Has the pandemic changed the way anyone else watches EastEnders? I used to watch every night, but lately I’ve been saving up four episodes (or what would be a week’s worth in normal times) and binging them at the weekend. In some ways this is nice—Friday night was spent in Walford, for example, and I made an event of it—but then I go two weeks without seeing my favourite show and dodging spoilers, which isn’t easy given how many EastEnders stars and fans I follow on social media.
I touched on the decision to move to two episodes a week in my last blog but didn’t discuss it in depth because I didn’t see much point. I still don’t—the producers were left with an impossible choice and are making the best of a bad situation, which I respect—but I do wonder how this change will affect future viewing habits. I don’t know if I’ll go back to watching every night or if I’ll continue to binge at the weekend. It might not matter; iPlayer has already revolutionised how we watch tv. Then, it might: will people used to getting only two episodes a week go back to demanding four? After all, our attention spans are getting shorter, not longer. Might two episodes a week be all people want to commit to once our hectic lives resume?
This was certainly seen as a justification for cancelling my favourite American soap opera, All My Children, back in 2011. Executives at ABC didn’t feel people wanted an hour-long drama five days a week anymore. Of course, British soaps are a different beast in so many ways so the analogy is far from perfect, and I don’t think any of the British soaps are in any danger of being cancelled. This is all idle speculation on my part. Still, if and how the pandemic changes our viewing habits will be interesting to see going forward.
Until then, there’s still a lot to unpack from the last fortnight in Albert Square.
From the moment Iqra convinced Ash to go to Vinny’s party, I knew it would be trouble. Nothing good comes from convincing your partner to go to a party they don’t want to attend, especially when it is thrown by a family member. It’s like Iqra has learned nothing from her year in Albert Square.
That party was very confusing to me. At first, I thought it was just a way for Vinny to show Ruby his sick beats. Turns out there were drugs there, though I’m still not entirely sure I understand why. Was Vinny selling the drugs? Were people just doing drugs (as they’re wont to do at a party/rave)? What was Dotty’s role in all this? I freely admit it might just be me who missed these things—the flashing lights and loud music made it difficult for me to follow what was happening, just as it would have in real life (I’m not a nightclub kind of guy). Still, I was left with more questions than answers.
Still, a couple things were clear to me—both regarding the Panesars. One is, as has been hinted before, this is not a family to mess with. So much has happened since last autumn that it’s easy to forget the Panesar brothers first came on the scene by kidnapping Lola in revenge for Ben stealing Kheerat’s car. This is a family of violent gangsters on par with the Mitchells. Now we know they also do, or sell, drugs (again, unclear on what was happening there). We know that they don’t keep this a secret, that it’s a family operation which even Ash was, if not involved with, okay with—she lied to the police and paid off the homophobic guy Vinny (understandably, if not rightfully) beat up with aplomb. I mean, in those moments I saw in Ash Panesar everything Louise Mitchell wishes she was.
So did Iqra, and that is bound to cause problems for the couple going forward. While their row over Ash’s behaviour was resolved with “I love you” this week, it’s clear that the Panesars and their seedy dealings are going to continue to drive a wedge between the couple. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—soap is nothing without conflict—but it does raise some questions in my mind, specifically regarding Ash. It made no sense to me that Ash would suddenly act like a stone-cold thug when that is not what we’ve seen before, and it made even less sense to me that she would subsequently warn Iqra not to make her choose between her and her family. This is a woman who spent years avoiding her family, to the point or changing her name—have they ever addressed why she was Ash Kaur, now Ash Panesar?)—so I felt like I got whiplash watching how quickly her personality changed. Was it the booze? Is something else going on with Ash? I hope the show explains this change soon.
Still, I’m glad to see Iqra and Ash getting screen time. They’re one of my favourite couples, and both Priya Davdra and Gurlaine Kaur Garcha are capable actresses and just a delight to watch. More of them, please.
The other big development to come from this party was Keegan’s arrest. After months of issues with racist coppers, his storyline has finally reached a rapid boil with his arrest in the melee outside. I’ve been very glad to see EastEnders tackling this storyline, and I think they’re handling it very well. Keegan is one of the most interesting characters of the past decade, and Zack Morris is such a talented young actor. I love seeing him front-and-centre where he belongs.
There’s a lot to unpack here, though, and frankly I could write an entire entry on Keegan. So, let’s start with the smallest. That near-riot outside the party escalated very quickly and was very clearly just a plot device to get Keegan arrested. That the police were called I understand—Ruby warned Vinny that Marsha (whom I have never heard of before now but want to know everything about) would call them—but that instead of dispersing the crowd threw bricks at them I don’t get.
Still, as a plot device it worked, and Keegan was arrested for something he didn’t do. Perhaps coincidentally, this all happened because of a party thrown by Vinny, who was the first character to mention to Keegan that the cops were targeting him because of his race. That is clearly what is happening here, even if the police officers themselves don’t seem to think so.
Too often we think of racism as only being outward projections of hate—burning crosses, racial epithets, violent hate crimes, overt discrimination—when in reality it is much deeper and more pernicious. People can be racist in little ways, ways they might not even be aware of. Ever cross the street when you see a Black person walking? Ever make an assumption about someone’s intelligence or education because their name or accent sounds “Black?” Ever hear about a violent crime and assume the perpetrator must be BME? These are just a few examples of subconscious prejudice. We live in a society which teaches us that Black people are danger, or less intelligent, or more prone to violent crime, and even if we don’t want to we internalise those messages.
Denise Fox understands this, which is why she was more sympathetic to Keegan than Jack. It is important that Denise is the one siding with Keegan here, too, because Denise has never been one to let Keegan’s shitty behaviour pass without comment. Keep in mind that in their first meeting Denise slapped Keegan for being a disrespectful brat. Denise now being one of Keegan’s allies—and, I suspect we’ll see, his fiercest—is telling. She understands what he’s going through better than almost anyone else in Walford. She also has, in the eyes of both the audience and her neighbours, moral authority. Denise is unflinchingly fair, so if she says “nah, this is some racist bullshit,” it carries an added weight. I’m not saying it should be this way, mind you; Keegan saying “this is racist” ought to have been enough.
No one wants to admit they might be even a little bit racist, though. Zack Morris himself tweeted earlier this month that “[t]this storyline isn’t about ‘racist police.’ [I]t’s about the unconscious bias that is imbedded within society when it comes to black people.” He’s right, and I think the story is even more interesting and relevant because they are tackling these subconscious biases. It would have been so easy to make these police officers foaming-at-the-mouth racists, but by bringing Jack Branning into it, we’re meant to see how even people we think of as “good guys” can have subconscious prejudice.
Full disclosure: I’ve never liked Jack Branning, even as I love Scott Maslen and the way he plays the role. He’s smug and self-righteous. But most viewers think of him as a “good guy.” His unwillingness to believe Keegan, then, indicates to the audience that even those of us who see ourselves as decent, non-racist people can, in fact, be unaware of our own racial biases. I am very excited to see how this storyline plays out over the coming weeks, especially as Keegan and Denise deal with their white partners’ inability to see their point-of-view, and I continue to commend EastEnders for tackling this important topic with sensitivity and nuance.
This feels like a good place to leave off, even though there is so much else to discuss. I’ll put some of it in my stray observations section, but most of them could do with much more analysis. There was just so much happening in the last fortnight, it is hard to narrow down what to write about in detail. The past four episodes are the best since the 35th anniversary, and everyone at EastEnders should be very proud of the work they’re doing. The show is in rare form, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.
Stray observations: I got a distinct 90s feel from these episodes, with the way that they went from one conversation to another in the Square and the market. I liked it. I really like the sense of community which has returned to the show. Chantelle’s scene with Kheerat in the caff felt forced. I know they’re going to end up having an affair, but I’m not yet convinced. Mikayla coming back was random enough, but for her to now be so upset about the son who tried to kill her (and who she said she never wanted to see again) feels like a heel-turn. She’s Leo’s mum, so I guess no matter what he did she would be sad he died, but Christ alive, this feels contrived. I also feel like Gray and Whitney are destined for an affair. It’s going to happen. Ugh, Whit really does have the worst taste in men. “Ugh, like at what point does Whit decide to become a nun or a political lesbian?” is literally a line from my notes. MORE RUBY PLEASE. Louisa Lytton is so sorely underused. Tiff getting the ring Keanu gave to Louise seems like a bad omen. Tommy’s dyslexia storyline will be interesting, and Davood Ghadami was very good in his scenes with Shay Crotty. Glad Sharon’s going away to see Michelle; her and Phil should not get back together. Where the hell was Bernie in all the Keegan drama? Tiff could have used her best friend and Keegan could have used his sister. Honestly, they need to use Clair Norris a lot more than they do. I feel like Oates and Sen just don’t know what to do with Bernadette, but I love Bernie and want more of her. Did anybody else notice the cups from the caff got a jaunty redesign? Love the Rainie and Stuart scenes. They’re so good together. Ricky Champ and Tanya Franks are so charming and imbue such humanity into two broken characters. It’s a pleasure to see them act together. Jean thinking Daniel was in the box had me howling with laughter!
Scene of the fortnight: Rainie asking Max for a divorce and not knowing Ruby’s name. I know I didn’t talk much about Rainie and Stuart, but they really were a highlight of the week.
Line of the fortnight: “I only blow on my husband’s dice.” – CHANTELLE!
Performance of the fortnight: Zack Morris as Keegan Baker. Just absolutely broke my heart. I love both Zack Morris as an actor and Keegan Baker as a character so, so much.
Character of the fortnight: Ash Kaur Panesar. She really surprised me this week and is clearly more complex (and messed up) than any of us realised. I’m looking forward to learning more about Ash and her crazy family.
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