May 12, 2017
The nature of Skam’s real-time structure means that often it is the Friday installment that makes the biggest impact, and that is certainly true this week: there is a huge amount of plot movement in the back half of that ten minute clip, a turning point for the season in more ways than one. It can be easy, at times, to look at the content during the week as procedural bits necessary to get to the point we reach on Fridays, as seen here when Sana’s paranoia about Sara pushing her out of the bus is established and then tragically confirmed in a wave of bad news for this season’s protagonist.
But “Humble,” the previous installment, is the week’s most engaging clip, and I’d argue the most important to the season as a whole out of this week’s content. It stands out because it’s about relationships—parent and child, brother and sister—the show has never really explored directly, and which reinforce that what sets Sana apart from the previous POV character is the balancing act of her life. Although her religion is the central theme of the season, reinforced a little too cleanly here by the choice of “Imagine” as Even’s karaoke song, it is one part of a collection of relationships that Sana is constantly negotiating as she tries to live the life she wants to lead. Whereas the previous POV characters lacked siblings and shared distant or infrequent relationships with their parents, Sana’s family dynamic is a huge part of her life, and one that cannot be dismissed as a simple “conflict” with her relationship with her friends. It is a deeper struggle than that, a push-and-pull that turns to violence and betrayal in the wake of the karaoke party.
That karaoke party turns dramatic quickly, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, I appreciate the show’s smart use of its limited point-of-view with the fight: we don’t see what specifically prompts the conflict between the two groups of young men, but we know that it’s Isak who ends up bloodied, and Elias who appears as the aggressor. Fans have long speculated about some type of conflict between them, and so leaving it open is a smart way to create uncertainty that can be resolved in the weeks ahead. It’s been clear since Yousef’s conversation with Sana that Mikael’s side and Even’s side are probably different, and that there were unresolved emotions on all sides. It’s a conflict built on religious difference, but more specifically about the miscommunication that comes from it, hearkening back to Sana’s speech about war she gave Noora back in season two. This particular escalation was something the season has been foreshadowing pretty heavily, and while it risks pulling away from the focus on Sana, I think the work done to scaffold the religious themes into the story combined with Sana’s role as a diplomat of sorts helps it feel natural within her arc as well as the season as a whole.
On the other hand, though, the pile-on element of the final few minutes struck me as a bit much. As I anticipated upon finishing the clip, the show is taking a mid-season break (returning May 22), and so I understand the value of amplifying this through a cliffhanger. But there’s a contrivance to everything happening at once, with Sana breaking up the fight, overhearing two of the Pepsi Max girls confirming Sara was trying to exclude her from the bus, and then emerging from the bathroom to Noora making out with Yousef. None of these developments individually are deeply surprising, and were among the presumptions made by fans: I’m discovering watching the show live that the show’s foreshadowing is not particularly subtle, which means that any kind of attentive viewing or online conversation will probably predict the future correctly. But to see it all happen at once amplifies this sense of predictability, such that I struggle to connect with the story emotionally.
It reinforces Sana’s story effectively, to be clear: her arc is about her attempt to negotiate her religion and her relationship with her friends, and here we see that fundamentally spiral out of control, as it can so easily do. The events that lead to Sana’s “downfall” are a byproduct of her belief that she could manage the various parts of her life effectively, and that may have been an unrealistic expectation. Her choices that contribute to the situation at hand—inviting Elias and the Balloon Squad to a party where Even might be, not telling Noora about William’s new girlfriend—are not objective mistakes. They are just miscalculations, the type of errors that teenagers would make, and which can occasionally boil over into this type of event. It’s the fact they all boil over at once that strikes me as a bit extreme, one indignity too many.
I would probably have cut—or, more accurately, delayed—the reveal about Sana being kicked off the bus, but having said that it puts into perspective the importance of “Humble,” and Sana’s relationship with Elias in the season. The conversation Sana overhears from the Pepsi Max girls is notable for how much it is based on an outsider’s perspective on being Muslim: none of them are Muslim, and none of them have ever asked Sana about her religion, but they have developed a very clear image of what it is, and the ways that Sana is moving outside of that image. They simultaneously paint Sana’s actions as transgressive of Islam while simultaneously viewing Sana—because she is Muslim—as transgressive of Norwegian society, as though they are the arbiters of either. And it’s all based on conjecture, whether it’s Vilde’s ignorance to the “Slave” bet from week one or their general ignorance to the presumption that the fight stems simply from the fact that Isak and Even are gay. They don’t know Sana or Elias, but they think they do, and none of the balancing act Sana has done has enabled her to overcome these inherent prejudices.
And that’s why I think “Humble” is so important, as the way Pepsi Max perceives both Islam as a religion and Elias as a representative of that works against what we’ve seen play out. I was struck by the fact they included Elias’ breaking up of the party in the list of reasons for viewing Muslims with prejudice, given that from our point of view there was never any question of what that was: Elias knew his parents were home, and moved aggressively to help protect her “secret life.” Although Elias has played the role of “older brother” in a more teasing or dismissive way, we’ve seen the way he’s focused his attention on protecting her, and in “Humble” supporting her in whatever interpretation of Islam she chooses (and not objecting to her interest in Yousef). After three seasons of only children, and only one mostly-absent parent figure, we’re seeing a real family dynamic, a different type of intimacy than we’ve seen and one that is impossible for outsiders to fully understand. And yet they’ve chosen to read it the way that supports their existing beliefs, and in the process worked hard to exclude Sana, a decision that would be tough for us to understand under any circumstance, but particularly difficult when we’ve seen Sana’s perspective over the course of the season thus far.
The “drama” here is wide-reaching, and will have clear impacts when the show returns in a week and a half on May 22. Was Vilde aware of the plans to exclude Sana from the bus, or did she simply inadvertently provide fuel for the fire with her gossiping? What were the circumstances of Noora and Yousef’s hooking up, and how did either fully understand the violence being afflicted to Sana? Each point-of-view character thus far has gone through a period of exile from their friends, but they have often been self-imposed, rather than the byproduct of this type of interpersonal conflict. It will be strange to skip the immediate aftermath of these events, but I’m hopeful the time allows the show to return in a reflective mood, and able to move past this slightly exaggerated escalation in order to tell the interpersonal stories at the heart of the “conflict” at hand.
[If you missed any of my previous reviews of Skam Season 4, you can find them—and some discussion about the potential American remake—here.]
- Anyone else confused about Sara’s actual plan, here? How did she make it so Sana’s copy of the contract ended up in her spam folder? Is she some type of diabolical racist mastermind who hatched this whole scheme to get rid of Sana? I struggle with that: we know she’s racist, we saw that when they were looking at the bus, but the “plan” here seems too elaborate for me. But, I may be underestimating the awfulness of teenage girls.
- I remain a little confused about what specific form of sexual harassment Eskild committed against Elias, if I’m being honest.
- Interesting that it was Mahdi, by far the least developed of that group of friends, who ended up in the direct physical confrontation with Elias—curious to see if there’s room for any development here.
- Not a whole lot of “content” to be found in this week’s Hei Briskeby, at least on the surface: it’s basically just a typical YouTube video of the channel’s hosts doing a challenge. But it’s notably a fairy tale translation challenge, which strikes me as a valuable theme for an episode that hinged on the belief that Muslims are unable to assimilate into Norwegian society.
- I understand that Noora doesn’t understand that Sana likes Yousef—which is her fault for not seeing Sana as someone who could do so, and Sana’s fault for not being willing to open up to her about it—but I’m still mad at her for being so upset about her ex-boyfriend that she ghosted on dating someone else. I would have thought she was above that, so I think that feels a bit too regressive to fit the plot here.
- For those who have gone through live seasons before—we got a teaser trailer for the return date, but will there be any transmedia between now and then, or no?
- It was interesting to see that there’s an episode of Master of None in its second season that looks at very similar issues of multi-generational takes on Islam—it’s a good episode, but I probably would have found it more impactful if Skam hadn’t been focusing so much on it this season.
- My review headline is pulled from “The Winner Takes It All,” which is the karaoke song being performed before Even takes over on “Imagine.” Which, for the record, is a weird karaoke song, and was probably chosen to create a complete kumbaya moment before everything went to hell.