Words on Walford: Week of 9 – 13 March 2020

Love in the age of coronavirus is brutal. At least, it is in Walford. This week EastEnders gave us to not one but two disastrous proposals as Lola socially distanced herself from Jay by jumping into bed with Peter and Stuart found out that Rainie did not want to self-quarantine with him in holy matrimony. Still, the good people of E20 seem utterly unbothered by the global pandemic sending the rest of us into utter panic. You know we’re living through dark times when the world seems grim compared to Albert Square, but life must carry on—as poor Sharon is struggling to realise—so let’s crack on with some Words on Walford.

Having mentioned Jay and Lola, they feel like as good a place to start as any, especially since this week felt like it centred around them. That is, in part at least, because seeing them featured so prominently is a rare treat. Jamie Borthwick has been chronically underused for years, despite being one of the most charming actors on the show and Jay being one of the most unimpeachably decent. Since her return as Lola, Danielle Harold has likewise been relegated to supporting player; at times it felt like she was only brought back so that Lexi could also return. It’s a nice change, then, to see both getting a storyline of their own.

It’s an interesting storyline, too, even if it feels a little contrived. If you had told me even a month ago that Lola would turn down a proposal from Jay I would have laughed in your face. But fear of COVID-19 and Lola’s sudden personal growth means no one is laughing now. And when I say sudden, I mean sudden. As I said, Lola has mostly been a prop since she returned, a static character meant to serve in Ben’s (and to a lesser degree Billy’s) stories rather than carry one of her own. Because of this, we haven’t seen any character development in her—whether achieved since she returned or in the four years she spent away from the Square.

It wasn’t until last week, with her conversation with Chantelle about her pregnancy, that we began to really explore who Lola is as an adult. We got more of it this week as she cried on Denise’s shoulder. Hearing Lola discuss the youth she might have enjoyed had she not had Lexi was revealing and went a long way to explaining why she is in no hurry to marry Jay and why she jumped in bed with Peter at the first opportunity. It was refreshing to hear Lola discuss how difficult being a young, single mother has been on her are and was a wonderful moment of insight into a character who, until this point, has been somewhat of an enigma since her return. Danielle Harold gave a convincing performance, really showing Lola’s doubts and insecurities and gaining our sympathy in the process—no mean feat considering she’d just cheated on the nicest boy in Walford.

I’ll be interested to see where the Jay and Lola story goes. I have high hopes that, with Peter, we could be in store for a very interesting love triangle (one I predicted last week). All three actors—Harold, Brown, and Dayle Hudson—are capable, and I can see it being very hard to decide which pairing to “ship.” I hope EastEnders continues to explore this dynamic.

The other disastrous proposal was a little more out-of-the-blue and a little more surprising. Stuart deciding at the spur of the moment to ask Rainie to marry him is a very Stuart thing to do, and Rainie publicly rejecting him is a very Rainie thing to do. I didn’t see it coming, though—either the proposal or the rejection. Stuart seems genuinely good for Rainie, who has never had anyone fight her corner the way he does. Watching the two of them crawl around on the floor of Walford East as they searched for the ring was hilarious. I just love them, and that’s all there is to say about that. I actually expected her to say yes—after some hemming and hawing—until Stuart mentioned Linda.
Honestly, Stuart should have known better. Rainie is ashamed of her past, as we saw when an old john showed up at the funeral home, but she internalises that shame and she owns it. She isn’t proud of her past, but she is proud. So, if there’s one thing Rainie Cross won’t abide it is someone sticking their nose up at her, and no one sticks their nose up better than Linda Carter. Hell, I’m surprised she doesn’t drown when it rains. Rainie giving Linda a few home truths about addiction was one of my favourite scenes so far this year, because Linda can sit on her high horse all she likes—and she really likes it—but in the end there is nothing separating her and Rainie (or Stuart or Phil). It was good to see Rainie give her what for, and good to see her get through to Linda who finally went to a meeting.

In fact, I have more hope for the Carters than I have in months. I honestly thought Linda’s drinking would be what finally tore her and Mick apart, but they seem to be getting back on a solid footing. I think I’m happy about this. For a while, I thought breaking Mick and Linda up would make for great story, but the more I think about it the more I like that there is one couple on EastEnders that always manages to make it work. While the rest of the Square is put asunder, Mick and Linda stand firm. Other than maybe Jim and Dot, I can’t think of another couple for whom that has been true.

Well, maybe Shirley and Jean. Their friendship is one of the best dynamics on the show, and watching Gillian Wright and Linda Henry is always a delight. Watching them expose Suki was exciting and vindicating. The  performances of Wright, Henry, and Balvinder Sopal were pitch perfect. I admit I’m surprised how quickly Suki’s cancer lie was exposed; I expected this storyline to drag on into the spring. One thing is clear, though: Suki Panesar is shaping up to be a great villain. Watching her manipulate her sons, even after she admitted to faking cancer, was enthralling. Sopal plays sociopathic Suki so deliciously that I always look forward to seeing her scheme. She has the making of an iconic Walford matriarch and villain, and I hope she sticks around for a long time. With this storyline resolving itself so quickly, though, I wonder where the Panesars go from here.

That is, I wonder where the Panesars go from here with one exception. It is clear Kheerat is going to play a pivotal role in the resolution of Gray and Chantelle’s domestic abuse storyline. This week he gave Chantelle a job at the call centre, but for months we’ve seen him take an interest in Chantelle, and I (and many fans) wonder if he doesn’t know, or at least suspect, that Gray is beating her behind closed doors. Mitch, too, seems to be inching closer to discovering the truth. As I’ve said before, this storyline needs to come to a head soon because there’s not much more I can take. Watching Gray abuse Chantelle is harrowing, and while Jessica Plummer and Toby-Alexander Smith continue to give it their all, it’s just very hard to watch. Seeing Chantelle try to get up off the floor at the end of Friday’s episode, while Gray was celebrated as a hero in the pub, reminded me of Trevor and Little Mo—and not necessarily in the best way.

Still, this is an important storyline. The number of British women killed by a male partner or ex-partner in the UK rose 28 per cent over the last year. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be the victim of domestic abuse in their lifetimes. Earlier this month in the House of Commons, Jess Phillips MP read out the names of more than 100 women murdered by men in the UK over the past year, something she has done in years past. I’m glad EastEnders is addressing the issue, but this storyline has been going on for the better part of a year. Gray needs to get his comeuppance soon, because it’s just very difficult viewing.

Whitney’s storyline is also difficult viewing. There isn’t a lot I want to say about it, as I’m still not a fan of this storyline (for the reasons I’ve mentioned in previous blogs), but I do want to commend Shona McGarty for an incredibly powerful performance. It isn’t easy acting by yourself, especially when you’re playing someone suffering from delusions and starvation. McGarty is absolutely nailing it, though. Every time I see Whitney my heart breaks just a little bit more. Honestly, her having a mental breakdown over the abuse she has suffered is a long time coming.

Stray observations: I am a little surprised EastEnders didn’t insert a special scene addressing coronavirus. It seems like a missed opportunity to do some public education, but looked at another way, maybe people just need an escape from the sheer terror we’re all living in so best not to mention it. A week without Ian or Kathy and only one scene with Sharon was weird but refreshing. I know I’ve said we need more Sharon, but honestly, I’m glad Jon Sen focused on some of the other characters instead of Ian. There’s more going on in Walford than Denny’s death. Jean Slater not taking her medication is not a storyline I’m looking forward to. I assume this is meant to help usher Stacey back to Walford after Lacey Turner’s maternity leave ends, but it’s so predictable and so derivative. Been there, done that. I was glad to see a small scene between Mitch and Bailey. More Kara-Leah Fernandes please. #Ballum barely featured this week and… I didn’t miss them. I’m glad Patrick is back. That scene in the Prince Albert with him, Isaac, and the other men playing air hockey reminded me of the sort of community “hang” we saw more of on the show in the 1990s, and I enjoyed it. I like it when random characters hang out. Denise playing agony aunt to Lola and Jay was a nice and natural fit for her. Denise needs a big storyline. She hasn’t had one in three years—since her GCSE/homelessness storyline.

Scene of the week: Rainie giving Linda some home truths at Walford East. Read Lady Muck for filth, Rainie!

Line of the week: “They’re called hundreds and thousands, Shirley, not ones and twos!” – Jean teaches Shirley how to properly decorate a cake

Performance of the week: Shona McGarty – she’s breaking my heart as Whitney

Character of the week: Suki Panesar – She’s a character you just love to hate. She’s made such an impact already, despite only debuting about a month ago. I cannot wait to see what trouble Suki causes in the months to come, and Sopal plays her so deliciously evil watching her is like biting into a rich and decadent Belgian chocolate—you know it’s bad for you, but it’s just so good.

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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