three short essays on skins fire

club When Effy can’t sleep she gets out of bed, puts on her dress, and goes to the club. We see her drift through the dancefloor in slow motion, through a haze of red-lit smoke and discombobulating beats, surrounded and plucked at by hapless revellers. She’s restless — she needs to go out and prowl. The nightclub here is not the setting of the spectacular, the prize of a week of planning; girls gathered together around a bedroom mirror getting ready, the usual procedure of the Great British Night Out. It is natural habitat, a homecoming, an escape. A place for the sleepless to go, to get them out of the prison cell of their fruitless beds. An anonymous, conglomerate space. There are scenes in Cassie’s episode, too, of pounding basslines serving as a comfort — dancing easily, perfectly sober, with a group of new acquaintances in a pub. The music comes in and they probably don’t know the song but they can automatically feel it, can access the joy of it, their bodies liberated by it. They belong to it. All the Skins kids do.

Effy was tired when she came home from work, but she’s out all night, the clock shows 5am as she folds herself into bed, and we see her back at work a few short hours later, no worse for wear. She’s in her twenties now, no longer the rebel girl teen who could roll home at dawn, wipe off her make-up, change into her uniform and make her way to school. But somehow she’s still living that life. A pseudo-supernatural creature, stalking by night before slipping stoicly back into the day.

I always find myself paying careful attention to such things in television shows — the reality of effect. How can they do it if I can’t? After so many scenes of lovers screaming wildly through sex while I cringed to think of their neighbours, for example, I loved the refreshing verisimilitude of HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me (2007), where every intimate scene lay over a backdrop of city noise, thumps through thin walls, sirens and horns and yelling from the streets below. The sense that these characters live as part of a larger system, that what they do has consequence, that their actions and eruptions carry weight.

Skins has always portrayed a strange rendition of cause-effect. Its characters suffer very little in terms of everyday consequence. Comedowns and hangovers barely seem to exist. Parties run on and on endlessly until everyone has had enough — they’re never interrupted, reined in by reality. Who owns these homes? Where are all the authority figures? How do teenagers afford this luxury of hedonism? They go to the forest and stumble upon magic mushrooms. Cassie moves to Scotland, to New York, to London. Every vaguely relevant interaction results in sex. This is a world without repression, without material restriction, without the small human realities that limit our libidinal potential. But retribution, cosmic realignment, comes in larger, more brutal ways. Sudden parental deaths, pregnancies and disease, vengeful drug dealers and baseball bat-wielding psychiatrists. Terminal cancer and significant jail sentences. The weights and measures are all off, nothing operates in proportion in the Skins world, but in the end the repercussions of reality are never truly escaped.

She belongs to the dancefloor, but Effy also makes perfect sense in her new world of finance. I was surprised by that. She’s dedicated to her role — bringing work home, lying on her bed with her highlighter pen and her fine-toothed comb and going over the figures. She isn’t just clawing for promotion — it’s not that she wants to be in control, or thinks only of herself. Perhaps the answer simply is that she’s restless. She’s there, she might as well tread water, amuse herself, embed herself. Finally she’s putting her intelligence to use for something other than idle game-playing, social manipulation. She performs her new tasks in that same calm, intent, disaffected way she used to make lewd gestures to old men on the bus, or torture poor Sid into doing her bidding. skins2Distracting herself from the definitive nihilism of her character — because Effy doesn’t really believe in anything, isn’t really attached to anything.

Which isn’t to say she doesn’t care. We’ve seen clear evidence of Effy’s extraordinary capacity for empathy: Tony, her parents, Freddie, Dominic. She is tender with those who are good to her; feels a burden of care for those inevitably infatuated by her. We see her snarling to defend “pathetic” men from the “lesser” women who mercilessly mock them, cherishing their devotion with the same ferocity she levels to punish those men who would treat her as object alone, as something to be appreciated, used, exploited. When Victoria takes credit for her work, Effy isn’t annoyed because she wanted the glory for herself, but as a simple matter of integrity. She tries to rouse Jane from her verboten desk-nap not because they are friends, but by the code of hungover underling honour. In this strange way, Effy is very moral. She values the goodness of intent; she believes that those who do right things should be rewarded, or at least respected, regarded. When trespassed, she goes for the jugular.

Perhaps the primary challenge of Effy’s character is making sense of this conflict, this double thread, this caring so much and never at all. Naomi dies and she is devastated, but Effy compartmentalises, and carries on. She cares, she feels, she gets in the game, but she never truly connects. She can always pick up and go. There is a part of her that remains forever untouched. She smiles that Effy smile. You don’t know her at all; you never will.