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Words on Walford: Week of 2 – 6 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

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

 

Chicago vs London: Round 1 – Entertainment

I first told my father I wanted to move to London when I was five. I last swore I would never live in Chicago when I was 25. Yet somehow, despite my best efforts, I’ve not properly lived in London, but have managed the Windy City for over two years. I’ve fallen in love with Chicago, its lakeshore, its giant rats that look like Master Splinter but attack like a friggin’ honey badger, and the friendly and forward-thinking Midwesterners who live here. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss my beloved London, with its winding streets which, on the night bus, make you feel like you’re in A Newport State of Mind. Yes, Chicago may be my husband, but London is my lover. As soon as I get enough money and the cats are grown, I’ll leave Chi-town for Londontown.

And like just like when sleeping with two people, it’s hard not to compare everything from size to warmth to overall performance. When I first moved here, it was very hard not to compare Chicago to London. They have many similarities-both are an amalgamation of neighbourhoods which were once separate villages, each with its own unique identity. They both smell brackish and industrial if you catch the wind at the right angle. And both will have hosted the Olympics by the end of this decade. Oh wait.

But which is better? Which is truly superior? I set out-and by out, I mean down, on the couch, with a beer-to investigate. In this week’s “London vs Chicago” matchup, we take on three key components of entertainment-sport, music, and telly. Will London leap to the top, or will the Windy City win this one? Find out below in an in-depth study just chock full of alliteration!

Sport
I confess, I’m not much of a sports fan. Or, at least I wasn’t until I moved to Chicago. From the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to the Madhouse on Madison all the way down to the Cell and Soldier Field, Chicago has some of the greatest and most storied stadiums in the world. Yes, London has Wembley, Wimbledon, and Stamford Bridge-perhaps my favourite sporting venue on earth (I keep the blue flag flying high!)-and yes, it hosted the Olympics with characteristic

Wrigley Field opened in 1916 and has served as home of the "lovable losers" of Major League Baseball, the Chicago Cubs, ever since. Affectionately known to fans and enthusiasts as "the friendly confines," it is one of the last bastions of pure Americana.

Wrigley Field opened in 1916 and has served as home of the “lovable losers” of Major League Baseball, the Chicago Cubs, ever since. Affectionately known to fans and enthusiasts as “the friendly confines,” it is one of the last bastions of pure Americana.

pomp and circumstance. And while there’s no denying that Londoners can make a football match into a Mardi Gras party at Animal House, it can quickly it can quickly turn into the stampede that killed Mufassa. Chicagoans, on the other hand, just get drunk-whether tailgating before the Bears game, betting on NCAA basketball, or cheering on the Blackhawks for a 2010s Stanley Cup three-peat. Sport isn’t just a form of entertainment here, it’s a way of life. I’ve literally seen grown men come to fisticuffs over who the greatest Cub was. Our greatest steakhouse was founded by a sportscaster. A goat is responsible for the Cubs’ century-long misfortune. And we have an entire neighbourhood built around a baseball diamond that is essentially one giant fraternity party 24/7.

Score: Chicago 1 – 0 London

Music
Ask me about the time I was invited to do heroin with Pete Doherty. Okay, so heroin wasn’t explicitly part of the invitation, but I mean, come on. It’s Pete. London has produced some of the world’s greatest music, from Handel to Adele. The undisputed capital of the European

Pete Doherty is one of the most poetic songwriters of this century. And he paints with his own blood, too.

Pete Doherty is one of the most poetic songwriters of this century. And he paints with his own blood, too.

entertainment industry, London combines the  best of New York, LA, Stockholm, and Nashville, producing an eclectic and talented group of artists. And don’t get me started on the live music scene, from The Hope and Anchor to The Old Queens Head (both in Islington) to the more legendary Royal Albert Hall and O2 Arena. Sure, Chicago has the Metro, the Congress, and a decent local music scene. And yeah, we’re rivaled only by New Orleans in jazz and Memphis in blues. But it’s just not even a contest. Chicago is an X Factor reject; London is Leona.

Score: Chicago 1 – 1 London

Telly
One word: Broadcasting House. One more word: Elstree. Plus, Chicago Fire keeps shutting down my neighbourhood because they like to blow up cars at 8:00 am, like this is Karachi or something. Bonus for London: Blue Peter is filmed there, which is of little consequence, except it

EastEnders was one of my first introductions to workaday Britain. I used to dream of living in Walford. I also wanted to be a rubbish collector. Kids are silly.

EastEnders was one of my first introductions to workaday Britain. I used to dream of living in Walford. I also wanted to be a rubbish collector. Kids are silly.

gives me an excuse to say Blue Peter. I seriously don’t think the Brits know just how filthy that sounds to us Yanks. (But really-the BBC is one of the most respected broadcasters in the world. Chicago just can’t compete.)

Score: Chicago 1 – 2 London

So London won tonight. But don’t worry Chicago, I still love you and your horrible drivers, your pseudo-Canadian accent and your hot dogs. Actually, not your hot dogs. I like ketchup on mine. Guess in that regard, London wins again.