Wednesday 10 July 2013

Skins - What else have we got?

Skins: 7x02 Fire, Part 2. 

A couple of years ago, I attempted a half-hearted foray into comics, and one of the things that I found remarkable about them was that different writers would take over and continue the stories and characters. I’m not sure why I never made the connection before – maybe because in my mind, I was comparing them to novels with single authors, not to other media – but that’s what’s constantly happening on television shows. Different writers interpret established characters, adding their own thoughts and stories, presumably with the showrunner and the writers’ room at their back to make sure it fits the greater picture (at least when things work out, or when it’s a priority). The identity of a character is the result of different writers, the accumulation of stories, and the interpretation of the actor. It exists somewhere between all these things, a precarious balance, and then after the performance, it gains additional weight through the eyes of the viewers. The emotional connection that we, the viewers, make with a character, comes from their history – their stories – and every new addition to that story feeds off the emotions that were previously created by other writers. This is the beauty of long-running formats, and the reason why I’ve always felt more invested in characters in tv shows than with characters in films, but in many ways, it’s also a responsibility. I’m not saying that writers can’t tell certain stories because they share the characters with the viewers who lay claim to them because of their emotional connection, all that time they’ve spent with them, but I think it’s fair to expect (in an unwritten contract kind of way) that the history of a character will not be discarded, that the reasons why they became meaningful will not be erased. I profoundly believe in artistic integrity (that the characters first and foremost belong to those who create them), but part of that integrity, at least in this format, is that the writers can’t clean the slate and start at zero with a character. That’s disrespectful to every single previous writer who contributed to the story, and it’s a careless way of discarding viewers who actually carry these stories in their hearts and minds. 
There are some important specific things that only apply to Skins though – in addition to having different writers interpret the characters, there’s also the way that each episode belongs to one character, and how this prioritizes their perspective, their story, over that of other characters. That is a precarious balance too, and I think, in retrospect, whenever a season had more characters than episodes, it was a palpable weak spot, an unfortunate loss. The whole (mostly beautiful) idea of discovering the story through the individual eyes of one character kind of only seems fair if everyone gets an equal chance to tell their story, otherwise they become nothing but supporting characters in other people’s lives. The lack of an episode for Pandora (who at least got a fantastic Unseen) and Naomi in Season Four left a gaping hole – and maybe Skins: Fire was doomed from the start because of it, or at least would have required a considerably more thoughtful approach to how to deal with that imbalance, that inherent unfairness. 
I think these are the two major challenges that Skins: Fire faces: how to deal with all that personal history in light of the four-year gap, how to catch up, capture the changes the characters went through during that time but still connecting them to who they were; and figuring out how to tell the story of Naomi and Emily while focusing on Effy’s, considering the weight that this is the last time their story will be told at all and it’s not their episode. The other thing is, and that’s maybe not necessarily a problem of either the show or the writer, is the version of the characters that exists in my own mind – my version of Naomi Campbell (and Effy, and Emily, but mostly, Naomi), the things that I remember first when I think and write about her, the way that I fill the gaps the show leaves. How we connect with characters (and which characters we connect with, which stories fill those empty spaces) depends on our own experiences. That’s part of the reason why I’ve always been cautious with out-of-characters arguments, because with this show especially I’m very conscious of how much of what Skins means to me and how much I connect with the characters and stories colours my interpretation. And yet, I think that a character needs to remain ultimately recognizable, and not just because they are played by the same person. It’s elusive what that quality is, exactly – certain features, values, the distinct way in which they react in certain situations. 
It’s elusive, but I have never before been surer that this rule has been broken, that the history of a character had little influence on the writing, than in the first few minutes of this episode. I was cautiously optimistic after the first episode – there were things that I did not like, and it wasn’t a fantastic, outstanding episode of Skins, but it definitely did not prepare me for the second part. Naomi is on a stage, more successful now, and then she tells a joke about feminism (it’s about pubic hair!) and domestic violence (like Rihanna, but without the bruises). And the thing is, I do understand how someone like Naomi loses her path, loses her focus, stalls because she hasn’t found that specific cause yet that gives her an outlet for her passion, but there is no way that Naomi (who grew up in a household where the patriarchal nature of bananas was discussed over breakfast), passionate, witty (“You’re all prick?”) Naomi who was left completely distraught over the fact that the other students at Roundview didn’t care as much about politics as she did, would ever make a joke about domestic abuse. And there is also no way that Naomi, who visited Effy in the hospital after her suicide attempt, who knows exactly what she’s been through because she was there for most of it, would constantly joke about suicide, or make Effy’s history a sarcastic remark at the dinner table, like it was just a minor phase of teenage delinquency rather than a complete mental breakdown, a suicide attempt, a psychopathic therapist who ended up killing Freddie, and a presumably long and difficult phase of healing. Naomi wouldn’t make that remark, and Emily wouldn’t giggle along with it, because it trivializes their history, makes everything that happened to Effy and to them a joke. It’s like that moment in the first episode of the sixth season, when Mini joked that she “liked [Franky] better when she might, or might not, have been a lesbian.” – trivializing that entire storyline in one snide remark, and everyone who ever cared about it. 
It is sometimes a strategy for coping with traumatic events, joking about them, but I don’t believe for a second that any previous version of Naomi Campbell would have made that joke at Effy’s cost, out of spite. She’s never been the person to tell that joke on stage, or to talk that way about their past. If she had, Emily wouldn’t even be at that table with them, because that’s not the person Emily ever fell in love with, and it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever want to be her friend. Naomi might be bitter over not having a career, sad that Emily is living in New York, desperate because she is undergoing treatment for cancer and it’s scary and terrible, the uncertainty, but none of this would change her as profoundly as would be necessary for her to become that person. It’s careless writing – and humourless writing as well, but of course, a character can only be as witty as the writer behind her lines. 
It’s not a good beginning. The state of things is that Naomi is a successful comic but apparently for free (those darn hipsters) and doesn’t pay rent, and that Effy is sleeping with her boss, complaining about her friend, who also happens to have cancer. In part the point here is that none of them, especially not Naomi, realize the gravity of the situation, because it’s difficult to think about the possibility of dying, ever, and as long as she doesn’t tell Emily, and pretends everything is fine, she can think of this as a hiccup along the way, a temporary thing that she’ll get past. There is also a creeping and uncomfortable feeling throughout the episode that this is mostly an inconvenience for Effy – it’s not even just that cancer, like stalling and not finding her way, is something that happens to Naomi (the last time this was the point, how terrible it is for someone like Naomi to just wait instead of doing something, the way the situation with Sophia escalated more and more), it’s that having a friend who has cancer happens to Effy, and she would much rather focus on her career than come home to Naomi getting more and more miserable. If the episode makes an argument about Effy specifically having a hard time of dealing with illness, hospitals and caring about a friend who is suffering because of her history, it’s never made explicit enough, because their history only exists as an anecdote told at the table, there are no further references to it (and the visual ones just don’t cut it – it’s not enough that we instantly remember every single time Effy Stonem was in a hospital, the overdose, Tony, Katie, after her suicide attempt). From the episode itself it seems like Effy is just having a hard time because first the firm is struggling without the insider information gained from Dominic (“it’s just the recession”, the most hilariously trite line possible in 2013), and then her life becomes instantly glamorous with it, the dresses more beautiful, the new apartment more shiny, that the contrast to Naomi’s visible physical decline just becomes unbearable. There’s supposed to be meaning in that contrast, Effy winning through illegitimate means, Naomi suffering because the doctors are running out of treatments to try – but it fails because this is Effy’s episode, not Naomi and Effy’s. It fails because the episode turns Naomi into a ghost that haunts Effy until she comes to her senses, and then dispenses vital meaningful advice from her death bed. It fails because Naomi, once again, doesn’t get to tell her own story while a terrible thing is happening to her, and she hasn’t really been able to since her own episode years ago, with the exception of a handful of scenes. Even Sophia Moore got to tell her own story, and she wasn’t even around anymore for it (and just an aside, that’s one of the holes Skins season four left, how Naomi came to terms with her guilt over Sophia’s death). 
In terms of character, Effy isn’t recognizable either. It’s unclear if her ambition is rooted in her past, if this is supposed to be how she ended up dealing with everything that happened – she is “trying to keep it all together”, herself, the one remaining friend, building a new life in a different city. It doesn’t seem like the old Effy, who would have never fallen for someone who artificially built up her ego with lies (the only possible connection here is Foster, and the way he stripped her of herself and tried to rebuild her – the way Jake tells her to pretend so they can both keep what they have). Her insightfulness when it comes to other people is utterly gone when it comes to Jake; when the walls are closing in, when the FSA has called and is clearly on her trail for the insider trading, she is still protecting him, when it turns out that Victoria now works for the FSA and has Jake in her cross-hairs, she still thinks that this is a game about jealousy, not about professional misconduct, that the stakes here are much higher. Maybe she doesn’t realize it sooner because in-between, it still looks like her past, or at least the episode makes it look like it – once the money is flowing, there are parties and drugs, all the things in the world to distract her from the reality of the situation, and she gets lost in it. It’s hard to believe that Effy, who used to see so clearly through people, would be so blind to everything that is happening, would need Victoria to open her eyes.  

When the episode works, it’s because of the stellar performances. Naomi and Emily live miles apart and yet, they have obviously arrived at a point in their relationship where being with each other is effortless, self-evident, it’s an easy intimacy, and Naomi seems more at peace and more herself once Emily returns, even though she is keeping that terrible secret from her. Her decision not to tell Emily is understandable to a degree, even though arguably not being honest and not sharing important things has done just as much damage to their relationship as actively hurting each other has. 
Effy: Why are you doing this?
Naomi: Because I love her.
Effy: Then why won’t you tell her the truth?
Naomi: Because she matters more to me than the truth does. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.  
To protect herself, Naomi still thinks of this as something she will be able to look back on, rather than something that will profoundly affect both their futures, and she doesn’t realize she’s wrong until it’s almost too late. 
She doesn’t make the call once she is certain that the cancer is terminal. She can’t. This is by far the best scene of these episodes, Naomi and Effy outside in the snow, trying to come to terms with what is going to happen, and Naomi suddenly not being angry because this is happening to her, but afraid because of what it will inevitably do to Emily. 
Naomi: I promised Emily once I would never ever hurt her again.
Effy: Yeah. I know.
Naomi: So when the New York job came up it didn’t even seem like that big a deal, because we’re Naomi and Emily. It didn’t matter because we love each other. And now… now I have to hurt her so much, and it might never be okay again.
Effy: Stop talking like a dick. It’s not gonna be like that.
Naomi: It’s okay. I get it. But Emily. This isn’t fair.
Effy: Stop it. You’ve just been outside too long. Come on. Let’s get back inside.
This is beautiful, but it’s also terrible, because this is the part that works: Effy caring about her friends (and she’s always kind of been involved, watching them dance around each other since their first days in school together), being privy to their shared history, being afraid of what’s ahead. This moment is about all of them, and it’s honest. And then the shift happens almost immediately – Effy, finally facing her demons and spending time with Naomi, time that is running out – and Naomi blames her because she doesn’t have any plans for the future. 
Naomi: Tell me.
Effy: Tell you what?
Naomi: Something. What you’re thinking.
Effy: Nothing. Not thinking of anything. I’m fine.
Naomi: Fuck off.
Effy: Naomi…
Naomi: Get off my bed.
Effy: What have I done?
Naomi: Nothing. You’ve done nothing, that’s the whole point.
Effy: I’ve been trying to hold it all together.
Naomi: You’ve been hiding in a fantasy, and a really fucking lame one at that. And I’ve been sitting at home, on my own, hoping that my best friend might just come home and watch TV with me. Because seriously, Eff, what else have we got?
Effy: Tell me what we’re gonna do.
Naomi: Well I’m gonna die. What are you gonna do?
I get the intention behind this. It’s not as misguided as that terrible joke that starts the episode, but it also entails everything that went wrong: having a friend with cancer happened to Effy, and now having a friend dying of it is happening to her, so of course she has to cherish her life more, and make plans, instead of waiting for things to happen to her! Of course she has to pick up the phone, and call Emily, and then go to the FSA to make a deal, and start her real real life, because life is precious and short and time is always running out. Except I don’t buy it, I don’t buy the cheap moral of the story, the idea that life teaches us lessons through trials and that other people’s suffering exists to give us meaning. It’s cheap, it’s trite. And it’s a nice and idyllic idea that all that matters in the end is spending time with your loved ones, doing things you love, but it sounds wrong from Naomi – of course that’s important too, but Naomi spent years (since she was twelve…) struggling with trying to figure out how she, with all her complexity and passions, could exist in a relationship that made her feel so much, that, if she let it happen, would determine the course of her life. I don’t believe that Naomi would ever stop believing in the idea of having some kind of effect on the world, of leaving something behind. 
It’s pointless cruelty, and it’s calculated, because of course the performances are amazing, of course it hits all the right spots to have Emily rage over the time she lost because both of them, both Effy and Naomi, didn’t tell her (“You didn’t even deserve this time with her. You stole at from me. I’ll never forgive you for that.” is the best-delivered line in the episode for me), to have Effy tell Emily to be strong for Naomi (a hollow echo of similar lines), to see them together in the hospital bed, a final glimpse of Naomi and Emily. But I think if a writer relies on the self-evidence of them (it’s enough to say it together, Naomi and Emily, and it brings back every single scene they ever shared, to get to the point where they are so sure of each other), then this needs to be their story, not a side-note to someone else’s story. If a writer causes that kind of grief and pain, continuing the story of two beloved characters after so many years only to take away their future, it needs to be about them, not about how the experience makes Effy realize that her priorities were wrong all along, so that she can mysteriously smile into the camera one last time. It doesn’t even really feel like the story of Effy Stonem; that one got lost in the years between, and I would have loved to hear it.   

Random notes: 

Here’s a list of some of my favourite characters over the years: Jadzia Dax, Tara Maclay, Winifred Burkle, Naomi Campbell. Let me know if you see a pattern emerging. 

“I’m very optimistic” isn’t a line doctors ever say, is it? 

I really cared about Dominic up to the “your magical vagina has made me pathetic and seduced me to do illegal things” point. I guess “everybody loves me” is the one constant with Effy, now that everything else is gone.

Just. Lily and Kaya. I can’t wait to see where they’ll go. 

Did anyone else get that instant happiness thing when Emily burst into the room like a ball of joy? There was way, way too little Emily in the episode, but Kat Prescott did an incredible job in all her scenes. 

I really don’t understand how this could have all gone so wrong when there is so much beauty in smaller moments – the scene where Naomi goes into the scan and is so terrified that she can’t let go of Effy’s hand, and Effy running, because she can’t deal with it, is incredible. The way Naomi suddenly becomes smaller and quiet when she realizes that she is dying, and all that previous anger turns to desperation. 

I had hoped that writing about Skins: Fire would feel like meeting old, dear friends; instead it has turned into an exorcism, a desperate attempt to cut my emotional losses.


Julipy said...

I come here just after having read the most simple and stupid review of these episodes ever (in spanish, sadly) And then again I found myself submerged in your words. Really, you must have a gift, it's so rare to find reviews like that. It's so obvious that you like the show, you understand the characters and you truly want to be given a message. It's not just an entertaiment for you. *Sigh*... There's no way to explain how much I enjoy reading your thoughts.

And yes. This episode was painful. It was very uncomfortable to watch and I agree with you on the fact that a plot such as Naomi's should have been used in a full episode dedicated to her. There's no point on dealing with those topics and creating so much suffer if the whole thing is going to be treated as a subplot.

Also... I was doubtful about Effy's sudden interest on her current job, but it was way more absurd to see her falling for a guy with no sign of charisma at all.

And I think I was the only fool hoping to have at least a mere reference to Freddie's fate (Still waiting for Cook's episode) And, Hello? Pandora? Tony? Anyone?


Anonymous said...

The writer broke Naomi's soul worst way possible. I am going to pretend that this shit never happened.

cathy leaves said...

Thank you :) Sometimes I wish it were "just" entertainment, but at least in the beginning I'm pretty sure that Skins aspired to be more than that, and that's why it touched so many people.
The absence of Pandora (and Katie's too) is inexplicable and sad. It's hard to believe that they would have lost contact with Effy after being so crucial in the initial stages of her recovery (much more than Naomi, actually), and I don't really think that either Lisa Backwell or Megan Prescott weren't available, this must have been a conscious choice. I think I wouldn't have minded that the past was never referred to as much if it hadn't been for that one stupid comment at the dinner table. Either do it properly or don't do it at all.

Anonymous said...

You reviewed it perfectly! I couldn't quite put it into words what exactly made me so angry after watching the final minutes of Skins Fire, then thinking about it, I realized that most parts just felt so wrong and weirdly unoriginal. But you just put into words what I was missing to fully comprehend my disappointment over this sequel.

After the part I I thought: Well, this is going to be interesting" and I was intrigued. And there parts that were so great and lovely and strong and SKINS! Getting closer to the ending I thought there was still plenty of screening time left but nope, it was just like 5 minutes or so... both story lines started out nicely but then felt a little cheap, unoriginal and out of character. Actually, exactly those scenes, Naomis stand-up comedy performance, and the way she and Emily giggle about Effy's breakdown really ruined this Sequel for me.

There was so much potential and I actually really like sad endings and depressing story lines when nicely done. But there was just missing too much. The writers wanted too much and it doesn't translate to the screen.

Julieta said...

Hi there!

I have to say I do find reasons for Naomi to display such a shattered personality... I mean, she had already lost track and focus in series 4... rather, her whole life revolved around Emily until she kind of surrendered herself to their love. I don't think Naomi has ever recovered from the sense of guilt, she just lives with it, it hunts her quietly and Em is still her one and only sun (that's why she seemed so lit up when Em returned). Emily was both her perdition and salvation; or her salvation and perdition, I'm not sure which word should go first.

If you tried to relate the frustrating reactions to the characters or the reasons behind those reactions, I'm positive you could. For example, and I'm just testing the water here, the way they teased about Effy's breakdown could work as a hint that they never found out about Freddie's death. Plus, people do not always react the way you expect them to, which does not exactly mean they have changed. And they certainly do not perceive your problems in the immense distorted way you perceive them, specially when you are already fully recovered, that's why they can joke about them more easily –no to mention this is the way of stand-up comedy, sort of, excuse my HP metaphor, performing riddikulus charms on boggarts.

I could go on and on, but I think there's no use since I might just be trying to justify the writer's decisions because, truth is, I loved Skins Fire with all of its flaws. It does sound possible that there was kind of a brainstorming meeting where they left Jess Brittain with a handful of unrelated words (recession, cancer, stand up, etc) and a "deal with it". But even then, Effy's smile at the end...I just find it sublime. As if they had turned on the lights to show me that she had been pulling the strings all along. Of course Naomi's death is another thing altogether; I do believe in the tears, they were not a part of an act. The thing is, it is impossible for Effy not to love. The "love, love, what is it good for? absolutey nothing" is a façade for someone who loves life more than anyone. Much like her brother: she makes things happen, she keeps things moving. She is not afraid of losing control because she will never, and I don't think she could ever, have a 'real' life – that's the whole point.

On another note, topnotch performances (aplause). Rooftop scene & cab scene: heartbreakingly amazing. Tout ensemble, beautifully directed. What can I say? It's a pitty you are all so disappointed... there's a reason why they did it in a "two-hour film" format: personally, I wouldn't call it a "sequel". But that's just me, of course. For better or for worse, we can all agree this indeed was Skins on Fire.

cathy leaves said...

@Anonymous: I'm all for sad endings and depressing story lines as well, and one of the thoughts that I had writing this was why it worked (emotionally) when Chris died in Cassie's episode, but why Naomi's story here fell flat, and I still don't really have a clear answer. The flaw certainly didn't lie in the acting. To me it also felt strange to see Skins attempt a story of such a grand scale (hedgefunds! insider trading!) when the time to actually speak about the characters was so limited. They seemed to get lost in the story.

Hi Julieta!

I agree with your point about Naomi. There is a brilliant connection between how it all started out ("it's not as simple as that, being with someone") and that moment on the rooftop, when it was revealed what Naomi had done. I think the implications of that sometimes got lost because of the focus on the romance - it's why I've never been happy with that speech. There is an odd symmetry to where Naomi was in these episodes, her world evolving around Emily, considering how Emily never used to have plans beyond being with Naomi initially, to the extent that Naomi going off to University became this unthinkable burden.
Maybe we'll find out how much everyone knows about Freddie in Cook's film? I wonder if they can completely avoid referencting the past with him.
The comment at the table threw me completely, so did the joke in the beginning. The HP metaphor is perfect, this is exactly what comedy is supposed to do - and the bits about the cancer do ring true (or the implication that Naomi's comedy is somehow more successful now that her humour is rooted in this experience, I think that's very true to life) - but I couldn't get over feminist Naomi Campbell making a joke about domestic violence. The comment at the table was strange because it was almost like they particularly only referenced Effy's party-and-drug days rather than her attempted suicide, it was like they completely left that bit out, in the same way in which it's never actually mentioned in the episodes, like it never happened (I can picture them, at least Naomi and Effy, joking about it - they have that kind of relationship - but I don't see Naomi making a joke that Effy isn't in on, if that makes any sense).
And yes, ultimately, Fire is about Effy attempting a normal life, and figuring out that it wouldn't work (but not "losing" in any meaningful sense of the word - Effy smiling into the camera is always the beginning of something, not the end, isn't it?). We don't actually see her go to prison, so it almost looks like she once again found a way to move the pieces on the board in exactly the way she wanted to (like she did with Tony's friends, years ago).
Effy doesn't not believe in love, she's always aware of the way it affects and drives people, and how it's not necessarily a beautiful thing, but just as often a complicated mess.
I am sincerely happy that you've enjoyed Fire. This is maybe just the way this show works, everybody brings their own baggage and relates to it differently because of it, and gets different things out of it. It didn't work for me, I didn't connect with it the way I hoped I would.

ohwowlovely said...

All I have to say is "it happened, but it never happened."

I have to borrow from evil Foster and erase it from my memory. I'll still watch it again but ugh.