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.