Thursday 9 December 2010

Skins - Are you a fighter or a flighter, Tony Stonem?

Skins: 2x06 Tony.

“Tony”, the episode I was afraid of ever since starting the gen 1 reviews, starts with Effy reading the story of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld to her brother who is plagued by nightmares. The episode itself tells the story of Tony’s descent into a kind of underworld too: a strange journey to the University he wants to go to in the future, during which it becomes increasingly impossible to distinguish between reality and dream, especially since “Skins” has always used strange supporting characters to tell its stories.
Tony’s journey begins at a club, where for once his clothes don’t match Michelle’s, but Cassie’s, who is equally as pained as he is to see Sidney and Michelle together. She gives him drugs, and since the essential quality of “Skins” is that we see the episode through the eyes of whoever the episode is about, we are forced to trust Tony’s perceptions from this point on, since there is nobody else.

Cassie: “I’m sad about them. Aren’t you?”
Tony: “I’m fine and dandy.”
Cassie: “Good. We’re just fine and dandy. Come on, you can buy me a drink.”
Cassie: “I think if Sid and Michelle are together, we should do the same.”
Tony: “What, go out?”
Cassie: “Yeah.”
Tony: “Get dressed up, go on a date.”
Cassie: “Yeah.”
Tony: “And we’d talk and eat dim sum and I’d take you home.”
Cassie: “And I’d walk you upstairs.”
Tony: “And I’d hit my head on the doorframe and then fall back down the stairs.”
Cassie: “And I’d run and get the witch-hazel.”
Tony: “And I’d say “Witch-hazel? Why, are you 90? Give me some fucking painkillers.”
Cassie: “And I’d say “Hey! It’s an excellent astringent. And we’re out of aspirin, anyway.” And then I’d turn the argument into a good hard angry fuck.”
Tony: “Oh, that’s where we might have a problem.”
Cassie: “What do you mean?”
Tony: “I’ve got… a bit of a problem in the downstairs department.”
Cassie: “What?”
Tony: “You know. Downstairs.”
Cassie: “What? Where?”
Tony: “Oh, for fuck’s sake! My cock doesn’t work.”
Cassie: “What?”
I can’t remember a single instance in which these two characters exchanged more than a few words, but for all intent and purposes, and despite the fact that I have criticized Jamie Brittain a lot for some of the choices he made (especially in the course of the fourth season), this is spot-on. Cassie imagines life, she tells stories, this is how she understands people. Tony doesn’t really have anything left because he is only at the beginning of getting back all the things he lost, and essentially, they are just really, really endearing in this scene.
When the drugs kick in, Tony just parties, like nothing bad has ever happened to him, like he didn’t, only a couple of episodes ago, have to completely rely on other people for the most basic things.
There are two contradictory ideas here: on the one hand, the idea that essentially, as human beings, we always are alone and completely thrown back into ourselves, the slaves of our own freedom which disconnects us from other people. On the other hand, the circle of friends is a reliable net to fall back on, a thing that reminds us of our shared humanity and of the fact that if we really need someone, we will get the help that we so desperately require. That’s the thing with the Stonems: they are so convinced of the truthfulness of the former that they are always taken by surprise when the latter happens. I’ll come back to this in the next episode (“When Effy met Pandora”) but it also strikes me as relevant here, since Tony spends most of this episode on his own and yet the scene that starts the real descent into the underworld shows a side of him that is more likeable than most of the scenes he was given in the first season. He confronts Sid and Michelle and dares Sid to stand up for her because he knows that he won’t (“I’m objecting. Strongly.”) He ridicules their love affair because it does not live up to his standards of great romance (“Of all the worlds’ famous lovers. … I would say that you two are the greatest one history has so far encountered.”), and then, after seemingly making his point, he has a panic attack and meets the mysterious girl that will guide him through the strange world he is about to enter: Beth (which is, of course, short for Elizabeth), who either looks like a female version of him, or like an older version of Effy, and I guess that the truth is that she looks like both of these things and that this is exactly the point Jamie Brittain is trying to make when she says: “Do you want to fuck your sister? It’s just people say panic attacks come from some deeply repressed sexual urges.” The differences between Tony and Effy aren’t clear enough to really say who Beth is more like (I think that Tony sees Effy as an extension of himself). She tells him that he has to decide whether he is a “fighter or a flighter”, whether he will face his demons or not – and right after that conversation, he watches Sid look at Cassie who is making out with a random guy, and who is clearly upset over this, and they share this moment that is both rivalry and “sorry for everything that happened to you” at the same time. Tony tells Michelle and Sid to leave from under the bed, and Michelle actually hesitates before she says “Bye Tony”.

The next day, Effy dresses Tony for his interview at the University. She says: “You look really good, Tony. Like you’re ready for anything”, and when she sees him go, there is this profound sadness.
The journey Tony makes in this episode is all about the strange people he encounters, and the stories they tell him, and the questions they ask. The first one is a soldier with a burnt face, a soldier with remarkable blue eyes (once again, he might be a fraction of Tony, maybe, and of course the same actor will later play the University professor). He relates the story of how he got hurt (how he set fire to himself), and then asks if Tony has any marks, which of course he has, even if he denies it. He will leave the episode with a visible mark, a tattoo, but on the surface, Tony Stonem does not have any scars to show for everything that has happened to him in the past months.
At University, everything Tony sees seems to pose him with a choice: he can either join the establishment and play the ridiculous game the professor is proposing, in which he proves what an enlightened and interesting individual he is, or he can follow Beth – who is elusive, who appears and disappears at will, who is not always perceived by the other characters. I can’t really decide if it is a problem with the episode that “Skins” doesn’t really have a reliable baseline for reality, or if this episode is good exactly for the reason that the reality as it is presented in the show is so highly subjective (consider Effy and Freddie, in the park, chasing away zombies, or Cassie’s messages in her season one episode).
A good part of the episode takes place in the dorm room of two supposed artists: Beth gets a tattoo (explicitly referred to as a “mark”) which “hurts beautifully” and is about “Passion. Want. Need.” (what an Effy thing to say, right?). She dares him to have sex with her but he has to go to the professor first, the professor who might be a version of himself in the future (if this is a dream, then every person in it must be a fraction of Tony Stonem), or the one thing that he is fighting, the pretentiousness, the fake-ness.
Professor: “No real substance, just a little jumble of misdirected immature polysexuality and pure arrogant impotent rage. So, what you got big boy?”
Tony: “You don’t know a fucking thing about me, you sanctimonious cunt.
[…] Animos. It means spiriti. Courage. Passion. Wrath. This is mine.”
Professor: Who the fucking hell do you think you are?”
Tony: “I’m a bad dream mate. I’m you, before you shrivelled and died. Now I don’t want to go where you’ve been.”
He makes a decision, he decides that he is a fighter, not a flighter, and reclaims his old identity (which, in his case, means having sex with Beth), but there is something new too, something that Tony Stonem before the accident didn’t have. When he leaves, Beth tells him not to look back – like Orpheus when he left the underworld.
Then he enters his world again, and he goes to find Sid and Michelle at a club. He tells Michelle that he loves her, and then he tells Sid that he loves him, because he has realized that he needs people, and that he doesn’t necessarily have to lose his best friend to get his girlfriend back.
Tony: “This is wrong. Can’t you see it’s all wrong? You’re my girlfriend. And you’re my best friend.”
Sid: “Tony, I love her.”
Tony: “No you don’t.”
Sid: “Okay, maybe I don’t.”
Tony: “He loves Cassie. And you love me. That works. We work.”
Michelle: “Why now? It’s too late.”
Tony: “It’s always been there Michelle, it just took a while. I need you. You can’t have her. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. Is what I’m trying to say.”
And then he leaves, leaves Michelle crying and Sid thinking, and tells Cass that everything is going to be alright. He goes back home, while Kurt Wagner sings “Is a Woman” (“In the hour of the girl  / You can make this danger witness”) and kisses someone good night, someone we suspect is Effy but we can’t actually tell, and then the camera pans out on his face, just as he closes his eyes. 

Random notes:

Sometimes I feel like “Skins” is a whole different show whenever it tells the story of the Stonems. I really do wonder how the Jamie-Brittain-run fifth season is going to turn out.

Remember when Effy hid under the bed in Freddie’s fourth season episode? Effy takes one look at Michelle and Sid in this episode, and she understands everything.

The architecture of the University. That stairwell. I want to steal it. (does anybody have an idea where this part of the episode was shot? I am assuming it was supposed to be the Uni in Cardiff, but what do I know, and the pics on Wikipedia don’t really look like this).

It really doesn’t help that the soldier/professor reminds me of Doctor John Foster. I mean, really, did they pick the creepy therapist for that reason or is it just me?

Beth and Effy have remarkably similar ways of jumping into a body of water.

I find it completely likely that there is a SUPERIRONYFUNSPLASHCLUB at my University. Or, as April Ludgate put it: “God, why does everything we do have to be cloaked in like 15 layers of irony?”

A SHORT WALK IN THE LIGHT OF THE WORLDS with breaks for coffee and snacks.

Tony tells Jal that “anybody can see she’s got something going on.” But Jal is better at keeping secrets than almost anybody else. Anybody but Chris.

Beth is played by Janet Montgomery.

I still find the symbolism a bit too simple and in-your-face and like something that came out of basic University class for creative writing but I actually enjoy this episode more than that certain other season four episode. I am also quite fond of the fact that Effy Stonem did not die by being struck by lightning.

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