March 21st, 2011
“Is that why I’m here? To tell stories?”
In reviewing last week’s penultimate episode of MTV’s Skins, “Tara,” at The A.V. Club, I sort of offered my general take on the show thus far: while it has not lived up to the British original, it has made enough variations to define itself as largely independent from that series’ successes and failures. While it remained uneven throughout its run, things started to gel towards the end: actors improved, plots became more interesting, and the branching out into Tara’s perspective was a welcome departure from the British model.
Of course, just because the show is now being considered largely based on its own standards does not mean it won’t fail to live up to those standards in “Eura/Everyone.” In some ways, the finale is the ultimate test: as stories reach what more or less resemble conclusions, the strength of the series’ storytelling is challenged. Skins is a show that tells stories by limiting its perspective, as individual episodes are framed by one narrative while intersecting with others. As a result, an episode like “Eura/Everyone” where the frame character is notable in her absence asks the series’ collective cast to fill in the gaps, never quite allowing any one of them to fully take over (as evidenced by the “Everyone” side of the title).
Ideally, the characters will have taken on such a complexity that the ensemble feel should feel like a culmination of a season’s worth of development. More realistically, however, “Eura/Everyone” will reinforce the hierarchy between characters, their “resolutions” revealing which of them became three-dimensional teenagers and which were left to feel like characters in a story.
That hierarchy is strikingly evident in this finale, although I’d argue that “Eura/Everyone” is more successful than not when it counts the most.
Furthering the introspective and subtle vibe that has been evident in the series for a while now, “Eura/Everyone” most differs from “Effy” in the agency offered to its eponymous figure. Whereas Effy was kidnapped, held against her will and threatened by villainous prep school kids, Eura is just playing an elaborate game to force Tony to face his emotions instead of hiding away in his room. It’s an interesting choice, as it shifts some of the focus of the story away from Tony – whereas “Effy” was a sort of redemptive moment that forced Tony to consider the consequences of his actions (given that she was taken because of his own actions), here Tony’s actions are less about his own character and more about his character’s relationship with Stanley, and with Tea. Eura’s bluff forces him to show his cards, in the process shedding light on the state of the series’ love rhombus (as Michelle finds Tony and Tea holding hands, and witnesses Stan and Cadie sharing a moment over some Tears for Fears).
One could call “Eura/Everyone” an anti-climax, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. It suggests Eura is legitimately in trouble, and reveals it all to have been a ploy. It suggests a confrontation between Michelle and Tea but the issue is ultimately resolved without conflict. While Stanley and Michelle effectively hook up at the end of the episode, it’s a quiet moment that becomes playful upon Chris’ arrival. Our final images are two friends having sex (having still not entirely dealt with their feelings), two lovers tentatively reconciling (with one of them still unconscious, as far as I can tell), a brother and sister sharing a peaceful moment of calm, and two budding lovers with a drunken and homeless third wheel. None of this feels life altering, the kinds of conflict we expect (and which we received in “Michelle” and other episodes over the course of the season) entirely absent. Even Tony and Eura’s father, so hotheaded and bullish in previous appearances, is perfectly understanding simply because his kids are okay and his daughter actually talked to him.
Not all of this works, in part because Eura’s motives were never entirely clear. While we understand what she eventually accomplished, why she wanted to accomplish it and the need for the elaborate nature of the plan become less clear. Getting Tony out of bed is an admirable goal, but the extreme nature of the strategy was blatantly exaggerated for the sake of narrative effect. It made for a better story if Eura turned this into a fake kidnapping, but that fact does little to shed light on a character who remains an enigma beyond some pretty basic character traits (manipulative being the primary one). And while I thought that the idea of Tony being drawn out of his forlorn state by his love for his sister was touching in theory, James Newman never really got a scene to showcase that transformation, making it ultimately ineffective (although the peace of their bit of the final montage was very nicely done). There just wasn’t much “there” when it comes to these characters.
I think most would probably extend that to all of the characters, which is probably fair. I don’t entirely understand the logic for why Stanley and Michelle are together, or what precisely happened to Cadie after “Shout” which would precipitate her absence. Similarly, Tea’s reasons for hanging onto Betty remain unclear (especially given the lifeless nature of her scene with a drugged-up Betty earlier in the episode), and Chris’ nomadic ways do nothing for the character himself. I think I’m probably most invested in Daisy and Abbud, if I’m being honest, but even their story became too simplified by their struggles to remain friends with benefits, stepping away from the more complex characterization introduced in “Daisy” and ultimately delivering a sort of halfway moment where they acknowledge a connection without actually talking about their feelings. It’s all just sort of flaccid, lacking any punch which would capture the development over the course of the season.
Because there was development. There were scenes where we saw some improvement from the actors, and moments that in their esoteric elements seemed to reflect a growing understanding of these characters. The scenes with Cadie and her psychiatrist were a bit trite, but I very much liked (and adopted) the notion of storytelling as it operates within this world. Cadie suffered as a character here, her personal episode coming early in the season where it felt like everything was still very much up in the air. If it had come later, I think her actions (the suicide attempt, the new boyfriend, etc.) would have made a larger impact on the story as a whole, if only because the show (and the actress) would have been more confident.
And yet in “Eura/Everyone” there was a value to Cadie floating around the edge of the narrative, eventually disappearing entirely. Part of me likes the idea of Cadie as storyteller, a figure whose efforts to shape the people around her (even if often in her mind) in some way inform the narrative as we see it. Obviously, the show never quite reached the potential of this idea, but the way she was the one who assisted Eura in her ruse (seeing her, rightfully, as a kindred spirit) was actually quite interesting. There was something about the mood of the episode, the atmosphere it created, which prompted reflection on what the series did right rather than what it did wrong. None of the characters achieved a truly triumphant or life-altering moment, and there was something about the absence of those moments which made the characters’ journeys fall into place. The finale doesn’t do much to contribute to them, and does not turn around those characters whose journeys were not quite satisfying, but the overall arc of the show felt well represented by the quiet denouement that followed Eura and Tony’s return home.
Of course, it seems impossible to discuss “Eura/Everyone” without discussing the lack of the U.K.’ series’ closing moments. Yes, I am sort of annoyed that we didn’t get to see this Tony get hit by a bus, but more interesting is the shift of the musical number from a break of the fourth wall to an actual performance within the narrative. The buildup with Stanley having to display his creativity skills was more than a bit hokey, but even the switch in songs proves interesting. Whereas “Wild World” seems to refer to the need to prepare yourself for the harsh reality of life (and the transition form childhood to adulthood), “Shout” is a song about displaying your individuality and expressing your feelings about the world. While one suggests a sort of caution, an almost bittersweet remembrance, the other seeks empowerment and taking the bull by the horns. One says goodbye, while the other demands attention.
It’s odd, then, that MTV’s Skins is actually the show which seems not long for this world – a second season order would be a surprise, and the sort of celebratory cast credits at the conclusion of “Eura/Everyone” would seem to suggest a finality. While there is no cliffhanger that needs to be resolved, I can’t deny that I feel much as I felt with the U.K. series: regardless of the growing pains evident in the season, I am intensely curious where they intend to take these characters. I want to know what they think each character’s path to adulthood might entail, and whether the empowerment Stanley sings of could be truly embraced given the unique struggles they all face. Part of the joy (and terror) of adolescence is that it is constantly changing, and therein lies the appeal of the Skins structure: where other shows come to rely on formula, Skins comes to rely on the inability for characters to find a formula amidst a tumultuous and strenuous period in their lives.
At the end of the day, MTV’s Skins was more stable than its U.K. counterpart. Maybe it’s a symptom of the translation to American audiences, or the lack of a distinct sense of place to inform certain developments, or maybe even the fact that it was the older Elsley and not his son Brittain who was running the show on this side of the pond. But while part of me felt that this made the show feel a bit more inert, led it to push fewer boundaries and find fewer moments of brilliance, the quieter Skins was welcome after my last Skins experience (U.K.’s Series 3) went too far down the road into insanity. That we end on hope and not tragedy is reflective of the overall vibe of the series, as villains are quickly dispatched in favor of more realistic problems that can be addressed (if not solved) without the over-the-top antics that one might normally associate with the Skins brand.
As a finale, “Eura/Everyone” never quite found its balance and failed to feature moments as meaningful as those in “Tea,” “Daisy,” or even “Michelle.” And yet there was something about this conclusion which validated some of those moments, reflecting their presence without necessarily matching their integrity. I may not have found the episode particularly satisfying in its own right, but it gave me a greater appreciation for what the season accomplished. There were missed opportunities, and there was some bad acting, but ultimately MTV’s Skins broke free from its predecessor to be what it was always meant to be: an intriguing if flawed drama series which says something about what it means to be a teenager.
Sure, if could have said more, but what else are first seasons for?
- The show, as grounded as it might be in some ways, still has its flights of fancy: the woman falling off of the ladder after finding Chris in Abbud’s treehouse seemed more serious than the show treated it, and Eura’s yogurt shower was a somewhat broad way of establishing her invisibility. Still, I like the stylistic element of the latter point, and I think that was something that maybe could have been more consistent throughout the series (especially in earlier episodes).
- I am somewhat confused as to why Tea had to take off all of her clothes in order to get into bed with Betty. Surely she could have left on her t-shirt, at least? I realize that this is a bizarre complaint in many ways, as I should be glad for gratuitous sexuality of this nature, but it struck me as particularly odd.
- While I am pessimistic about a renewal, it’s not entirely out of the question – ratings tracked upwards after the initial dip, and I’m curious to know how the Skins catchup special which aired last week potentially sparked some interest among potential viewers.