disrespectful to the character – I felt manipulated. It felt lazy, like it was the only possible interesting story they could come up with to finish Freddie’s arc after making him all about Effy, after defining him over another character instead of making him self-sufficient enough to carry his own story.

Random thoughts:

Despite everything negative I said and will say about this episode, the acting was marvellous. My favourite piece of acting this episode was probably Effy desperately searching for Pato the funny giraffe.

Effy is reading “The Demon Headmaster”! Which is funny, because despite his wackness, compared to John Foster, David Blood is rather harmless, even though his message to Effy is the same (“nothing is real unless I make it so”)

I actually chuckled when I heard Anthea say “don’t speak to any bad man” the second time around. Because one, her way of dealing with this is infantilizing Effy, and two, John by the end of this episode is the very definition of a bad man.

Doug’s random Massive Attack shout-out. I hope they keep him for the next generation, Roundview without him would be rather dull.

Katie’s “she dumped you again” made me laugh so hard. It’s so Katie. It’s so inappropriate. And she had every right to say it, considering their history together. Please, more Katie in the finale. Don’t let all the awesomeness go to waste.

Now we know why we haven’t seen much of Naomi: being sad and terrified has turned her into a studious geek (I guess she stayed sober until she was done with her academic work, then started with the booze and the drugs?). Emily, on the other hand…isn’t too proud of her BBC.

When John said “I’m too human” I half-heartedly expected him to turn into a vampire, especially after Freddie’s “Or did John steal your soul as well as your past” comment (because really, what can’t you expect from “Skins” at this point?). Then I remembered: different show.

Despite the fact that the psychopathic psychiatrist is a cliché, I thought the reveal of how villainous he truly was worked. He got creepier with every scene (until, finally, the Donnie-Darkoesque music over Effy closing the door to his office confirmed our suspicion way before the baseball bat ever entered the scene), while remaining so calm on the surface. Usually, a villain is revealed when he does something unexpected the moment all the other characters leave the room (so in this case, it’s interesting that he starts to dance to Effy’s “this is the first day of my life” moment while going back to the real world). “Skins” has had a fair share of ridiculous villains who were so over-the-top that they never really terrified me (Mad Twatter, his gen2-counterpart Johnny White, David Blood now), so the only precedent for John Foster I could come up with is Josh, which is intriguing since Josh turned into a villain in Effy’s episode in the first season of “Skins” (when she spoke her first words: “Sometimes I think I was born backwards... you know, come out of my mum the wrong way. I hear words go past me backwards. The people I should love, I hate, and the people I hate...”)
Not unlike John, Abigail’s brother seemed like a normal (even likable) guy, until he started his revenge on Tony by having her kidnapped and drugged. Josh is important to remember because it’s easy to forget how many horrible things have happened to Effy. Tony came to her rescue back then – and it’s not that hard to guess who will save her from Dr John Foster next week.

I’ve really debated whether or not I like the symbolism in this episode. It’s not subtle at all. It basically hits you over the head with a… no wait, won’t go there just yet. There’s all of Effy’s stuff in her closet (of course it will eventually all end up strewn over the floor of her room! It’s the THEME OF THE EPISODE!). There’s Effy trying to return to herself as a younger girl who didn’t have to forget the bad things, because they hadn’t happened yet (the giraffe, which turned up first in her “Unseen” where she was chasing herself as a kid). There’s the schedule on Effy’s board, that, as more and more things disappear from it, finally only contains “sleep” and “pills”. There are all the scenes in which power is abused and reality is altered by adults who possess it (David Blood shredding her real test results is the most obvious one, all the session with John and how Effy immediately carries these messages into “the real world” a more subtle one).
The thing is: I saw the ending coming. It felt like the outcome of a beginner’s course for narrative construction fraught with symbolism. The parallels were done better in “Emily and Katie”, the exercising of genre conventions were more interesting in “Emily” and “JJ”. So the answer is: No, I probably didn’t. I felt smart noticing them the first time watching, but by the second time, they felt stale.

I really don’t have any issues with producers of tv shows returning to the same tropes. It’s what writers do. It’s what film makers do. I know that when there’s fluffy happiness on a Joss Whedon show, eventually someone’s blood will be splattered all over the other person’s body. It’s just what happens. But portraying psychiatrists and therapists as uncaring, incompetent, manipulative and ultimately hurtful people, unable to provide help, is probably not the best personal issue to work through in your writing for a show aimed at teenagers. In “Skins”, most adults are unreliable and more of a burden than a help, and mostly, their children are left to their own devices and have to fend for themselves (sometimes they get a helpful piece of advice, but that’s it.) John Foster, despite the fact that he is a well-developed villain, a scary one, is another entry into the “you come to them at your most vulnerable, and they make everything worse” category (Cassie’s and JJ’s weren’t psychos per se, but still deeply flawed because they did not care enough). Since Effy is portrayed as suffering from a legitimate mental illness, it might have been a good idea not to make her story arc about how she shouldn’t have taken this to a health care professional because then Freddie would still be alive. Just saying.

Just saw Nicholas Hoult in a “Wallander”. There was a completely surprising and off-putting bit of nostalgia there that I had not expected. I remembered how completely different I felt by the end of season two: sad, but hopeful. There was just this sense that whatever happened, these people could still be together in a room, have a couple of drinks and BE THERE FOR EACH OTHER. I feel so completely different about season four. I like them all as characters, as individuals, more than I did the characters of the first generation (they feel… more developed to me? Like they’ve each had their one moment of growth, like they’ve all come a pretty long way since season three?) – but this warm and fluffy spirit of the first generation is completely missing. It’s ok. It’s a different show, in many ways, not just because of the new characters, both of because how differently the stories were approached, and how insular they were. Next week, I’ll probably mention all the things that I thoroughly wished had happened though.


Anonymous said...

Naomi knows full well that you can't suppress the negative, because she's already tried that and it ended in bed with Sophia. So now she's living in that negative, waiting for Emily to bottom out before she can attempt to rebuild; "all I can do is feel it" indeed. (The problem is that Emily should have hit bottom at least twice by now, but that's a rant for another time.)

The second John Foster started talking about blocking out bad memories I immediately guessed that he'd been raping Effy (seriously, that sort of talk is Paedophilia 101); the creepy slow closing of his door made me think it even more, and by the end it was all but certain.

My biggest problem with this episode is, of course, the ending. Skins has shown that it has the ability to handle realistic high drama, especially where death is involved (Chris, Sid's dad). But this ending never felt realistic, dramatic, or interesting; it felt contrived for shock value. Quite honestly, it felt like what I (and a lot of other people) thought Skins was before I actually sat down and watched it - lazy, over the top, excessively reliant on shock value, and terminally pointless.

Of course, that's because Freddie is terminally pointless. I pretty much never liked him as a character (except when he was acting as a carer, for JJ or Cook). But I'd never wished something this stupid on him. But then, Naomi picked it all that time ago (I love her so much); they really had no idea what else he could do.

flame gun for the cute ones said...

The Freddie-storyline was played for shock value, and with Emily and Naomi there seems to have been a decision of not showing any reconcilatory scenes between them before the finale to make it more emotional - but I like to see PROCESS and development. It's what they did so well last season, but couldn't in season four because they didn't consider how to integrate the other character's storylines into the insular format.

I expected something bad to happen to Freddie, just because of the symmetry (Freddie's ep ending with Effy's suicide attempt). But you're right: once I picked up on the creepy vibes from Dr John Foster, for a little while I was worried they'd introduce a hurried storyline about rape. That would have been even more awful than beating Freddie to death with a baseball bat.

Somehow I picture Jamie Brittain trying to figure out what to do with Freddie, re-watching his episode from season three, hearing Naomi's speech thinking: "oh, right, wouldn't that be a cool thing to do?" I felt bad for Luke Pasqualino, because no matter how little appreciation I had for Freddie (er... after the previews for next episode, Karen seems like a more interesting character to me than her brother ever was...), this isn't a fair ending for a character we were supposed to care about.

And seriously, I need a "hopelessly biased towards Naomi" banner for my reviews. Even though I appreciate how far she's come, some of her season three lines make me miss her old, sarcastic self.

ohwowlovely said...

I meant to say in the last one, at least Naomi didn't drop the baby like Chris did lol.

I always loved the Naomily ending (of this season) but now I'm wondering if it was worth all of this, I mean I cry everytime Emily cries, which is pretty much all of this season. Sad.

Freddie's death never bothered me, I mean Naomi was kind of right lol, but I always just saw it as a storyline that hadn't been done yet (murder, not death) on the show, and yes shock value certainly.

You've got a very good point about these awful therapists not being the most helpful in a teenage show. I mean sure you get those, but there are also some great ones out there, they could have at least showed one. We can't all rely on our taxi driver to care more.

I've been thinking since reading Effy's episode, oh actually Freddie's (?) And that wqs a genuine mix up by me right here, which proves your point. Anyway, I've been wondering whether and how to say it. Mental illness can be something which is hidden for so long and can shape the person, even in some of the ways here, though having said that, I do agree it doesn't quite seem the case here. It seems more something they just decided to throw in last minute. I mean, people can become very good at hiding, but Effy was just a bit too strong and defined, to be hiding it for that long. Like with Cassie, she hid it and she hid it well but as the viewer we saw it, and we literelly saw her switch the happy act on and off. Effy's just came out of nowhere. Anyway, sorry to go on!