Words on Walford: Week of 2 – 6 March 2020

Farewell, Bex. The departure of Jasmine Armfield as Martin and Sonia’s daughter is the biggest development on EastEnders this week, though it is hardly the most interesting. That kind of sums up the character of Bex, though. When you think about it, she has been through a lot over the past few years—being bullied, having her boyfriend sleep with her aunt, a suicide attempt—but every storyline the writers gave her withered on the vine. That’s a shame, because Armfield is a capable actress and Bex could have been an interesting character. Instead, she was the perennial damp squib, her storylines never really climaxing into anything interesting.

The writers never seemed invested in her character, using her mostly as a plot point for other characters. I mentioned the bullying storyline, which came to a climax with Louise’s burns. The Preston storyline was always about Michelle, not Bex. The best (by which I mean worst) example, though, is Bex’s suicide attempt, which had the potential to be a compelling, issue-based storyline but instead was used to further Martin’s and Sonia’s plot. Despite being the one who tried to take her own life, Bex factored little into her suicide storyline.

Because of this, I doubt fans really notice Bex’s absence. I don’t know why Armfield left, but I can’t blame her. She never got the material she deserved. I’m glad they didn’t kill Bex off, though. The door is left open for her return, and maybe in a few years’ time the character can come back to Walford (whether played by Armfield or a recast) and make a bigger impression—one due a legacy character like Rebecca Fowler.

Speaking of legacy characters, let’s talk about Denny Rickman. It’s been two weeks since he drowned on the boat, yet it feels as though he has already been forgotten. Sharon is still grieving, and we got a few very good scenes played by Letitia Dean. Just, not enough. So far Denny’s death has been more about Ian’s guilt and now Dotty’s blackmail. It’s frustrating, because the death of a legacy character like Denny ought to at the very least put Sharon—one of the most iconic characters in the show’s history—front and centre. Maybe it will as we near the funeral, but until then I’m left wondering why we’re not exploring Sharon’s grief over the loss of her son and her relationship with her newborn son more. Instead, Denny’s death has been made about Ian sodding Beale.

Part of this is, no doubt, that Phil Mitchell isn’t around. I’m not sure if Steve McFadden is on holiday or what, but Phil’s absence in the aftermath of the boat crash is jarring. He caused the accident which killed Denny, yet he’s nowhere to be found. I’m certain we’ll get the payoff we’re all waiting for when McFadden returns to our screens, but in the meantime we’re left with no real resolution—to the boat sinking, yes, but also to the Sheanu affair, which is the storyline that just won’t end.

Even Ben, who played a massive role in Denny’s death, isn’t really grappling with that thanks to his hearing loss. It’s an important storyline and I’m glad EastEnders is exploring it, but I would like to see some acknowledgement from Ben that his stepbrother is dead because of his actions. Ben can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time, and the writers ought to be able to as well. The announcement that Paul Usher is returning as gangster Danny Hardcastle doesn’t inspire confidence, though. The last thing Ben needs is another gangster storyline, but Kate Oates and Jon Sen just can’t help themselves.

That’s a shame, because pulling Ben out of the thug life and into family life could make for some amazing stories. Some of the best scenes this week were between Ben, Jay, Lola, and Lexi. Seeing the four of them, with Callum, at the end of Friday’s episode was sweet. I want to see more of it. It’s an interesting family dynamic—mum and boyfriend, dad and boyfriend, all living in harmony and raising little Lexi. I want to see the show explore it further.

We might get that now that Jay and Lola seem to finally be getting a storyline of their own. Lola’s pregnancy wasn’t exactly shocking to anyone but her. Lola’s decision to terminate it, though, was. We didn’t get as much of Jay and Lola as I would have liked this week, but Lola’s uncertainty about starting a family with Jay so soon was an interesting development.

The couple has long been written as endgame, and the writers wasted no time splitting up Jay and Ruby to get them back together. Listening to Lola talk to Chantelle about her pregnancy, though, I was struck that she said she “likes him a lot.” She didn’t say she loved Jay, just that she likes him. Later, when talking to Jay, Lola said they hadn’t been together that long. And it’s true, they haven’t. But it’s hardly like they just met. There’s a lot of history there, so the words Lola chose are perhaps telling. I don’t think she’s as invested in this relationship as Jay is.

Which brings me to Peter. Lauren and Peter had so much drama it’s easy to forget that Lola and Peter have a history together, too. Yet the writers made a point of acknowledging that the week before last. Could they be gearing up for a Peter/Lola/Jay love triangle? It has occurred to me that could be where this is heading, though it’s just idle speculation. (I’m interested to hear what you think—chime in in the comments below.)

It’s understandable that Jay wants a child, though. To start, he loves Lola. But beyond that, Jay has never really had a family of his own. He has the Mitchells, who have mostly been good to him (not always, but mostly), but Jay is the epitome of the poor little orphan boy. It often shows in the stories he gets—or more accurately, doesn’t get—so no doubt the chance to start a family of his own is incredibly exciting. Jay might not have even realised he wanted it, but now that he has I doubt he lets it go. For someone who has never had a family, the chance at one will be strong.

That being said, Lola’s reasons for not wanting a baby are valid. Ben’s struggling, and whether it’s fair or not for Jay to accuse her of putting Ben before him, it’s at least understandable. Ben is the father of her child. Lexi nearly got ran over by a car because of Ben’s inability to hear. Putting Ben first is, in a way, putting Lexi first, which is exactly what a good parent should do.

The question of what makes a good parent is one no doubt troubling Mitch Baker. Once again the most impressive scenes of the week involved Mitch and Keegan. Keegan’s arrest and his frustration over his long wait at the hospital was tough to watch, especially considering Keegan was very clearly being racially profiled in the former. The latter is harder to say—it was clever to have a Black nurse be the one to routinely tell Keegan he had to wait to be seen by a doctor, and to be fair it’s understandable for an A&E to take more critical cases first.

What is also understandable, though, is Keegan’s frustration in that moment. For weeks we’ve seen Keegan being racially profiled and harassed, so it’s not surprising he felt—rightly or wrongly—that it was happening again at hospital. Zack Morris is one of my favourite actors currently on EastEnders, and I’m glad to see him getting another hard-hitting storyline. I was worried that the show wouldn’t do this storyline justice, but after this week I’m hopeful they will. I’m so glad, because as I’ve said before, this is an important storyline that has the potential to change the public perception of racism and policing, which at is best is what EastEnders does.

While we’re talking about race and the Taylor family, let’s talk about Chantelle and Gray Atkins. Feeling the pressure at work, Gray began spiraling out of control (again) this week. We saw him nearly attack Chantelle on Monday, but it was his scenes with his boss which gave us the most insight into Gray’s mind and motivation. A mate of mine texted me, pointing out that the fact that it was a Black woman who was piling on the pressure at work might speak to why Gray treats Chantelle the way he does—that is, he abuses his Black wife because of his anger at his Black boss. I’m sure my mate would agree it’s more complicated than that (abuse always is), but it does introduce an interesting point: what role does race play in the way Gray treats Chantelle, his boss, and others? Chantelle’s and Gray’s domestic violence storyline has, without even trying, explored the power dynamics between men and women, but Chantelle is Black and Gray is white, so there’s another power dynamic in their relationship, too. How does that influence how Gray sees his wife?

I’ll be interested to see how this plays out, especially as the show continues to subtly explore the dynamics of race in Keegan’s marriage to Tiffany, who very clearly does not understand what it is like to be a Black man in modern Britain. Again, this is just speculation, so it may be that race is never addressed when it comes to Gray and Chantelle. But if you want to explore race in modern Britain, the Taylors are the perfect family to do it. Despite having two mixed-race children, Karen Taylor has already shown she can be racist (remember her sparring with Masood over the launderette?). If this is the direction EastEnders is taking this, it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

One thing is for certain, though: Gray needs to get his comeuppance soon. This abuse storyline has been going on since last summer, and it’s very disturbing to watch. I appreciate that the show is trying to raise awareness of an important issue, and I think they’ve done it well so far. I just don’t know how much more of Gray attacking Chantelle I can handle watching. It’s difficult viewing.

A few more stray observations: Milly Zero is a diamond and I’m so glad she’s there. I’m not just saying that because she followed me on Twitter, either. Her scenes with Ian and Peter were riveting. Jean’s farewell to Daniel was touching and comical; Mo falling into the hole was incredibly fitting. I loved the scenes between Gillian Wright and Linda Henry this week. Jean and Shirley have such a lovely friendship, and I’m glad the show is exploring it again. I can’t wait for Jean to confront Suki over her cancer lie, as it’s clear Jean knows she’s faking. Whitney’s storyline is still boring me. I want to care, but I just don’t. If Kush only got community service for his GBH charge, why didn’t he just plead guilty to begin with? Where the hell is Ruby Allen? Seriously, I’m so annoyed at how the show is wasting Louisa Lytton.

Scene of the week: Jean, Suki, Shirley, and Mo burying Daniel’s ashes in the Square. When Jean threw Daniel onto the other three I SCREAMED! Comedy at its best.

Line of the week: “Why are you so surprised, Dad? It’s just the way it is!” – Keegan throwing Mitch’s words back in his face was chilling.

Performance of the week: Toby-Alexander Smith. Gray is an abusive bastard, but somehow Smith finds a way to make him almost sympathetic at times. Seeing him struggle with the pressures of work (and the expectations of the community) was fascinating. A very nuanced performance by Smith, who conveyed both the insecurity and pressure Gray feels with the rage bubbling just under the surface.

Character of the week: Jay Brown and Lola Pearce – I can’t pick just one, because both really shined this week.

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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