Words on Walford: Week of 24 – 28 February 2020

The week after an epic stunt like what I call “Boat Week” – that is, the 35th anniversary episodes – is always a bit of a comedown. It’s like getting back from a long holiday, when your mind is still firmly on the sun and sand but you’re back in your drab, fluorescently lit office. Considering this, my expectations for this past week were minimal. I wanted EastEnders to carry the plot forward while also dealing with the repercussions of the previous week’s events. Denny’s death was sure to send ripples around the Square, as was Whitney’s arrest and, to a lesser degree, Keanu’s (final) departure.

Yet throughout the four episodes following what was a successful anniversary week, I felt the show was muddled in its storytelling. Certain character arcs we would have expected to see continued screeched to a halt, while others were continued trucking along, becoming lost in the aftermath of the boat tragedy. Some weren’t even mentioned at all (where is Patrick Trueman?). Let’s look at what worked, and what didn’t.

This week was always going to be about the Beales. Ian’s guilt over Denny’s death, Peter’s return, Bobby’s recovery, and Kathy’s presence right at the centre of it all forced the family to the forefront. That’s not a bad thing—the Beales are if not the most important family in EastEnders history, certainly the show’s oldest family—and Adam Woodyatt and Gillian Taylforth rose to the occasion, giving moving, powerful performances. Watching Ian wrestle with his guilt could have been maudlin and tedious, but Woodyatt has dug beneath the material to find a pathos in Ian that is truly compelling. Meanwhile, Taylforth is excelling at the role Kathy was always destined for—put-upon matriarch trying to corral her unruly brood. The show hasn’t done enough with Kathy Beale since they resurrected her five years ago, but having Bobby, Peter, and Ben all back on the Square (where they should have been all along) has the potential to do wonders for her character and give Taylforth something to sink her teeth into.

Another standout of the week has been newcomer Dayle Hudson as Peter Beale mark seven. Leaving aside the jarring height difference between Hudson and his predecessor in the role, Hollywood hunk Ben Hardy (Hudson is seven inches taller than Hardy), he has already made the role his own. Stepping into Ben Hardy’s shoes was going to be tough considering both the stellar performance he gave during his two years on the show and his skyrocketing film career, but Hudson has done it not only ably but with gusto. His presence feels natural and familiar, and his chemistry with Woodyatt and Taylforth is palpable. I can’t wait to see what Peter gets up to next.

The same can’t be said for Whitney. A week in jail and I am already bored with this storyline. Obviously Whitney had to be arrested for killing Leo (not that she deserves it, but the story wouldn’t strain credibility if she wasn’t), so I am cutting EastEnders some slack here. This is a necessary development in an ongoing storyline. Still, it’s not one I am particularly interested in. EastEnders has a long history of sending its characters to the slammer, from the Dickens Hill storyline with Den Watts in the 1980s on up to Mick Carter’s incarceration in 2018.

The problem is I don’t think the show ever gets them right. I’m not talking about the societal commentary on the prison system or British justice—though someone more knowledgeable on the topic could no doubt write an essay on it—but simply the stories themselves. It’s always a challenge when you remove a character from the setting in which the story is overwhelmingly taking place (that is, Albert Square), as it doesn’t easily jive with the rest of the show. I care about Whitney’s plight because I care about Whitney as a character, but I haven’t found these scenes particularly interesting. Lying to Gray about Mick’s involvement, swearing she killed Leo in self-defence; it’s all a bit predictable and derivative. Procedurals like The Bill and mysteries like Broadchurch work because the entire show is based around that particular premise. Soap makes it a bit more tricky, because part of what makes soap great is characters interacting with one another. Throwing Whitney into jail removes her from that.

Like I said, though, it had to happen. I trust that Jon Sen and Kate Oates know what they’re doing and where this storyline is going, so we could end up with a riveting arc for Whitney. It’s too early to say, though these first scenes do not inspire confidence.

The Whitney saga seemed to take up most of the first couple episodes, while Sharon’s grief was relegated to B-plot. This felt like a mistake. Watching Sharon walk around in a daze felt real and hit me in the gut. When I was in high school a friend passed away in a car accident, and I remember that almost zombie-like look and demeanor in her mother. Letitia Dean nailed the way grief knocks everything out of you. Far from over-the-top melodrama, we got an understated, nuanced performance (I think I used that same phrase to describe Dean’s acting last week, but it bears repeating). The scene between Sharon and Shirley, in particular, was heart-wrenching. It was the first time we’d seen Sharon properly break down, and it was a nice scene that highlighted the shared humanity between two longtime foils, if not outright foes.

I would have liked to have seen more of Sharon’s journey, though I suspect we will be watching that unfold in the weeks to come. Denny’s funeral, in particular, will offer Dean a chance to flex her muscles. I can’t wait to see what happens as she continues to find out more about Ian’s role in Denny’s death and finally confronts Phil over the fact that his machismo and wounded pride—and not Sharon’s affair—are what ultimately lead to the loss of her son.

Sharon won’t be the only Walford woman grieving, though. Daniel’s death was not exactly a surprise—we all knew he had terminal cancer, and what that meant—but I wasn’t expecting it so soon. Ade Edmondson was a gift as Daniel Cook. His departure, though always inevitable, is nonetheless a loss for the show. Daniel’s romance with Jean is one of the great love stories in EastEnders history, a touching look at life, love, loss, and ultimately mortality. Gillian Wright gave a beautiful performance as Jean discovers Daniel’s corpse in the Square, quietly conveying the pain of a woman who knew this was going to happen but is nonetheless heartbroken.

It was a powerful and poignant moment. I wish the show had waited a little longer for it, though—not because I wanted to see more of Edmondson’s performance (well, not only because of that), but because Jean’s and Daniel’s final moments seemed to get swallowed up in the aftermath of the boat tragedy. DigitalSpy pointed out that Jean didn’t even get the duff duff for Daniel’s death, which shows just how overwhelmed this scene was by events elsewhere in Walford.

Another storyline that seems to be swallowed up by events, not just this week but generally, is Keegan’s continued harassment by the police. I understand from spoilers that we’ll be revisiting that soon, but it’s worth pointing out that since their elopement back in the autumn, neither Keegan nor Tiffany have had much screen time. This is a shame, because Zack Morris and Maisie Smith are two of the brightest young stars on the show, and they are endlessly delightful to watch, as evidenced by the “wedding-ring-in-a-cupcake” scenes this week. It was a welcome point of levity in an otherwise bleak and depressing episode, and Morris and Smith played it with such charm and warmth. I hope to see more of them.

On the other hand, I hope to see less of Ben and Callum. I have never exactly warmed to #Ballum the way many other fans have, finding their entire relationship to be both contrived and toxic. This push-and-pull between them, with Ben blowing hot or cold depending on the day, is exhausting and uninteresting. No one seriously thought Ben wouldn’t find Callum, and their interactions afterwards felt more like bad fan fiction than it did good soap. Callum tracing “I ❤ you” on Ben’s back was cute, but them jumping in the sack five minutes after Callum has been rescued from spending days in a skip rang untrue and felt as though it was written to please horny #Ballum fans rather than stay true to the characters and ground the show in reality. Fans love #Ballum, though, so clearly I’m missing something. I fully admit that. I just wish I knew what it was.

I do want to commend EastEnders for tackling a storyline about deafness and for casting a deaf actress as a deaf character (to be debuting soon). Disability isn’t often addressed on soap, so it will be interesting to see how the show handles this and whether Ben’s hearing loss is permanent or temporary. The sound effects really show how Ben is hearing the world and the extent of the damage done on the boat. This has the potential to be an informative, issue-based storyline. I hope the show does it justice. I suspect it will.

A few more stray observations before we go. Where is Linda? We saw her in Monday’s episode, but if I recall that was it. Her alcoholism was such a big part of Boat Week that it seems odd we wouldn’t be dealing with the aftermath of her decision to get sober. I’m sure that’s coming, but her absence glaring. I also would have liked to have seen a scene or two between Iqra, Habiba, and Bobby. It got mentioned that the Ahmed sisters were visiting him in hospital, but their friendship is so sweet it felt like a missed opportunity. Ricky Champ gave a comedic turn as Stuart Highway, and I couldn’t help but to laugh as he mimed whilst trying to communicate with Ben. Karen naming the baby Kayden was nice, and as many pointed out it has “Den” in it. Overall, though, I felt Karen was all too nonchalant about Keanu’s exit again. Perhaps she had come to terms with it, having said goodbye to him in early January, but it still felt like the show was happy to move on as though he never existed. Also, can we please get Bernadette a storyline? Ruby Allen, too. Louisa Lytton is too talented to be relegated to the role of a speaking extra. I didn’t mention this earlier, but yay, Jean is cancer free!

Scene of the week: Jean going to get them each a cocoa only to come back and find Daniel dead will stick with me for a long time.

Line of the week: “Apart from when Bobby nearly set the house on fire or the other day when Uncle Ian threw him out.” Lexi dropping truth bomb after truth bomb on Peter, dispelling Kathy’s notion that the Beales are on solid ground, was hilarious. Isabella Brown is adorable, and I hope she sticks around for a very long time.

Performance of the week: Letitia Dean. It could be no other. Every time she was onscreen my heart broke for Sharon.

Character of the week: Keegan Baker, if only because he had me howling with laughter and he got his kit off.

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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