“Oh Brother, Where Bart Thou?”
December 8th, 2008
I watched some solid television on Monday: I caught up with Dexter (a solid penultimate episode, but I’ll have some thoughts on the season as a whole after the finale), enjoyed the night’s episode of Chuck (an entertaining if highly improbable outing), and caught up with a bit more of FX’s Sons of Anarchy (I’d suggest checking it out). But, admittedly, I haven’t been limiting my television to more serialized outings: I also took some time to get through the last two discs of The O.C.: Season Two. And, ultimately, this means that despite all of that high caliber television I’ve watched over the past few days, it’s Gossip Girl that sent me to my laptop at 5am.
For those who don’t remember the final episodes from the second season of Josh Schwartz’s other show about elite, rich white people, they featured the tragic (if somewhat bittersweet) death of the show’s patriarch. What followed was an emotional rollercoaster of sorts, the various individuals most affected by his death spiraling into something approximating either utter despair (Kirsten’s alcoholism) or an odd sense of freedom (Julie reconnecting with a returned Jimmy). And while I found both of these developments to be either overplayed and out of character (See: alcoholism), or idealistically portrayed to contrast the season ending gunfire (See: Julie/Jimmy), I nonetheless felt that the death of Caleb Nickel was a death that resonated.
And while some could argue that it is unfair of me to draw this comparison, I would argue quite the opposite: this episode of Gossip Girl followed this pattern to such a degree that anyone with a strong recollection of that series of events can’t help but make the same observations. The problem with the death of Bart Bass, confirmed seconds into the episode if not by last week’s cliffhanger, is twofold: that there are only two people on this show who we really care enough about to sit through their reactions, and Bart Bass was so insignificant and poorly developed that we don’t care about his death enough to make this all matter.
So while Stephanie Savage did what she could to make this seem like a pivotal moment in the show’s trajectory, it was like shining a bright light on the show’s inability to demonstrate anything beyond poor attempts to shock the audience.
It was confirmed that someone was going to be dying on Gossip Girl a few months ago, and everyone knew it was Bart Bass immediately. There was never even a question about it: based on the way the character has been portrayed, propped up on occasion to serve as the cold father to Chuck’s attempts at warmth or thrown into a marriage with Lily for contrivance purposes, he was entirely superfluous. None of this storylines were ever about him: they were about giving the show a reason to have Chuck interact with Serena and Erik, an excuse to keep Rufus and Lily apart, and an excuse to keep Chuck from becoming a real person.
What we saw this season was an attempt to change this, but it seems to have failed to me: the attempt to write the newspaper article, about Bart’s nefarious scheme burning down the building for the insurance money and his life on top of an empire, only confirmed that he was cold and heartless. And the writers had forced themselves to that point: the second he shows a shred of humanity Chuck has a source of support, Lily no longer has justified cause to leave him for Rufus, and the show lacks a walking, talking, oft-travelling spectre to use where necessary.
But the writers realized this could only go so far, that there would have to be a limit. Killing him makes sense in that way: when Caleb had more or less come to the end of his rope on The O.C., having been played in as many ways as he could, they used his death as a way to justify Kirsten’s alcoholism. And to be honest, it worked: no, I didn’t buy her reasons for hitting the bottle before his death, but I could see how that event would render any attempts at making things better inadequate. With Bart’s death, they try to portray the same things: that with his death Lily and Rufus are free to try for a relationship but run into an enormous roadblock, and that Chuck suddenly has a vacuum in his life that forces him to consider who he is as a person.
Now, I think that the Chuck story (as written) wasn’t bad, and that it was by far the only storyline which felt like it had anything even close to the emotional fallout the writers were hoping for. Because we don’t care about Bart himself, the show needs to find people who we care for in the wake of that event. Savage knows who these people are: when Chuck is leaving the wake, it’s Erik who gets the heartwrenching “I don’t want to lose a brother speech.” Erik has always been one of those characters who is innocent, who deserves happiness considering his past and who really looked to Chuck as a male role model (albeit with a discerning eye, of course). Using him to help draw out how Chuck’s drunken, angry behaviour would impact this world was an intelligent move.
Similarly, the Chuck/Blair relationship is the only one the show has that can really stand the test of time, and here proves itself quite worthy. I thought that Ed Westwick took the smoldering rage thing a bit too far at points: admittedly I had seen a number of tweets on Twitter about it before watching the episode, but I think I would have come to the point independently. But this doesn’t mean that the final moment, or any moments, involving Chuck and Blair didn’t feel just about perfect. I was waiting throughout the episode for that moment that made Bart’s death mean something: that it had been for a purpose. The scene as Blair wraps her arms around Chuck and he simply leans into her is one of those scenes, one that made this seem like something other than a convenient plot development.
That is, ultimately, what Rufus and Lily’s relationship will always feel like. I like Kelly Rutherford, I don’t mind Matthew Settle, but their pairing doesn’t work within the context of the rest of the show. It relies too much on history we’ve never seen, a past that keeps becoming more and more complicated with this week’s “Big Secret” that Lily apparently had a child at a hospital in France. The O.C. tried something similar, with Kirsten and Jimmy, but they never attempted to try to make that work, and they never tried to make it the only real parental storyline ongoing within the series. Maybe it’s just the largeness of the secret, or the speed at which they were willing to run away following Bart’s death, but it felt cheap.
And it shouldn’t: nothing about the death of a character, soulless or not, should feel that cheap. Heck, we’ve only known Wallace Shawn’s character for a few episodes and I felt far more emotional connection to his marriage to Eleanor than I did to anything related to Lily and Rufus in this episode. The show finds something real in Blair’s family and those who surround it: there is a sense that events matter, that rushing that marriage was because of the temporality of life as opposed to the impatience of modern television viewers with short attention spans who needs a scandal every fourth episode.
I would give them more credit for Cyrus’ introduction if it wasn’t for the existence of his son, the most lifeless and boring love interest this show has seen. What really hurt Aaron here, making him even more worthless in my eyes, was that he was both the centerpiece of another chapter in my ongoing tome “How many ways do I not care about Dan & Serena: The Countin’ ‘Em Edition” and that his events felt entirely disrespectful to what just happened. I’m sorry, but Serena was right the first time: she should be with her family during this difficult time. The episode tried to justify the decision by having Eric’s boyfriend show up for some moral support, Chuck going to Blair on Lily’s advice, and Lily planning to jet off with Rufus. But the fact remains that Serena should have refused that invitation on sensitivity alone, especially considering he called it her gift to him instead of a chance to get a break from the emotional stress she was under.
And I don’t want to rag on this too much, sounding like a cynical critic who is awake at 5:30am ranting about a teen soap opera that spends too much time on its central love interests, but I don’t care about Dan & Serena. It’s frustrating to have the show throw logic back in our faces, pretending as if it isn’t there: they tried it twice, it didn’t work either time. They still love each other, they still will be part of each other’s lives, but there is nothing wrong with them not being “together.” The show seems to disagree, and it made their entire storyline that much more difficult to watch. This was supposed to be this highly emotional moment for the series, killing a character, but the show (as was The O.C. at points) was dead set on returning to the core relationships.
I know that the show isn’t attempting to be Shakespeare (or, as its title suggests, the Coen Brothers doing Homer) with its plotting, but it’s frustrating to see the two sides of the coin operating in the same episode. Bart’s death was weakened to begin with by poor and lazy character development up to this point, but it nonetheless worked for Chuck and Blair precisely because we buy them as real people and characters even when Chuck spends half the episode in a drunken smoldering rage. By comparison, everything else felt like the same old Gossip Girl plotting, simple shocks and revelations that felt old tricks given new use on a different show.
And I just wish the show would get off the fence and decide to balance one over the other: because while I could talk about Blair and Chuck all day, the rest of the show seems to be dangerously outweighing it within the show’s current trajectory.
- I also think I was subconsciously withering with frustration over this episode in particular because Lily’s big secret, if not an homage or ripoff, highly similar to a storyline on Mad Men. That’s not a comparison that works in Gossip Girl’s favour, let’s put it that way.
- The show’s most improved player this year is definitely Derota – she’s a character who gives a real sense of fun and whimsy to Blair’s world that is entirely lacking within Serena’s, and along with Cyrus they have given Blair a lot of fun moments to play with over the past few episodes.
- While it was one of the rumoured suggestions for who could die and everyone said it wasn’t possible, was Chase Crawford’s Nate not entirely unnecessary here except as someone to hold back Chuck’s hair? The character is floating in a dangerous place right now, and being tied ot only Vanessa isn’t exactly what one would call job security.