Category Archives: pop culture

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

 

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

The 35 most compelling characters in EastEnders history

As EastEnders celebrates its 35th anniversary, I thought it would be fun to look back at 35 of its most compelling characters. These characters helped shape the course of the show’s history, providing some of the most interesting, timely, and memorable storylines. Some of them were on our screens for years, others for a very short time. Regardless, they made a mark, telling stories that riveted us, moved us, or even made us think.

These are the 35 most compelling characters in EastEnders history.

35. Bobby Beale (2003 – 2016; 2019 – present)
Best known for killing his sister, Lucy, when he was only 11-years-old, Bobby Beale returned to Walford after being locked up for the crime. Since then, Clay Milner Russell has brilliantly portrayed the pathos and conflict of a still-young boy grappling to come to terms with what he did. Rather than going the easy route and making Bobby a cartoon villain, the writers and Milner Russell have created a character who is sensitive, kind, yet tortured by what he did and still wrestling with the temper which drove him to do it. Throw in his conversion to Islam—a brilliant storyline and character development—and Bobby has easily been the most fascinating character of the past year.

34. Debbie Wilkins (1985 – 1987)
Debbie Wilkins was Walford’s first snob. Upwardly mobile, she and her boyfriend, fellow Yuppie Andy O’Brien, moved to Albert Square in March 1985. “Debs” and Andy set the standard for class conflict in Walford and blazed a trail for later characters, right on up to Gray and Chantelle Atkins today. It’s Debbie’s character growth, though, that really sets her apart—beneath that cold exterior was a warm, compassionate heart. Her friendship with Naima Jeffery was a highlight of her time on the Square, but it’s the episode where she finds out Andy has been killed that actress Shirley Cheriton really shines.

33. Mary “The Punk” Smith (1985 – 1988; 2019)
Like Debs, Mary is one of the original characters created by Julia Smith and Tony Holland. Walford’s original rebel, Mary arrived in March 1985 as an unwed, illiterate teenage mum. Her time in Albert Square was marked with trouble, including being bedded by Mehmet Osman on a dare only to be later pimped out by him when she was on the game with Pat Wicks. Mary’s friendship with pensioner Dot Cotton was a highlight of her time on the show, but it was Linda Davidson’s portrayal of Mary—as a scared, struggling young woman trying to make a life for her and her daughter—that makes her stand out. Mary returned in 2019 for the funeral of fellow original EastEnder Dr Legg. The punk was gone, but the spunk was not.

32. Joe Wicks (1996 – 1997)
It’s a shame Paul Nicholls didn’t stick around EastEnders for more than 18 months, because Joe Wicks had the potential to become one of the all-time great characters. The show handled his schizophrenia with compassion and aplomb, setting the standard for an even deeper look at mental illness with Stacey Slater. Joe’s relationship with Sarah kept fans interested—that is, until he slept with his cousin—but it’s how deftly Nicholls and the writers and producers handled mental illness which makes Joe memorable all these years later.

31. Martin Fowler (1985 – 2007; 2014 – present)
The first baby born on EastEnders, viewers have literally watched Martin grow up. An arrogant, stubborn boy as a teenager (wonder where he got that from, Pauline?), Martin started out as someone you just wanted to slap. Becoming a father with fellow teen Sonia Jackson helped grow him up a little, and as time progressed Martin (then played by James Alexandrou) became less a caricature of your typical teenage jackass and more like his father—a decent, ordinary man just trying to make ends meet for his family. Since his return in 2014 (now played by James Bye), Martin’s friendship with ex-wife Sonia and devotion to current wife Stacey have made him one of my personal favourites. Even his recent turn as a mobster for the Mitchells has been an interesting development that, nonetheless, is still very much in character for someone who tries to do the right thing but, deep down, is a bit of an arsehole—just like his mum.

30. Aidan Brosnan (1993)
Before there was Joe Wicks, there was Aidan Brosnan. Mandy Salter’s Irish boyfriend, Aidan spent less than a year in Walford yet had one of the most interesting journeys any character has taken. Originally a talented footballer with Walford FC, an injury ended his dreams. Getting involved in drugs and drink with Mandy, Aidan’s mental health slowly deteriorated as he found himself sleeping rough and grappling with the pressures his parents put upon him. It all culminated with Aidan preparing to take his own life on Christmas Day, only to be literally talked down from a ledge by Mandy. Aidan went back to Ireland, but the layered, moving performance of Sean Maguire stands out as one of the show’s greatest.

29. Keegan Butcher-Baker (2017 – present)
From his initial introduction as one of Bex’s bullies (who can forget Louise Mitchell calling him a “total toenail” or Denise Fox slapping him silly?), Keegan has grown into a fascinating and complex character. Indeed, Keegan Butcher-Baker might be the most interesting character in Walford right now. Watching him deal with the murder of his best friend Shakil—a storyline in which EastEnders deftly took on knife crime and forced Keegan to reckon with his own role in Shakil’s death—was gripping. Even his love story with Tiffany Butcher is infinitely watchable. I can’t wait to see how Keegan develops over the coming years. If his latest storyline—about the racism of stop-and-search and only just beginning—is any indication, he will continue to be one of the most enthralling characters on the show.

28. Shirley Carter (2006 – present)
Shirley should be higher on this list and the only reason she isn’t is because producers woefully underuse the talented Linda Henry. Still, tough-as-nails Shirley steals every scene she’s in. Equally adept at comedy (pretty much any scene with her and dearly departed best friend Heather) and drama (she’s knocked it out of the park with Linda’s alcoholism storyline), Henry sinks her teeth into whatever she is given. Shirley has come a long way since we first met her, when she was but the deadbeat mum of Dean and Carly, and it’s hard to imagine Walford without her.

27. Billy Mitchell (1998 – present)
When first introduced, Billy Mitchell was the guardian of his nephew, Jamie Mitchell. Since then, we’ve seen Billy transform from child abuser (he was beating Jamie) to dopey everyman. Indeed, that journey from villain to well, not hero, exactly, but at least a lovable oaf has been fascinating to watch. Whether falling in love with Little Mo Slater, struggling as a single father when Honey left him (the first time), or dealing with the guilt of cheating on Honey with Tina Carter, Perry Fenwick has created one of the most complex—or at least, certainly one of the most tenured—characters in EastEnders history. It’s no surprise, then, that Billy was chosen to run the Olympic torch through Walford in 2012.

26. Michelle Fowler (1985 – 1995; 2016 – 2018)
It’s hard to think of a character who has had more of a journey than Michelle Fowler. Starting out as a teenager pregnant with her best friend’s father’s baby, Michelle refused to be defined by it. She worked her way through university, becoming a teacher and moving to America. In the meantime, she fell in love (memorably with Grant Mitchell) and stood by her brother Mark through his HIV diagnoses. The character of Michelle stands out as an example of why soap opera is such a great medium—the longevity of the show means that you can really tell a complex, character-driven narrative. She epitomises everything that is good about soap. Her return to Walford (with another actress in the role) was not well-received by fans, but personally I found her relationship with Preston Cooper—the American high school student she’d seduced—as compelling as it was repulsive.

25. Whitney Dean (2008 – present)
Has there every been a character with worse luck than Whitney Dean? I’m trying to think of a time when Whitney got a happy ending and I can’t. Shona McGarty shines as the eternally put-upon ward of Bianca Jackson, and her potential was immediately apparent in her first big storyline—in which Whitney was groomed and molested by Bianca’s fiancé, Tony King—which still ranks as one of the best in EastEnders history. From her relationship with Lee Carter to discovering Callum Highway was gay right before she was to marry him on up to her terrifying scenes with stalker Leo King (son of the man who molested her), for twelve years we’ve watched Whitney battle against the odds in a quest to just be happy. I hope we get to watch her for another twelve.

24. Zainab Masood (2008 – 2013)
I love Nina Wadia. I love Zainab Masood. I really love Nina Wadia as Zainab Masood. To me, Zainab is one of the great matriarchs in Walford history—a Pauline Fowler for our times. Watching her marriage to Masood disintegrate and then watching with horror as she was abused by evil Yusef was heartbreaking. Wadia always brought a humanity to Zainab so that even when you weren’t rooting for her—such as when she reacted horribly to her son Syed coming out—you could sympathise with her. Watching Zainab reconcile her belief in the way her life and family should be with how both turned out was endlessly fascinating, and Wadia really brought to life a complex, nuanced, modern Muslim British woman.

23. Sonia Jackson (1993 – 2007; 2010 – 2011; 2014 – present)
Like her ex-husband/current paramour Martin Fowler, Sonia is a character we’ve watched grow up. Unlike Martin, Sonia has been played by the same actress (Natalie Cassidy) since her inception. Watching Sonia grow from insecure little girl to independent woman has been a real treat, and Cassidy has given us plenty of memorable scenes along the way, from busking with her trumpet to giving birth to Bex to pushing Sharon in a pool. Watching Sonia balance her nursing career with the demands of family has been endlessly interesting, especially early on when it caused tensions with her and Pauline. One of only a handful of bisexual characters on British soap, Sonia’s relationships with Tina Carter and Naomi Julien were fun to watch. It is her teenage romance with Jamie Mitchell, though, that remains one of the sweetest and most tragic couplings in the show’s history.

22. Ronnie Mitchell (2007 – 2011; 2013 – 2017)
You could write an entire essay on why Ronnie Mitchell is one of the greatest characters in EastEnders history. Her push-and-pull romance with Jack Branning was popular, but it is her relationships with the other women on the square that makes Ronnie so compelling. With sister Roxy—the fire to Ronnie’s ice—Ronnie formed half of one of the show’s most iconic duos. The scene where she discovers Danielle is her daughter, only for Danielle to die moments later, will never not make me cry. Watching her grief and guilt after giving Tommy back to Kat at the end of the baby-swap storyline is heartbreaking. What makes Ronnie truly iconic, though, is that even though we root for her she is, in the end, a Mitchell. Whether killing Carl White or sending Fatboy to be crushed to death, Ronnie proved she was every bit as stone cold as cousins Phil and Grant.

21. Ricky Butcher (1988 – 2000; 2002 – 2004; 2008 – 2012)
I’m not sure there has ever been a more decent man in Walford than Ricky Butcher. From eloping with Sam Mitchell to his unexpected friendship with her brother Phil—who was in many ways as much a father figure to Ricky as his own dad Frank—Ricky grew from awkwardly charming teenage boy to a good man who always tried his best. His relationships with father Frank and sister Janine were complicated and fascinating to watch, but his romance with Bianca Jackson is the stuff of legend, forming half of one of the most iconic couples in the show’s history. Fans spent years rooting for those two crazy kids, only to be left heartbroken when in the end they just couldn’t make it work.

20. Denise Fox (2006 – present)
I love Denise. I love her because she’s level-headed (a rarity in Walford). I love her because she’s loyal and protective of her loved ones. I love her because she’s always on a mission to do better, to be better. Sure, she’s sometimes a stick in the mud, and yes, she moans a lot. But if you lived in Albert Square you’d moan a lot too; the neighbours are bonkers. Denise has grown so much from her early days as Chelsea’s fussy mum. Whether her heartbreaking goodbye to dead husband Kevin Wicks, or being kidnapped by her next husband Lucas Johnson, or grappling with whether to give her late-in-life son up for adoption or struggling with homelessness and completing her GCSE at 50, Denise has held our attention for 14 years. This is in no small part thanks to the tender and thoughtful performance of Diane Parish, who along with Linda Henry remains one of the most sorely underutilised actors on the show today.

19. Angie Watts (1985 – 1988)
Angie was a hot mess and we loved her for it. Walford’s original drunken landlady, Angie was a spitfire. With Den Watts she formed one-half of Walford’s most popular 1980s couple, and the sparring between Anita Dobson and Leslie Grantham was impossible not to watch. Watching as poor ole’ Ange tried to reconcile her life as it was with the life she thought she deserved was riveting, and we were always left wondering just what she would do next. Faking cancer to keep Den around is still one of the most conniving things we’ve seen in Walford—and their confrontation on Christmas Day 1986 remains one of the show’s most iconic moments.

18. Max Branning (2006 – present)
The frustrating thing about Max Branning is that you know that deep down he’s a decent man. You see it in the way he forgives and supports Bobby—despite Max being framed for Bobby’s crime—and the way he tries to support the people around him. The problem with Max is that, too often, he listens to the devil on his shoulder. His affair with daughter-in-law Stacey remains one of the most memorable in the show’s history and watching his complicated relationship with daughters Lauren and Abi evolve over the years made for some great television. What makes Max truly compelling is the constant internal struggle between good and evil which is happening just below the surface, a pathos brilliantly portrayed by Jake Wood.

17. Frank Butcher (1987 – 2000; 2002; 2005)
Mike Reid is one of the greatest actors to ever appear in EastEnders, and Frank Butcher is one of the most iconic characters in soap opera history. Walford’s original wide boy, viewers couldn’t wait to see what kind of scheme Frank cooked up next. His love triangle with Pat and Peggy was endlessly fun to watch play out (who can forget Frank’s bowtie!), but Reid was just as adept at drama as he was comedy. His performance following the fire at the car lot, which unintentionally killed a man, is still one of the most moving I have ever seen as Reid adeptly conveyed the anguish and guilt Frank felt.

16. Bianca Jackson (1993 – 1999; 2008 – 2014; 2019)
One of my favourite moments in EastEnders history is when David tries to teach Bianca to drive. It’s such a simple, everyday thing—but Patsy Palmer is hilarious. It’s down to her that Bianca is one of the all-time Walford greats. Whether making us laugh with witty one-liners or breaking our hearts with moving performances, Palmer created a fully-realised character. Bianca’s heart is usually in the right place, even if more often than not she makes the obviously wrong choice. Her heart is always in the right place, though, and because of that you can’t help but love her.

15. Grant Mitchell (1990 – 1999; 2005 – 2006; 2016)
Is Grant a hero or a villain? I’d say the latter, but many would argue the former. Either way, watching his growth over nine years on the show—and two short stints in subsequent years—makes him one of the most fascinating figures in Walford history. Originally hot-tempered and bull-headed, Grant mellowed as time progressed, no doubt in part because of his heartbreak over wife Sharon sleeping with his brother Phil. Still, you can’t watch Ross Kemp’s performance and not feel just a little bad for Grant, as it’s clear underneath the gruff machismo that he’s a sensitive, wounded man. It’s this complexity that makes Grant such a great character.

14. Stacey Slater (2004 – 2010; 2014 – present)
Few could have expected that Stacey would become one of the most iconic characters in EastEnders history when Lacey Turner arrived on screens in 2004. A plucky teenager turning to her great uncle, Charlie Slater, for help, Stacey immediately made her presence known, mixing it up with cousin Zoe and befriending Ruby Allen. Watching Stacey care for bipolar mother Jean, and then deal with her own mental illness (both bipolar disorder and postpartum psychosis) made for some of the best scenes the show has ever done, and Turner has rightly won boatloads of awards for her tender, nuanced portrayal. Stacey’s growth over the years—from bubbly teenager to budding matriarch—has been a joy to watch, and I look forward to Turner returning from maternity leave later this year.

13. Janine Butcher (1989 – 1993; 1993 – 1996; 1999 – 2004; 2008 – 2014)
Janine is the greatest villain in EastEnders history. At current count, she’s directly responsible for at least two deaths (Barry Evans and Michael Moon) and, one could argue, somewhat responsible for Laura Beale’s death, too. Charlie Brooks is brilliant the cold-hearted, self-centered, Janine as just evil enough to be despicable but not so evil that she isn’t redeemable. Indeed, it’s that Janine isn’t entirely evil that makes her such a compelling character. You always hope Janine will do the right thing and if you know you’re likely to be disappointed. It doesn’t hurt that Brooks doesn’t take herself too seriously, which adds a zany, almost camp element to Janine’s villainy.

12. Ian Beale (1985 – present)
The only original character with a continuous run, Ian is a Walford stalwart. A sniveling weasel of a man, thanks to Adam Woodyatt’s performance Ian is still someone you can’t help but to root for. Ian has always thought himself better than the rest of Walford, a smug conviction that has only gotten worse with age. But watching him build a business empire, then lose it, then build it again has been fascinating, and Ian himself serves as an extended commentary on class—and upward mobility—in modern Britain. It’s hard to pick a “greatest moment” for a character who has been on our screens for 35 years, but Woodyatt’s moving performance when Ian finds out Lucy was murdered is unforgettable.

11. Linda Carter (2013 – present)
For reasons I can’t understand, Mick seems to be the more popular of the Carter couple. Linda, though, is by far the more interesting of the pair. It was clear early on that Kellie Bright was going to be a wonderful addition to the cast, but the way she’s portrayed Linda—a woman who struggles to reconcile her high expectations with reality—has been remarkable. Bright’s performance as Linda struggled to accept Johnny’s sexuality was at turns moving and infuriating. That’s what makes Linda such a great character, though. She is so many things at once—spiteful, vindictive, cruel; sensitive, vulnerable; compassionate. Linda Carter truly is one of the most complex women in Walford history.

10. Pauline Fowler (1985 – 2006)
A working mother who was endlessly put upon by her children and her husband, Pauline Fowler is the original Walford everywoman. Uptight and judgmental, Pauline had an opinion on everyone and everything and never shied away from letting people know. Yet she was also kind—such as when she comforted Pat after the latter accidentally ran over and killed a little girl—and a pillar of the community. Yes, it took Pauline a while to come to terms with things (such as Mark’s HIV status), but you knew that she always would. Her final row with daughter-in-law Sonia over the role of a wife and mother summed up the character most succinctly and beautifully. Pauline was, like so many people, a decent, salt-of-the-earth woman who, though struggling with the pace of change in her community, truly meant well.

9. Kathy Beale (1985 – 2000; 2015 – present)
I fear Kathy will be most remembered for coming back from the dead. That’s a shame, because Kathy is one of the most interesting characters to ever come through Walford. Originally defined by her role as a wife and mother, it soon became clear that Kathy wanted to be more than Mrs. Pete Beale. Watching her as she slowly began to assert her independence was refreshing in the 1980s. Gillian Taylforth’s performance following Kathy’s rape by James Wilmott-Brown remains one of the most haunting in the show’s history, and her chemistry with Steve McFadden made Phil and Kathy’s relationship riveting to watch. (I’ll never forget Kathy throwing her wedding ring in the Seine when Phil confessed to again cheating.) Now sadly relegated to the role of exasperated mother of dickheads Ian and Ben, Kathy remains one of the greatest female characters in the show’s history.

8. Den Watts (1985 – 1989; 2003 – 2005)
Another back-from-the-dead character, Den was the show’s original gangster. There would be no Phil or Grant Mitchell without him. Den was a villain, to be sure, but he was also an endlessly decent man. Den often did the wrong thing for the right reasons, which made him endlessly watchable. Let’s not forget that he ended up “dead” the first time only because of a chain of events which started with him getting revenge on Wilmott-Brown for raping Kathy. Beyond that, he was genuinely good to Michelle Fowler (well, as good as Den could be) and no daughter has ever been as loved by her father as Sharon Watts.

7. Patrick Trueman (2001 – present)
One of the things I noticed when I sat down to write this list and the 35 most iconic scenes list is that, truly, there is a dearth of BME characters on EastEnders. That’s a shame, because East London is one of the most diverse places in the world. While the show has not always done characters of colour the justice they deserve, Rudolph Walker’s Patrick Trueman might be an exception. When he first stepped onto the Square in 2001, Patrick was a bit of a lothario—a father who hadn’t seen his sons in years and an unrepentant ladies’ man. Over the course of two decades, though, Patrick would grow to become a pillar of the community. Walker’s performance as a grieving Patrick following Paul Trueman’s death was heartbreaking, and the father-daughter relationship between him and Denise has been one of the highlights of the show in recent years. I’m so glad to see Patrick being put front-and-centre again as we learn more about his secret son, Isaac in the weeks to come. It’s only right that he plays a central role in the 35th anniversary episodes, as Patrick Trueman is the most iconic Black character in the show’s history.

6. Kat Slater (2000 – 2006; 2010 – 2016; 2018 – present)
When the Slater family first arrived in Walford way back in 2000, it was impossible to know the impact they would have. Loud and disruptive, it’s now impossible to imagine Albert Square without a Slater on it. Of all that unruly brood—and there have been many throughout the years—none is more iconic than Kat. Jessie Wallace solidified her place in the pantheon of EastEnders stars with her gripping performance opposite Michelle Ryan as Kat tearfully admits she is Zoe’s mum, the result of Kat’s rape by her uncle years before. Since then, Wallace has gone from strength to strength, giving us both heartbreaking dramatic performances and hilariously comic moments. Whether tearfully realising her son is alive or walking into her own wake, there is never a dull moment when Kat Slater is around. It’s no surprise that the BBC gave her and on-again, off-again husband Alfie their own spinoff (which is, I have to say, incredibly underrated).

5. Peggy Mitchell (1991; 1994 – 2010; 2013; 2014; 2015; 2016)
The quintessential Walford matriarch, Peggy Mitchell is legendary, and Barbara Windsor is a national treasure. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine another actress playing Peggy—yet Windsor was the second performer to step into her kitten heels. Watching her try to corral her unruly brood of children—whether brokering peace between Phil and Grant or trying to sort out Sam’s latest mess—was tv at its finest, and her friendship/rivalry with Pat Butcher is unlikely to ever be surpassed. Right up until the very end, when Windsor movingly portrayed Peggy’s decision to end her own life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Peggy kept us riveted, giving us consistently moving performances and one of tv’s all-time greatest catchphrases in “Get outta my pub!”

4. Sharon Watts (1985 – 1995; 2001 – 2006; 2012 – present)
“We must all bow down to Sharon of House Watts, First of Her Name, Bringer of Justice, Puller of Pints, The Countess of Clapbacks, The Thick-Lashed, The Undefeatable, the rightful Lady of the Vic and one true Queen of Walford,” I tweeted last month—and it’s true. There is no contest—Sharon is the undisputed queen of Walford. Played brilliantly by original cast member Letitia Dean on and off since 1985, Sharon has grown from naïve teenage girl to a strong, independent woman. Whether having an affair with her husband’s brother or falling in love with her father’s son (long story), Sharon has given us some of the most memorable moments in the show’s history. Indeed, who but Sharon would have an entire Twitter account dedicated with keeping up with how she’s doing? She is truly the Queen in the East(End).

3. Pat Butcher (1986 – 2012)
Pat is my favourite character of all time, the original tart-with-a-heart. A prototype for characters to come, from Mandy Salter to Bianca Jackson to Kat Slater and even Kim Fox, Pat was brash, bold, and unbothered. Beginning her time on the Square as a troublemaker and prostitute, Pat grew to become one of the greatest matriarchs and most iconic characters in soap opera history. Her earrings are the stuff of legend, rivalled in size only by her heart. Sweet and gentle sometimes, piss and vinegar others, Pam St Clement’s performance was layered and sublime. Her friendship and rivalry with Peggy Mitchell is the best the soap has ever portrayed, and her romance with Frank is one of the greatest in soap history. Pat was vital to the continued success of EastEnders through the 1990s and 2000s, anchoring the show in its past while always helping to move it forward. I feel I would be remiss not to mention the amazing chemistry between St Clement and Charlie Brooks, and the two of them made Pat and Janine possibly the most compelling mother-daughter duo in the show’s history, which is no small feat considering Pat wasn’t Janine’s actual mother!

2. Phil Mitchell (1990 – present)
It’s difficult to overstate just how important Steve McFadden’s Phil Mitchell has been to the history and success of EastEnders. His arrival in 1990 revitalised the show, but I don’t think anyone at the time could have realised just how iconic Phil Mitchell would become. A gangster with a heart, Phil has committed some unspeakable acts in his time—most recently organising a failed hit on Keanu Taylor—yet can’t be described as an outright villain because under that gruff exterior beats a giant heart. Indeed, in his own way, Phil is a man who believes in justice and fairness, even if he doesn’t always act just or fair. His relationship with godson Jamie, his guilt over Vincent’s murder and subsequent support for Kim, his support for Sonia when she was accused of killing Pauline all point to a man who knows what is right, even if he doesn’t always listen to himself. Phil’s struggles with alcohol and drug addiction have become something of a joke among fans, but they are relevant and timely stories which McFadden has repeatedly sank his teeth into. Imagining Walford without Phil Mitchell is just impossible, and after three decades Phil is possibly the most iconic male character in British soap opera history.

1. Dot Branning (1985 – 1993; 1997 – present)
It had to be Dot. Walford’s original busybody, June Brown has played the devout Christian since 1985, debuting only months after the show itself premiered. Since then, Dot has become a pillar of the community, the one person Walford residents know they can turn to for a bit of advice or even just to listen. Her development over the course of 35 years—from a sort of caricature of the meddling, gossipy pensioner to a woman of remarkable compassion who struggles to reconcile her deep faith with her love of those it condemns—has been the most compelling journey of any character. Her relationship with her evil son Nick was always gripping, but Dot is so much more than a distraught and dismayed mother. There’s no better example than Dot’s evolution on gay rights from her early homophobia to eventually attending her dear friend Collin’s gay wedding nearly 30 years later. Whether wrestling with her conscience over whether to help best friend Ethel end her life, or supporting Dr. Legg as he both faces antisemitism and faces his impending death, Dot has provided us with some of the finest moments in British tv history. June Brown was nominated for a BAFTA for her one-hander—the only in the show’s history—and has solidified Dot’s place as the most iconic character in EastEnders history.

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

River Phoenix, my best actor

Joaquin Phoenix made me cry last night while accepting the Oscar for Best Actor. “Run to the rescue with love—and peace will follow,” he said, quoting lyrics written by his late brother, the actor

River Phoenix. A lot of people don’t know that River was a talented musician as well as an Oscar-nominated actor. He fronted the band Aleka’s Attic, and in many ways, music was his greatest passion.

I have never been one to idolize celebrities, with one massive exception, and that is River Phoenix. Since I was young, the story of River—his childhood in Venezuela, his meteoric rise as an actor, his passion for music, his empathy and sensitivity and kindness and vulnerability, and yes, his tragic end—has both haunted and inspired me. I’m staying with family now, but when I lived alone my apartment was decorated with his photos. My phone case has his face on it—intentional, as he serves as a constant reminder to both do good in this world and create art. His films are the ones I watch over and over. His songs are my lullabies.

He was a phenomenally talented actor. His breakout role as a sensitive and troubled young boy in Stand By Me earned him legions of teenage fans and a place in the pantheon of 1980s Hollywood. Yet he was a pinup boy who loathed celebrity and its attendant vices, choosing instead to live peacefully in the swampy quiet of Gainesville, Florida.  His tender, heartbreaking portrayal of a teenage rent boy in My Own Private Idaho remains the single best film performance not nominated for an Academy Award. He did receive an Oscar nomination for Running on Empty—though he eschewed awards in general, not putting much stock in the politics of Oscar campaigning or the inherent silliness of judging art against art.

Last night I tweeted that River would be proud of Joaquin. I don’t doubt he would. I also suspect, though, that River would have said something along the lines of “remember this doesn’t mean anything” to him—that it’s about the art and the stories and the message more than a golden statue or box office revenue. (Joaquin knows that, too, I reckon; I see a lot of River in him.)

In this way, as in so many ways, River was a remarkable human being—defying the stereotype of your vapid matinee idol. He was defined by decency and compassion. Most people know of how River Phoenix died, but it’s how he lived that is truly remarkable. He was a vegan before it was cool and before the media even knew what that word was (a magazine once called him an “ultravegetarian.”) He was an environmentalist before environmentalism went mainstream, buying up large swathes of rain forest in order to protect them. He was an early champion of gay rights at a time when that was an issue most in Hollywood didn’t want to touch.

It’s this, I think, that has always drawn me to River. When he died in 1993, I was only seven years old—too young to really understand who he was or appreciate the legacy he left behind. It was only as I became a teenager that I began to feel a connection with him. Watching old clips of him, reading old interviews, and listening to his songs made me feel as though we were kindred spirits. He was funny, at times even goofy, but below the surface was a visceral pain—deep and abiding and torturous. It was a pain I understood.

River Phoenix felt. I don’t mean he felt in the sentimental, manufactured way that, say, Sarah McLachlan singing about homeless dogs makes you feel for a moment and then move on with whatever it was you are doing. I mean he felt the pain he experienced, and the pain others experienced—whether humans or animals—in his bones. In the seminal biography of River, Last Night at the Viper Room, Gavin Edwards relays a story about how upon his girlfriend ordering meat, River ran out of the restaurant in tears. It’s a level of empathy and love—in this case for the earth, for the animals—that few of us can ever hope to understand, let alone feel.

I always feel a little weird talking about River, because when I talk about him I do it as though I knew him, though of course I never even met him. But over the past 20 or so years, as I’ve grown up, I feel like I have gotten to know River—or at least, the parts of himself he shared with the public. I don’t feel that way about any other celebrity or historical figure. River is singular in that regard—the only icon to breech the steel fortress of cynicism I have built against the cult of fame. He doesn’t feel like a movie star to me—though he undeniably was—but more like an old friend whom I miss dearly.

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

20 questions with… EastSiders creator and star Kit Williamson

Most people will have first met Kit Williamson when he starred as Ed Gifford on the Emmy-winning series Mad Men, but now he’s best known as the creator, writer, producer, and director of EastSiders, the Emmy-nominated web series about a group of LGBT friends living, loving, and often lying in Los Angeles. Its fourth and final season premiered on Netflix last year, and a new documentary about the creation and production of this seminal show was released last month.

EastSiders is for many Millennial gay men what Thirtysomething was to our parents in the 1980s—an honest look at our lives, our failures, and our world. This isn’t the sanitized version of gay life often presented in mainstream media. Williamson’s writing is fearless, tackling everything from toxic masculinity to STIs to, most notably,

Central Park Van Hansis and Kit Williamson

Van Hansis as Thom and Kit Williamson as Cal in EastSiders

nonmonogamy. In doing so, he’s created fleshed-out characters the likes of which are rarely seen on television but are frequently found in gay villages across America. This is a show by the queer community, for the queer community.

Kit Williamson was kind enough to answer some questions about his work on the show, from the roller coaster ride main characters Thom and Cal take over the course of four turbulent seasons to the importance of queer cinema to scene-stealing Kathy’s (Constance Wu) thoughts on Cats. If you haven’t seen EastSiders—and you really should—beware of spoilers below.

 

Skylar Baker-Jordan: First of all, congratulations on an amazing run and an amazing fourth season. How does it feel now that it’s over?

Kit Williamson: It’s bittersweet but the response has been really satisfying—we wanted to end things in the right way and I really hope that we did!

SBJ: I first watched EastSiders when it was on YouTube, before the first season was even complete. I was living in Chicago at the time, and spending a lot of time in London, and remember thinking just how authentic these characters felt. I hope you won’t bristle at the comparison, but really reminded me of Lena Dunham’s Girls—raw, unflinching, zeitgeisty—but for gay men. How important was it to depict gay men as we really are—warts and all?

 KW: I’ll take that as a compliment! Clifford (Jake Choi) actually tells Thom (Van Hansis) that his writing is like “The Velvet Rage as written by Lena Dunham for Modern Love.” One of the primary reasons I wanted to make the show was because I was frustrated with the ubiquitousness of unrealistically aspirational queer characters. It’s important to have role models, but equally important to tell stories about characters with flaws and complexities that blow up their lives and pick up the pieces. Otherwise, you run the risk of making people who make mistakes feel isolated and alone and broken compared to the perfect lives they see on TV. But we all make mistakes and we all feel isolated and alone and broken sometimes.

SBJ: So many of the actors are LGBT. Was this intentional, and did it add to the authenticity of the series?

It was absolutely my intention to create an unapologetically queer universe, because TV networks don’t seem to want to greenlight this kind of story. It’s great that we finally have a seat at the table in mainstream media, but it’s equally important to tell stories about issues that impact our community without worrying what a mainstream audience will think about those issues.

SBJ: Crowdfunding was so instrumental to the success of the show, but as you point out in the documentary, there are many limitations to producing a series this way. How is crowdfunding changing the nature of Hollywood—for better and for worse?

I think crowdfunding has allowed independent content creators to take their careers into their own hands—you don’t actually have to wait for the industry to give you its stamp of approval in order to go out there and make art. I don’t know what the long-term ramifications will be, but indie television is only growing; Sundance, Tribeca and SXSW are all programming episodic blocks and the market is growing.

SBJ: We’re both from the south (you’re from Jackson, Mississippi; I’m from rural Kentucky). I’ve since moved back south, but like you, I ran off to the big city in my twenties and found the experience liberating.  What would you say to LGBT kids living in Mississippi or Kentucky now, who might watch EastSiders and think “That’s the life for me?”

KW: I’m glad that I left but a part of me will always wonder how my life would have turned out if I had stayed. I now know many out, proud LGBT people who live in my home state and I’m absolutely in awe of them. The world is changing, even in Mississippi, and all of the progress we’ve made in the south is thanks to them.

SBJ: I find the road trip arc the most narratively compelling of the entire series, because it is so character driven. In the documentary, though, you talk about the struggles you had shooting the road trip scenes in season three, from homophobia to just simply logistical and financial constraints. Why was it important to you to take these characters out of the city and force them on the road despite how hard it was to film?

I really do want to Make America Gay Again. I was really inspired by the idea of staking a claim to the tradition of the great American road trip movie. If you’ve never driven across the country it’s hard to wrap your head around just how vast it is—this country is almost the same size as Europe, and the culture varies wildly from state to state.

SBJ: Speaking of the road trip, one of my favorite scenes is in episode 3×5, when Thom and Cal are sitting by the campfire. The episode is titled “Our Own Private Idaho,” so I assume you were conscious of My Own Private Idaho as you wrote, blocked, and shot the scene which mimics the famous campfire scene from that film (even down to the conversation Cal and Thom have, which echoes that of River Phoenix’s and Keanu Reeves’ characters in MOPI). How important has gay cinema been to your development as a filmmaker?

KW: I honestly don’t know if I would be here if I hadn’t discovered gay cinema. Representation is transformative, and it gave me the tools to envision a future for myself. It’s also given me a purpose—I hope my work can empower others the way that queer cinema empowered me growing up.

SBJ: One of the most relatable arcs, to me, is the struggles Thom and Cal have as artists—the ups and downs and the side hustles so many of us have. Why did you decide to make Thom, a writer, and Cal, a photographer, both artists?

 KW: Thom and Cal are both observers, struggling to make sense of the world around them as queer artists. This theme is really fully realized in their role in season 4—at this point they’ve worked through most of their issues and are really just debating the future of their relationship. It’s not really a question of if they’ll break up, just what kind of commitment they’re both looking for. And they’re watching the other relationships around them attempt to navigate these questions, just like the audience is. In many ways the final season is a dialectic on love.

SBJ: After three seasons of portraying Ian dating women, in season four starts seeing and fucking men (and we find out he has done so in the past). Why explore Ian’s same-sex attraction now?

KW: This storyline has always been something I’ve been interested in exploring, but I’ll

John Halbach

John Halbach as Ian in EastSiders

be honest that my hand was forced because Brianna Brown got pregnant and asked us to limit her involvement, and ABC wouldn’t release Constance Wu. It’s become a bit of a recurring theme that every season I’ve had to write multiple versions of the script for Ian. I’m really happy with how the storyline came out, and the feedback has been incredible.

SBJ: I want to talk about Quincy’s issues with Douglas and drag. I cheered when Quincy’s mom and later Ian asked him what he expected when he started dating Douglas. What was Quincy expecting his relationship with Douglas to be like, and why was this storyline—about drag and masculinity—important to you?

Willam 1

Willam Belli as Douglas/Amber Alert in EastSiders

KW: When we first meet Quincy, he’s kind of the headliner of the parties that he throws, but as Douglas starts getting more and more successful as a drag queen Quincy gets relegated to booking his gigs. By season 4, he’s basically there to hold Amber Alert’s purse, and that’s hard for him. He and Douglas are also pretty different in that Quincy loves to play dress up in certain contexts, but also wants to put on boy drag and take pictures for Facebook. They fought about this as early as season 2, when Douglas wants to wear a dress to Cal’s gallery opening because he has a gig afterwards. I really wanted to explore something a little bit more complex than the typical “masc for masc” story, where the waters are muddy. Nobody would accuse Quincy of being a self-hating dude bro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t worried what his mother might think about him getting married to a drag queen. We didn’t ask to be burdened with these kinds of insecurities as queer people—they were battered into us by society as kids. I wanted to examine the different ways people process with and work through those insecurities.

SBJ: One of the prevailing themes of the series is monogamy vs open relationships. Obviously one of the central struggles of the show is Thom and Cal learning to navigate an open relationship, but there’s less discussion (nuanced or explicit) about the pros and cons of monogamy. (We get a little of it with Derek and Jeremy in season four with regards to marriage and children.) Why was it important to you to show an open relationship, and is it a more realistic approach for modern couples?

KW: I think monogamy, even in queer relationships, is usually assumed to be the default, complete with all of the baggage of heteronormativity. Cal and Thom’s entire arc in season 1 is about them attempting to force themselves into a mold that they don’t fit. Jeremy and Derrick are kind of the opposite; their dynamic isn’t working, but it has nothing to do with either of them wanting to sleep with other people. I wanted to represent as many different kinds of queer relationships as I could to show that there is no one “correct” way to be in love.

SBJ: Jeremy and Derek have the most traditional love story of anyone on the show, ending up with the lovely home and even a child. In hindsight, it was clear from season one that Jeremy wanted just that. Is this sort of modern, urban love story—lonely gay guy falls in love with the handsome doctor, adopts a child, and lives happily ever after—a fairytale or do you think it can really happen?

KW: I loved subverting the idea of “the other woman” with Jeremy. Kathy even calls him “Jezebel” in season one. So having him end up in the most traditional partnership was a

Matthew McKelligon Scout Burke

Matthew McKelligon as Jeremy and Scout Burke as Sam in EastSiders

fun arc to navigate. That said, I don’t think their story is a fairytale—they were on the verge of breaking up before the adoption went through, and like all the characters, they still have a lot of things to work through if they’re going to be happy. Otherwise Jeremy’s fear that he’s become a “Big Little Lies” wife just might become his reality.

SBJ: In season one and two, Cal is reluctant and uncomfortable opening the relationship, but by the end of season four it seems Thom’s the one having doubts about the arrangement. I never really believed that Cal was completely comfortable with it, though. Was he?

KW: I think Thom finally gets a taste of his own medicine in season 4—the problem for both of them isn’t really sleeping with other people, is poor communication and callous disregard for the other person’s feelings. When Cal throws up his hands and starts behaving like Thom, I think it teaches Thom how his selfishness has hurt his partner through the years. Everyone’s a little bit selfish—we’re all human—but you always have to consider your partner’s needs.

SBJ: One of the most interesting and frustrating moments of season four was, for me, when Cal wants to “make love” and Thom invites Jared over. I just wanted to shout at Thom “not now!” Thom is almost preternaturally incapable of reading Cal’s emotions or figuring out his needs. Do you think they were, as Thom later said to Cal, just “fuckbuddies” by that point, or was there still love there?

KW: I think people have an incredible ability to justify bad behavior, especially when they’re holding onto grievances. Thom was jealous that Cal got to act out a sexual fantasy on the day he was flying back from NY, and decided that meant he got to act however he wanted—but he’s not reading the room, and he misses a real opportunity for them to reconnect and work through their feelings. This really puts them both into a place where they aren’t communicating, and they don’t really hash things out until the second to last episode. I think they’re avoiding the subject because they love each other—we often avoid dealing with the real shit because we’re afraid of hurting the people we care about and end up accidentally hurting them as a result.

SBJ: The contradictions in Cal are really fascinating to me, especially this season. He was pissed when Thom hooked up with Clifford in New York but ends up doing the same thing with Logan a year or so later in almost a perfect role reversal. He says he doesn’t believe in marriage yet craves intimacy and commitment in a way Thom almost seems incapable of giving him. Both Thom and Cal are very complex characters and very well written. I guess my question here is can you explain to me where you think these contradictions arise from (if you even agree they’re contradictions), and why it was so important to show such layered and flawed characters?

Jake Choi Van Hansis

Jake Choi as Clifford and Van Hansis as Thom in EastSiders


KW: I think it’s important to take into account how much has happened between Thom/Clifford and Cal/Logan. Basically their “rules” have eroded so much that they’re almost nonexistent, so there’s no betrayal there—but Cal should obviously have considered how Thom would feel to come home and find him with another guy. Both Thom and Cal’s journey is really about them figuring out exactly how they feel about all of these issues—it’s possible to want opposite things at the same time, and that’s a tricky thing to navigate.

SBJ: I feel like I’ve bashed Thom a lot here, but I found him extremely compelling (and Van Hansis is just a phenomenal actor). Why didn’t we explore more of Thom’s backstory to discover what it was that made him so broken?

We hint at it a lot in season 3, in his scenes with Arlen the drifter in episode 3×02 and the campfire scene in episode 3×05. They connect in part because they’re broken in the same way. We don’t see a lot of Thom’s relationship with his family because he doesn’t really have a relationship with his family; the absence of those characters is intentional. That’s made him really self-protective, and there’s a fine line between self-protective and self-centered.

SBJ: Has Kathy seen the new Cats film and, if so, what did she think of it?

KW: She fucking loved it. And honestly, she could’ve saved that movie.

SBJ: What was your favorite or most memorable moment on set?

KW: The wedding was really magical; we had 100 kickstarter backers on set as extras and it was such an amazing full circle moment getting to meet these people who helped make the show exist.

SBJ: What’s next from Kit Williamson?

KW: Stay tuned! I have a movie and a new series in development that I can hopefully talk about soon. Mostly I just want to keep telling queer stories.

SBJ: Despite their love, Thom and Cal really have a knack for hurting one another. Do you think these crazy kids make it?

KW: It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey. They’ve loved each other through thick and thin for 7 years—to me, no matter what happens next, they’ve already “made it.”

EastSiders is streaming now on Netflix

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.