Words on Walford: Week of 17 – 21 February 2020

Over the past decade, EastEnders anniversaries have come to be known for their epic nature. For the 25th anniversary in 2010 we had the first live episodes as Bradley Branning fell to his death and Stacey Slater admitted to killing Archie Mitchell. In 2015, the 30th anniversary saw Kim Fox gave birth, Kathy Beale returned from the dead, and after ten months of wondering, fans finally learned that Bobby Beale killed his sister, Lucy. Oh, and the episodes were live again.

Both the 25th and 30th anniversaries were widely praised by critics and fans alike, so expectations were high going into the 35th anniversary episodes, which aired last week. Eschewing the live format of the previous two milestones, Kate Oates and Jon Sen – the creative bosses currently at the helm of EastEnders – opted instead for a major stunt, sending many of our favourite characters on a party cruise and one of them to a watery grave.

Spoilers lurk below, so if you haven’t seen EastEnders recently read ahead at your own peril.

We’ll get to that death later, because it is a gamechanger. Sen and Oates deserve credit for being brave enough to kill off Dennis Rickman, Jr, because it took guts. But what they also deserve credit for is changing up the entire format of EastEnders. Traditionally married to linear storytelling with few sound effects and nearly no incidental music, Sen and Oates have not shied away from tinkering with the format that viewers have come to know. This was evident during the festive season, which saw an episode told entirely from drunk Linda Carter’s view and the New Year’s Day episode a flashback to Christmas Day, showing events we hadn’t seen before and filling in several plot holes.

At the time, many fans were unimpressed with the changes, particularly the flashback episode and the cheesy drumbeats used throughout the Christmas Day episode (such as when Louise “feels” Keanu get shot). I was and remain one of them. The sound effects are utterly unnecessary and distracting, not just because they’re tacky but because they are not something EastEnders viewers are accustomed to, making them even more jarring and taking us out of the story. They were, mercifully, forsaken during boat week. As for the flashback episode—I’m not opposed to a flashback episode in principle, but the New Year’s episode felt utterly unnecessary, as every bit of it could have been told in a linear Christmas Day episode.

Not so with boat week. Seeing the day’s events from different characters’ perspectives was fascinating. Sticking with one family—whether the Carters, the Beales, or the Mitchells—allowed us to more fully invest in their storyline, devoting our attention entirely to those characters in that moment. In a way, it felt as though the stakes were raised because our minds weren’t constantly casting back to what was happening elsewhere on the boat. Being left entirely in the moment—such as when Mick tried in futility to rescue Linda on Monday—led to some edge-of-the-seat viewing, and the anguish of having to wait days to find out why the boat crashed and whether certain characters survived made the show unmissable. It was a brilliant choice by the production team.

Still, I wouldn’t want this sort of storytelling to become the norm. Like cumin, a little goes a long way. The same can be said for incidental music. The scene at the end of the Christmas episode, where Martin burns Keanu’s belongings as “Stay Another Day” swells to a climax, was incredibly gripping. Similarly, the montage at the end of Friday’s episode—showing the denizens of Walford coming to terms with Denny’s death—was particularly haunting. I would have used Julia’s Theme or some other version of the iconic theme tune (maybe not Pat’s Theme—the dark, melancholy version used when Pat Butcher died, but something like it), as it’s more familiar to fans and has a long legacy of being used at particularly poignant moments in the show’s history.

Even with an unfamiliar tune, though, the poignancy of those moments following the tragedy on the Thames was only increased by the music. Now, I don’t want to see EastEnders go full on American soap opera and have every scene scored, but music definitely added to the atmosphere of two of the finest moments of boat week, both in Friday’s episode—the aforementioned closing montage and the montage of the characters following their rescue from the river.

Well, almost all the characters. Poor Denny Rickman, aged only 13, did not make it off the boat alive. The decision to kill off Sharon’s only oldest son was, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, a bold one. Denny is the epitome of a legacy character, the only biological descendant of one of the show’s original and most iconic characters who was, until Friday, still on the canvas. Some fans have complained that he wasn’t a “major” character (as the producers had promised), but it’s hard to get more “major” than the son of Sharon Watts and the grandson of Den Watts.

Was it the right decision? I don’t know. On the one hand, it isn’t an obvious colossal mistake the way killing Roxy and Ronnie was in 2017. While Denny certainly rises to the level of “major” character, those fans who feel cheated are right in that he hasn’t driven any storyline or been front-and-centre, well, ever. Most of that is down to age; for a number of reasons it is hard to give child actors major storylines. I, for one, find myself mourning the Denny storylines we’ll never get. He had the makings of a proper little villain, a chip off grandpa Dirty Den’s old block. That we won’t get to see Denny (as well as actor Bleu Landau, who is one of the most compelling young actors working in British television today) grow up is a real loss for the show. There is a lot of squandered potential there.

The show seems to think it’s worth it. Scriptwriter Pete Lawson tweeted that even six years after Lucy Beale’s death, we’re still feeling the repercussions. In some ways this is true—there’s still conflict between Bobby and Ian over Lucy’s murder, and in many ways that moment in 2014 defines Bobby Beale as a character. And then, of course, there’s Peter, who only just returned and will have to deal with his own anger towards Bobby. It drove storyline for other characters, too—Max’s revenge plot, Lauren’s eventual relationship with Steven—so, I can see where the production staff would think it was a rousing success.

https://twitter.com/petelawson68/status/1231156226219745280?s=20

There is one major difference between Lucy Beale and Denny Rickman, though: Lucy wasn’t an only child. Now, I know technically Denny isn’t an only child either—he has a little brother now, born the same day he died in what must be the most soapy twist of all time—but he was the only biological grandchild of Den Watts. That made him a unicorn. Killing a unicorn is a risky move. As a writer, I don’t think I would have done it. Kate Oates herself has said that having those iconic families represented on the canvas is important, making it even more puzzling why she and Sen would greenlight the death of a character with such deep and rare connections to the show’s past. As of the time I’m writing this, I do not agree creatively with the decision to kill Denny.

That might change. Lawson is right that this has the potential to drive story for years. Phil and Ben caused the boat accident that killed Sharon’s son. Ian tried to rescue him, but Denny was only in need of rescue because Ian locked him below deck. This puts three of the longest-serving and most iconic characters right at the forefront of the show, which is exactly where they should be. There’s so much potential for compelling story. How does Sharon react to her best friend’s role in her son’s death? How does she react to her estranged husband’s role? How does Phil react when he finds out Ian locked Denny up? How does Callum react to Ben’s involvement in a boy’s death? (That is, assuming Callum survives being trapped in a skip.) And how does Ian look at Bobby now that Ian himself is wracked with guilt over his role in another’s death?

The answers to these questions will determine whether the Denny’s death was “worth it.” The one thing I’ll say is, for me, if Sharon and Phil reconcile then it absolutely was not. Nothing short of all-out war between Sharon and Phil, with Phil eventually getting his comeuppance (however that looks) will satisfy me as a viewer. Phil and Sharon have had a destructive relationship for going on 30 years, and it ultimately lead to this unspeakable tragedy. To have them reconcile now would be to not only insult Denny’s memory but to insult the viewers. It should not happen.

There’s so much more to talk about, including Sharon’s funeral home birth (who saw that coming?), Mick and Linda’s reconciliation (as of now that storyline has been tied up too easily, but I suspect it won’t be smooth sailing—no pun intended—going forward), Halfway in a skip (escaping your kidnapper only to end up in a skip is such a Halfway thing to do), Bex’s drugs (I’m glad she wasn’t the boat death for so many reasons), Bobby’s brain bleed (I hope they explore the Islamophobia storyline further, but with the attention and care it deserves), Peter’s return (blimey, he is quite the dish), and just where exactly is Patrick Trueman. For now, though, we’ll leave it here. I have a feeling we’ll be able to discuss all this next week.

Scene of the week: The aftermath of the boat crash, including the attempts to resuscitate poor Denny

Line of the week: “I played my trumpt, what do you think?” – Sonia, sarcastically explaining to Martin how she got rid of the police

Performance of the week: Kellie Bright as Linda broke my heart when she was pleading with Mick to save himself so their children would still have a parent alive

Character of the week: RIP Denny Rickman – you deserved better, even if you were a dick

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

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