Eastenders and the Solution of Plot

Ever since Christmas, Grace and I have been watching Eastenders, the long-running UK soap, on a nearly daily basis. We’ve gotten a bit behind since she started her cross-country commute to Berkeley (I know!!) but finally caught up on this week’s episodes this morning. It airs every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and runs extra-special hour-long episodes on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Joining up with a soap opera that’s been on the air 30 years is like trying to jump into a double-Dutch game — if you try to figure out what’s been going on before you joined, you’ll drive yourself mad and fall over, but if you look for an opportune moment, you’ll be able to slip in easily and immerse yourself in the future, no problem. I was in right away for a number of obvious reasons: the tinny, goofy theme tune, the natural and obvious parallels to Succession, which we’d just finished, the fact that like all Americans I take a childish and unending delight in parroting Cockney accents. But what surprised and delighted me the most was the strange calm that descended upon me during every episode.

(Part of what felt like an intuitive connection to Succession is the fact that both shows are composed primarily of one person entering another person’s house to say, “Hey, have you seen [Third Person]?” instead of texting or calling or ignoring their relatives. Roughly 40-50% of each show is given over to someone trying to arrange a follow-up conversation in person with the person they’re talking to in that exact moment.

SUCCESSION

KENDALL: Hey, can you, uh…can we talk later?

THE DAD, evasively: Uhh….we’ll see.

or

SHIV: Hey, have you seen Roman?

KENDALL: No, why?

EASTENDERS

LINDA: Martin. Martin. You need to ring me back.

MARTIN: Linda, I don’t need to ring you back. You need to stop ringing me.

LINDA: Let’s sit down and talk in the park here instead.

or

SONIA: Dot, have you seen Martin?

DOT: I think he was down at the Queen Vic.

Repeat ad infinitum, to my extreme pleasure. I don’t remember who said this originally, but there’s something about how the extremely-rich and the extremely-poor are often tied to their relatives in similar ways; when I tried to tie this claim to both Eastenders and Succession, Grace threw up her hands and said, “They’re not poor, they’re middle-class, they own pubs and go to Portugal,” and then spent twenty minutes explaining in detail the class relation of almost every Eastenders family, almost none of which I have retained.)

Generally speaking, my response to visual plot — the procession of content on a screen, big or small, without the safety and protection of the written word, so basically every single TV show or movie I’ve ever seen — is panic. I love spoilers, I love subtitles on shows already in English, I love running to the bathroom in the middle of a movie just so I can google what happens in order to go back relaxed enough to enjoy the happening itself. Not knowing the broad outline of the plot makes me feel anxious, on edge, panicked, totally out of control, somehow as if I’ve switched places with the protagonist in the movie myself and have to blunder my way through their problems without a script. I loved getting to watch movies as a kid but found the experience almost unrelentingly unbearable (I remember sitting through the entirety of Mrs. Doubtfire as anxious and paranoid as if everything in it were happening to me, and I thank God I’ve never had to see that movie again; I can’t handle the pressure of trying to stave off Sally Fields and Pierce Brosnan at the same time). Whenever people onscreen kissed or found themselves in an embarrassing situation (roughly half of all movies, I think) I’d have to leave the room. As an adult, I find myself overwhelmed by the question What’s going to happen next what’s going to happennext what’s going to happen is it happening yet is the new thing happening oh god what’s this what’s now while watching an unfamiliar plot unfold such that I can scarcely pay attention to what anyone is saying or the costumes or the cinematography or anything else until I know what’s going to happen and can escape the prison of plot-unfamiliarity.

As best as I can understand it, here is the phenomenon of my allergy to plot:

  1. I enjoy the setup, the character introductions, the laying-out of the scene, the hints at conflict and intrigue and romance and disaster to come perfectly well.

  2. Things begin to happen in ways that remove the infinite possibility of, say, a trailer’s worth of content, into a reality’s-worth of action. Options become limited. Choice becomes necessary. I begin to feel corralled and forcibly-gentled, like a cow being herded into a slaughterhouse.

  3. The events of whatever I’m watching take on a new and terrifying immediacy. I can no longer pretend I’m watching a piece of fiction. I begin instead to feel like every consequence the characters onscreen are facing is about to fall onto my head, and the only way I can protect myself, the only way I can maintain a division between myself and my entertainment, is to know everything that’s going to happen to them, to remind myself that I am an Audience-God and not a Character-Subject-Sufferer-Sacrifice.

Then, either

4a. I look up what’s coming and slide back into myself, exhausted yet relieved.

4b. I have no opportunity to Wikipedia-force my way to the end and have to grip the end of my seat like I’ve been soldered into a VR system and had my memory of my own, actual life wiped until the credits roll and I can finally, finally unclench.

The beauty of Eastenders is that there is absolutely so much plot crammed into every single episode, four days a week, that it has the spiritual effect of no plot at all, leaving me utterly at peace and free to immerse myself in their daily lives. Linda’s drinking problem is up again, but Dot’s off to Ireland after Martin admitted to stealing the money that Sonia actually stole for him, and Bex knows which means she’s started drinking, but Leo’s fading into the background after a few middle-of-the-pack episodes about his stalking, and Daniel and Jean are finally letting themselves be happy while they’re dying and also possibly scamming the Mitchells’ funeral home, and the Phil-Sharon-Keanu-Ben-Callum quinquevirate is rattling along steady as it has pretty much since Christmas. The inexhaustible machine of plot generation means that content becomes, like dick on Twitter, “abundant and low value.” More will be along in just a minute. Everything that is done can be undone, even death. Reversals of fortune can be un-reversed, or double-reversed again. Betrayals can become sites of connection and understanding. Uneasy friendships can move along an unending graph, becoming more and more uneasy without every actually rupturing. What is lost can always be recovered. Infinity never recedes; one person’s choice never cancels out other possibilities. No doors are ever closed; transition is only ever a scene change away.

I’ve never felt so peaceful my entire life — nearly dead with relief.

You Are In Prison Awaiting God And England's Judgments! Are You Truly Joan of Arc?

[Trial transcripts.]

Someone shows you a dish of pudding, would you like it?

A. In this as in other things I seek only the salvation of my soul

B. You have my reply to that — I will not tell you more — I am silent, pudding-wise, I’ll slop up no bowl-contents into my French mouth, no matter if ten or ten thousand Héberts should tell me otherwise!

C. I will go without wine til Easter for St. Catherine’s sake and your pudding-bag bulges not for this French throat

D. Your pudding seethes with a perilous heat for Charles, the hearty son of Christendom and France’s most

Would you like to sit in a chair?

A. A chair — you lunch-hearted churl! Bed me up in Hell better!

B. No Frenchman will set leg to chair until God’s rightful dauphin is seated upon the only chair that matters — the chair of Charlemagne!

C. A chair is bad safety for me, the haircut waif

D. Of my godmothers, one was named Agnes, another Jeanne, another Sibylle, of my godfathers Jean Lingué, another Jean Barrey, and several more besides; I have never known any of them, nor any that were baptized in the church of Domrémy, that they did sit in a chair in England.

Do you repent?

A. NEVER

B. How can I repent outside of confession? And have I not offered to speak you my Credo and my Paternoster in French? And how might I repent of my own French king, my own French tongue, my own beloved Sts. Catherine and Margaret, also in French, and still call myself a child of Paris?

C. Gentlemen and doctors of the church, to you I shall answer truly, but that which has been given to me by God is not for an earthly vessel to repent of — Pass on.

D. I’m Johnny All-Pants and No Regretment and I came to England to wear pants and kill Englishmen

What think you of the duke of Burgundy — a puissant prince or nay?

A. Philip will lose himself within the tangled skeins of the Hundredyear wars, and not all the daughters of Portugal may pluck him out of it!

B. I know only Charles for a bold and puissant prince of God’s fashioning.

C. A brigand and a Hussite! Evil spirits and slander, bound by heretical error. Puissant! Philip? More like a fetchless little fumble from the gods!

D. Of this Duke I say nothing; God has stopped my mouth to speak of Dukes. My concern is with kings and kings alone.

How do you feel for a dress?

A. I’ll not take it, not on your counsel nor on any man’s neither; not at Robert’s nor the Duke of Orleans, saving his presence, and do not blaspheme God nor his saints, I am content with what the angels give me!

B. It becomes me not! A dress misliketh my skin!

C. Not for a dress did I win a sword in Paris!

D. You have put a demon in it and I am going to St. Catherine

Answers

A. YOU ARE JOAN OF ARC AND YOU KNOW THE AGE OF EVERY SAINT: FRANCE

B. Oh my gentle darling, you are Jean d’aRq and you are France’s only boy and God made you a boy and God made a king for your best friend and God made you a cape of crimson velvet and a scabbard of strong leather and you will wear fire before you wear a dress again

C. You are a sword and a sword cannot repent

D. Yes yes yes for my intention — so eager to absolve, you priests in Rouen — put more armies in my mouth —

The Lais of Marie de France: Bisclavret, or The Were-Wolf

Originally.

[BISCLAVRET bites the KNIGHT who has married his wife repeatedly.]

THE COURT

Oh, this is so weird

THE KING

Normally he never does this

THE KNIGHT

[Bleeds]

THE COURT

Obviously this knight has done something wrong, because this dog never bites anyone

THE KING

Yeah, sorry, normally I’d pull him back, but he honestly never does this, so…


[BISCLAVRET’s former WIFE is presented at court before THE KING. BISCLAVRET bites off her nose in front of everyone]

THE KING

Oh, whoa

THE COURT

Yeah, wow

THE KING

Knock it off, Bisclavret — c’mere — good boy —

A CERTAIN WISE COUNSELLOR

Hearken ye a moment, sire. Is it not true that Bisclavret almost never bites the nose off of visitors to court?

THE KING

As true as Prester John reigns over all Nestorians and the children of Saint Thomas the Doubter, yes.

A CERTAIN WISE COUNSELLOR

So mayhap it should stand to reason that this woman has offended Bisclavret. Else why would he bite that whereof he has never bitten before?

THE KNIGHT [bleeding]

He did bite me, quite recently

THE KING

I hear ye, counsellor — and you too, knight. Either my dog has recently started biting people, and should be restrained, or you and this woman have somehow offended my dog, perhaps through treachery, perhaps maybe even when my dog once held the form of a man, and this is his only way of declaring the truth.

[BISCLAVRET yelps and nuzzles the KING’s boot]

THE KING

You see what I mean? This is what he’s usually like.

THE COURT

He really never bites anyone.

THE KING

Honestly, never. Take these two out of my sight and banish them from my kingdom. As for my dog; give him clothes and leave him alone in my bedroom. If I’m right, and he turns into a human man, we’re going to kiss one hundred times, maybe more.

A CERTAIN WISE COUNSELLOR

Because he’s such a good dog, it would just be really weird if he started biting people for no reason.

[BISCLAVRET, having received clothes, promptly falls asleep.]

THE KING

I knew it.

MARIE DE FRANCE

I wrote this so that all of France might remember the lessons we learned at court here today.

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