Tuesday 22 February 2011

Skins - This is real, right?

Skins 5x04: Liv.

Ed Hime wrote Emily, one of those episodes that picks you up and never really lets you catch your breath until it’s done, leaving a dazzling haze behind. Episodes of Skins trap the viewers in someone else’s head and perspective to a varying degree: I’d argue that there are some that are particularly good at following a character and putting them into a specific context (Sid’s first season episode, maybe last week’s Mini) and then there are some that build entire strange worlds within the 45-odd-minutes they last – and Liv, like Emily, or Cassie (either of the two, really), or JJ’s third season episode does just that.
Getting both of these characters so incredibly right seems like quite an accomplishment, since Emily and Liv couldn’t be more different, and apart from the self-contained intensity of both these episodes, they have nothing in common. Emily is a brilliantly constructed film noir with a big revelation at the end; Liv is a drug-fuelled adventure during the course of which two characters subtly connect, until, in the course of a mere two days, most of the central relationships of the show so far have radically changed.

What drives Liv Malone to never stand still? She’s still seeing Nick, even though she promised to herself that this wouldn’t happen again. She observes his little lies that he seems to have no problem with – telling Mini “love you too” on the phone right after sleeping with her best friend, and then visibly carrying the guilt home. Her mum only recognizes the surface – Liv looks “like a zombie”, she “isn’t fine, you are out of control”, and she doesn’t understand “why any of you do the things you do” – but she never even asks what is wrong, and what Liv’s motivations are, instead she is running away herself.
Telling lies, and pretending like something hasn’t happened, is a recurring theme in the episode. Mini still sticks to the strategy after seeing Nick and Liv at the party, and she has now decided that she wants a tabula rasa, so she invites everyone to Liv’s now empty (“I’m trusting you with the house”) apartment.
Mini: Did we fight?
Liv: You don’t remember
Mini: Oh my god, we did. Could we be friends again, just like forget the whole thing. I’m really sorry.
Liv: Yeah. I’d like that. Come in.
It’s the same thing she did to Nick in the previous episode, trying to undo an entire day just to preserve the status quo, unwilling to face the consequences.
Mini: This is really difficult. Okay. I’ve been a complete bitch to you all, some more than others, and I’m really sorry. It’s just, well, you are all so cool and alternative and when I’m with you I feel a bit like Nicola Roberts, she’s the plain one in Girls Aloud. Franky, you were right. We could all be awesome mates, and I want that now. So do Liv and Nick. So, we were wondering if you could find it in your hearts to give us a second chance? Right guys?
Nick: Yeah, right.
Franky: Well, I’m in. I mean, as long as everything is in the past.
Mini: Dead and buried.
Mini’s motivation behind this aren’t exactly clear: maybe she’s sure about her position again, now that she feels that her relationship with Nick is solid, so she can reclaim the friendships she lost as if nothing happened and include some new people who aren’t really a threat to her anyway. Maybe not everything that she seemed to gain from the moment with Franky in the previous episode was destroyed in the following scene. Some of her actions in the episode are aimed directly at Liv: showing off, almost, how her relationship with Nick has changed now that they are having sex, or perhaps making it clear to Liv that she never was a real threat. We don’t see any of this through her perspective, so it’s hard to make sense of her actions.
It’s also interesting to see how the episode manages to put Franky into situations in which she finds herself the observer, accidentally, of things that she shouldn’t be noticing. This has been a recurring pattern for her character, that she happens to observe something without actually meaning to, not out of some kind of detached curiosity (like Effy), but because she is genuinely interested in other people’s motivations and because she has a way of just being there at the right moment. She is left out of the group hug, just like Liv, and sees a look exchanged between her and Nick – and of course she was the one who saw Liv and Nick at the party, she was the one being told to forget she ever saw anything because she was the only witness of something Mini wanted to undo with make-believe.

Mini: You were wrong, by the way. He does love me.
Liv: Okay.
Mini: It’s reached a whole new level. It’s weird I used to be so hung up on sex, and now it’s just all the time. I have, like, carpet burns on my ears. So good.
Liv: I’m happy for you.
Mini: I don’t know why it bothered me so much. I don’t let anything get between me and Nick being together.
Liv: What’s going on here?
Mini: Everyone’s having such a good time, and it really would be a shame if you spoilt it.
This scene is Mini letting Liv know she knows exactly what happened. It’s a subtle threat should Liv ever decide to acknowledge what happened. Liv leaves, completely frustrated, to visit her sister in jail, but her sister tells her to do just that: to tell lies, to pretend like nothing happened.
Telling lies and pretending is one way of not dealing with a situation. Another is taking drugs and completely and deliberately leaving the troubling situation. When Matty and Liv meet at the bus station, both are running away from something, and the crystal they are given by the stranger – “you can’t run away forever” – provides them with a different way out than a bus would.

“Well, I hate this town too. Let’s get fucked, burn it to the ground, dance in the embers, and then you can get on your coach.”

All the rules they make in advance will be broken in the course of the episode. “no future, no names, no touching, this is not a hook-up. […] If I see you on the street tomorrow, I am gonna blank you, so don’t weep about it”. There is a story they are starting to tell, one in which neither of them is allowed to take the easy way out (they can’t just get away with stealing something, they need to be chased), a story with weird names – “you’re a bad influence” / “You’re not real, you’re like a Charles Dickens character named Teddy Sextramp” and costumes and a soundtrack (a Viennese waltz) and a heroic rescue from a horrible and creepy guy, and in-between, there’s hints of reality coming through, the things neither of them really can escape. Mini calls (“my husband”), Matty tells Liv that he got the watch from his brother but everything else he is wearing is stolen.
When Matty rescues Liv from the owner of the costume shop, they finally do have a reason to run, a better reason than a broken family or a friendship that is falling apart. Up to the point where they decide to steal the CCTV tape (tapes, and how they are used differently again and again in this episode!) and the money, they haven’t done everything wrong, but now they are on the run.

Out in the thunder, 

opens my eyes wide, 
There is something in my mind,
keeps me up at night,

Glasser: Apply
Liv’s “it’s starting to hurt” before she asks for more drugs isn’t just about her hand, hurting from punching the guy who tried to rape her; it’s the fear that reality might come flooding back if she doesn’t stay sedated, that she will be pulled back into a place she wants to escape. They have a reason now to quit the town and Liv takes it – “can we go together?”
Liv: Whatever we do. It’s you and me.
Matty: You and me. Always.
Liv: This is real. Right?
Matty: This is real.
“This is real”, while the world around them turns more and more surreal – a party with frightening costumes that don’t seem to scare them, the hallways, the sparse light (and Matty being the elusive, mysterious character, the furthest from “real” possible).

The next morning, everything is different. The worlds don’t go together well. Liv takes Matty to her apartment (the other halve lives very differently), and reality starts to take over. They find out each others names, and finally – after finding Mini in her bed with Nick – she realizes that Matty isn’t the random stranger who is unconnected from all her drama at all.
Nick: Matthew. What the fuck?
Matty: Nicholas.
Mini: Have I missed something?
Matty: Yeah. He’s my brother.
Liv: Shit. They’re brothers.
Nick: What are you doing here?
Matty: I’m leaving. We’re just leaving.
Nick: Liv, whatever he’s told you, don’t believe him. Stay away from him, he’s a psycho.
Matty: Why do you care? […] You’ve got to be shitting me. You and her?
The house of cards can only stand as long as nobody tells the truth; and Matty does, without realizing that he is destroying the precarious balance between Nick, Liv and Mini.
Matty: Whatever’s going on, I don’t care.
Liv: Yeah, well, I do.
Matty: I don’t care about him. It’s you and me.
Liv: I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. So get the fuck out of my house.
The illusion that Matty is safe because he isn’t connected to Mini or Nick or any of that drama is shattered, and their relationship only worked on the condition that the past doesn’t matter at all. She throws him out, she throws everybody else out, but then there’s someone left – again, the unlikeliest person, just like in the last episode, and she doesn’t just go away.

“Don’t care. Don’t care. Don’t care.”

Liv: Franky.
Franky: Where is everyone?
Liv: Party is over.
Franky: Oh.
Liv: I’ve told them to piss off. Can you just go too and leave me alone.
Franky: What’s going on with you and Mini?
Liv: What do you care? It’s between me and her. It’s got nothing to do with you.
Franky: All that hate and blame, it’s toxic.
Liv: Is it, or are you maybe just a bit too fucking sensitive.
Franky: I watched this earlier. I liked it.
For some reason, and maybe because she’s struggled so much in the past, Franky realizes the value of friendship more than other characters too, and she cares enough about others to point out when they are losing something valuable. Liv watches the tape that depicts why their friendship worked, and how easy it was before, and she tries to make herself not care that she is about to lose Mini – but she can’t.
And then, in the same moment, she finds out that she doesn’t have a real reason to run anymore either, because the guy at the store isn’t dead after all, and has been taken into custody.

“Our whole family has tried to keep it simple and we’re falling apart.”

Liv is surrounded by people who’ve run away and not taken responsibility for their actions – a sister in prison (“you’re never going to be me”), a father who left, a mother who invents hobbies for herself just so she doesn’t have to stay and deal with her children – and when her little sister blames her for leaving her at the cinema all night, she realizes that she can’t do the same. She can’t give up on her friendship with Mini, or Matty, or her family.
She fixes things her way. She gets Matty to stay by drinking a bottle of vodka and trusting him to care of her (“Stay. I can’t do this on my own”), and he does. He faces his own demons for her by going back to his family for her.
Liv: Do you remember how we became friends? I’d been crying all morning, you came over to me. Thought you were gonna give me a tissue, like everyone else who knew what happened. Instead you gave me these, in the middle of winter. I felt so cool with you. We were so much better than all those nice boys and girls, like we knew a secret they didn’t. But we don’t tell each other our secrets, do we. I owe you so much. Can I try and explain what happened.
Mini: Why would you do that?
Liv: So we’d have a chance. I’m so sorry, Mini.
Mini: Nick told me you drank a bottle of vodka to apologise to his brother. Funny, that of all the boys in town you ended up with him.
Liv: What can I do to make it okay. Just tell me, and I’ll do it. Anything.
Mini asks Liv to prove her love by drinking a whole bottle of vodka, and Liv does (while two children who look like younger copies play in the foreground, blissfully unburdened). But it’s not as simple as that, one gesture doesn’t suffice, and Mini is taking revenge for someone destroying her carefully constructed illusion of perfection. “I hope you die puking out your kidneys, bitch.” She goes home after the two longest days, but once again her mum doesn’t provide the comfort she needs.
Mrs Malone: Look at the state of you again.
Liv: It’s been horrible. Mini hates me; I don’t know what to do.
Mrs Malone: It’s all a party to you, isn’t it. I trusted you with my house, Liv.
Liv: I’m really sorry. How was the retreat?
Mrs Malone: Pointless. It’s all pointless, Liv. I do know all my hobbies are ridiculous. But I can’t just jet away like your dad, so what can I do. Maud’s out. Did you see the mess she left in the kitchen? She’s so angry. What do I do? Do I need to send her away somewhere?
Liv: Maud’s fine.
Mrs Malone: Throwing crockery is not fine. I will not have violence in this house, Olivia.
Liv: Maud didn’t throw it. I did.
Mrs Malone: Why would you do that?
Liv takes the blame for something she didn’t do, and then she goes to her sister in the cinema, finally finding a temporary safe place after all that horrible destruction, and they just both sink into their chairs and watch the movie.

Random notes:

Possibly the visually most beautiful episode ever. Also, I have a thing for bear suits (not in a weird way though – thank you, John Irving) so there was no way I wouldn’t like this episode. “CASUAL”.

I also immediately knew that nothing could go wrong when, instead of some cliché thing other shows would have played once the drugs started to work, Skins went with Simon and Garfunkel’s Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. “My life seems unreal, / My crime an illusion,
A scene badly written / In which I must play. / Yet I know as I gaze / At my young love beside me, / The morning is just a few hours away.”

There isn’t really much point in comparing the characters and yet I do it, again and again – and Laya Lewis does an incredible job living up to what Joe Dempsie and Jack O’Connell did with their very physical characters. The energy. I think I might come out of this season having about eight favourite characters, this is getting really ridiculous.

“Who told you it was okay to look at strangers the way you look at me?

THIS LINE. I don’t know why but this line stood out to me and then I didn’t find a place for it in the review for some reason. It also reveals a really interesting parallel between Franky and Matty, because Franky looks at relative strangers that way too, like she knows a truth about them that they haven’t realized yet.

There aren't that many people who could pull off Matty but Sebastian de Souza is doing an amazing job with someone so elusive and contradictory. I am particularly fond of his laugh after Liv's "syphilis" line, and the way he delivered "do we need money?", "I will break your fingers" and "I can handle it".

I kind of really love that Skins only needs one shot of a house or an apartment to show that all of these characters live with completely different economic backgrounds. Liv’s mum has a wide, open apartment; Mini lives in a damp, painfully cramped house on a street of similar houses.

“If I show up at the eternal circle without my own crystals I look like a fucking day-tripper.”

Alex Arnold’s delivery of some of Rich’s line is almost Daria-level dry: “So this is actually happening, is it? Brilliant” / “I don’t like hugs.”

Mini tells Nick to just smile and nod if he’s having trouble – which he, subconsciously, does right away TO HER.

Maud: If that’s really tobacco then why is it green?
Alo: Tobacco is green.
Maud: Then what is she smoking?
Alo: Heroin.
Franky: He’s kidding. It’s tobacco.

Liv’s little sister is now my favourite precocious sibling on Skins. FRAK YEAH.

Maud: You’re a crap shit.
Liv: Doesn’t sound right when you swear.
Maud: And it doesn’t sound right when you try to be cool. You’re not cool. And I am swearing now because you let me down, so deal with that, fuck tooth.

“Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for the tree.” DISCUSS.

“It’s your wife. The twins have found the figurines and one of them is choking on a hobbit.”
“Which one?”
“It’s not Frodo, is it, he’s valuable?”
“Which kid, you idiot.”

The scene in which Franky really is the last one standing at the party but finally manages to knock herself out with the last spliff, only to get a “what a lightweight” from Grace, was classic Skins comedy.

Franky Fitzgerald, ghost of friendships past.

Mini’s “After you show me how sorry you are.” was a kind of brutal mirroring of Nick’s “show me then”. I predict a painful redemption for her in the course of the next episodes though.

In case you were suspecting that Matty and Nick might have a really, really terrible father (how scarring was Matty plea to Nick?): this looks like Leon Levan might be the worst parent on Skins EVER. Worse than the Cooks or the Miles.