Saturday, March 14, 2009
The L Word: Good Night and Good-Bye
And so they go, the girls of The L Word, off into the LA lesbian sunset . . . or wait, are they going into the police station to give their testimonies about Jenny’s mysterious death to the hot sheriff who came to investigate her drowning? An overhead shot at the show’s end lets us watch as a number of very large cars pull into a nearly empty parking lot in some ambiguous LA location, from which the city, glittering at dusk, looms in the background. One after another, our heroines leave their vehicles and walk—each in her idiosyncratic way, but each looking remarkably like a model, with that showy swagger, that lithe, winsome affect, and that hair blowing in a breeze that comes from nowhere—toward a destination ultimately unknown.
At first, their faces are serious. Perhaps they’re thinking toward their fateful meetings with Lucy Lawless (in an amusing piece of intertextual casting) as the sheriff, Sergeant Duffy. But wait, moments into their individual saunters, they begin to smile, almost slyly. Gradually, the women meet up and acknowledge one another, in twos and threes, ending up in a long row of L Word women, their arms wound gleefully around each others’ waists in a final kick-line to send off their six-season show.
Bette and Tina smile particularly widely—after all, they began the end by deciding to decamp to New York, where perhaps this time, Tina really will pull her weight and Bette really will let her be the family’s Uber-mom. Or maybe Kit’s new erstwhile drag queen lover—whom Angie sweetly calls “Daddy” when he and Kit bring the little one home after a trip to the zoo—will join them and create a transgendered as well as biracial nuclear family. Maybe Max, despite his sudden aw-shucks reaction to his baby’s first kicks, will move to New York, too, and ask Bette and Tina to help him raise his child (or maybe they’ll adopt his kid after all, and Max will grow his beard back).
Hard to say. But in those final moments of winsome walking, everything seems both possible and forgiven. Even the wretched Jenny Schecter is resurrected from the recently-dead to join the long march toward The L Word’s ending, wearing some sort of gold lamé dress and, eventually, smiling, too, as Bette and Tina and then Shane reach out their hands to bring her back into the fold. But hey—are they still acting? Or are they Jennifer Beals, Laurel Holloman, Kate Moenning, and Mia Kirschner, just taking their curtain call?
Since the producers held the valedictory credits until the very end, I was surprised to see that Ilene Chaiken wrote and directed the finale. The episode was shot with a sense of style and written with a kind of restraint that I haven’t associated with Chaiken’s work in recent seasons. A lot of final exposition had to be set up and moved along, but the dialogue that accomplished the girls’ propulsion into their futures was crisp and true to character.
Even the camera work got a bit arty, especially in the interspersed, flashed-ahead scenes of the women’s interrogation at the police station, where high, stark lighting, dramatic angles, and extreme close-ups gave them a cool film noir style. Chaiken lent scenes set in “West Hollywood” some equally varied angles, shooting a number of them from high above the action. (Maybe she was just giving us a god’s-eye view on the characters she created.) The filmic choices gave the episode a richer texture. And happily, Betty’s grating theme song was absent, replaced by a music collection ranging from female pop artists to melancholic cello work, all of which heightened the emotions of the moment.
After all, this was the swan song for history’s first more or less mainstream lesbian soap opera/“dramedy.” That it lasted six seasons (for which spectators were thanked in a producer’s note after the credits) seems remarkable and notable, regardless of whether you watched avidly and with pleasure or watched not at all, unable to stomach the whole proceedings. During a visit I made recently to the University of Maryland, more than one lesbian apologized for not being a fan; one even said with dismay, “Do I have to watch it?”
Of course, I said no, since I’m hardly the arbiter of these things. But why not, I wondered? Isn’t it even fun to hate? Is it just that my nearly 52-year-old self is still amazed to be watching Lez Girls cavort, between the sheets, at the Planet, at Helena’s palatial ocean-side abode, at Bette and Tina’s newly renovated house, with its pool-side cabana and its conveniently, fatefully unsteady deck railing? While I, too, got impatient or bored with the show more than once through its run, I watched every episode and I’m sad that it’s over.
It’s not that I won’t have other things to do with my Sunday nights. But a story has ended in which I felt implicated and cathected, emotionally and psychologically connected to characters that had little to do with my life, but everything to do with a cultural moment I needed to mark and enjoy on a weekly basis. The availability of television by and about lesbians required me to witness it as a new wrinkle in the American cultural zeitgeist. I don’t want to see the space The L Word created in public consciousness close over without a ripple.
Gossip has it that Chaiken is developing a spin-off for Leisha Haley. Another lesbian-focused series would be terrific, but Alice Pieszecki became one of the least interesting characters on The L Word. Why couldn’t she let go of Tasha, even after it was Alice who seemed attracted elsewhere at the end of season five? Haley and Rose Rollins are capable performers, but their chemistry as a couple was never convincing. In their brighter moments, their banter and teasing and flirting were fun, but their sex scenes always lacked conviction. Haley and Rollins just couldn’t manufacture on-screen magic. Mei Melancon, playing the last season’s third wheel interloper, Jamie, and Rollins, although they never consummated their attraction, gave their longing gazes more zing.
In fact, Tasha’s return to Alice at the last episode’s 11th hour seemed unrealistic, a forced happy ending rather than a choice the character actually might have made. Alice and Tasha were never right together; why not choose the biracial girl who seemed to “get” Tasha instead of Alice, who always blundered through their relationship, disrespecting Tasha’s difference on numerous levels. Alice became shrewish and grasping by the end.
When she confronted Jamie and Tasha about their feelings for one another at the Planet in the last episode, and Jamie finally confirmed her love for Tasha, Alice acted like a teenager, saying, “Thank you. And fuck you,” and later, “Shut up,” as Jamie tried to talk to her. The old Alice might have been tougher, her response more complicated. For someone who began the series as the keeper of the Chart—that genealogical web of dyke relationships, that cartographic image of incestuous lesbian lives—Alice became strangely attached to a very conventional notion of monogamy.
Still, much of the humor in the last episode came from Alice’s drunken day waiting for Tasha to choose her or Jamie. Alice wiles away the tense time talking on the phone to Shane and Helena, fantasizing about what Tasha and Jamie are doing together. Haley got the one-liners right; it made me miss Alice’s video blog, when she served as the voice of a community, commenting on its mores and foibles. Too bad Chaiken reduced Alice to just another needy lesbian by the finale.
Shane, on the other hand, seems to be the character who grew the most. The final show spends a lot of time resolving her narrative thread. She conveniently bumps into her most recent ex, Molly (Clementine Ford), in a gift store. When Molly refers to dropping off Shane’s coat and the letter that (of course) Jenny never passed on to Shane, poor Shane blanches visibly, as the shoe drops and the various pieces of Jenny’s deception and its consequences fall into place.
Ford makes a crisp, wistful cameo appearance. With a new girl looking soulfully into her eyes, Molly’s able to tell Shane that she’s over her and that it’s okay. Shane initiated her, and like so many other girls, Molly fell for her hard. But she’s okay, Molly says, and trots off to put her new arm candy back on. The devastated Shane watches her past and her preferred future walk out the door and races home to find Molly’s letter in the jacket Jenny stuffed in the attic of their house. In the process, she comes across the stolen negatives of Lez Girls that Jenny had stashed away the whole time.
The last episode confirmed that Jenny truly was pathological. She stole the negatives; she kept Shane from Molly; she meddled outrageously in Helena and Dylan’s relationship, as well as Bette and Tina’s. Thanks to Jenny, Helena rejects Dylan (Alexandra Hedison), forever unable to trust that Dylan loves her for herself and not her money. (“It’s a cliché,” Rachel Shelley says into the camera, during her scene with Sergeant Duffy, eyes batting, “But it’s hard to be rich.”) It’s a shame Helena has to dump Dylan, since their rekindled relationship was one of The L Word’s more mature, their sex the best Rachel Shelley ever performed on the show. In one of the several reminiscence reels available from Showtime On Demand, Shelley remarks that she and Hedison “clicked”—it shows.
Jenny’s plan to tell Tina about what she mistakenly believes is Bette’s infidelity proves the final straw. In my oh-so-close examination of the last episode, I think Chaiken intimates that Bette killed Jenny. Their last scene together on the deck leaves the two women in a face off, with Bette practically snarling that she won’t let Jenny hurt her family. As the scene cuts away, Jenny’s lower lip trembles with defiance. After Bette returns to the house, Jenny is never seen again.
And is Jennifer Beals smiling just a bit too knowingly in that final bow? And why is her interrogation scene with Sergeant Duffy repeated twice, shot at a different, even closer angle, but with the same dialogue, as Bette repeatedly rolls up the sleeves on her crisp white blouse? “Jenny is complicated, complex,” Bette says thoughtfully, “talented, sometimes generous, but complicated, complex.” What’s that supposed to mean? And how could Bette, with the walls of her home adorned with smart, contemporary feminist art, think that Jenny’s execrable novel and trashy film indicates talent?
Setting Bette up to take the fall for Jenny’s murder—even if only implicitly—continues the demonizing of Bette for her season one original sin of her affair with the carpenter. Bette’s vilification is one of The L Word’s most conservative ploys. In the end, Bette tells Kit that she’s sick of everyone being in her business. I don’t blame her, given how eager they all became to vilify Bette and how easily her friends and her sister believed that she’d stepped out on Tina with the horrible gallery owner Kelly Wentworth (Elizabeth Berkeley, not at all redeeming her Showgirls debacle). Surely Bette has more taste than to be attracted to the manipulative, voracious Kelly, when she’s got earnest, exasperated but lovely Laurel Holloman at home.
Bette and Tina have always been the show’s leading couple; they were destined to be together at its end. Shane, in fact, gives them a nice nod, stumbling upon them after one of her nights out carousing as Bette and Tina sit on their house steps, drinking coffee and beginning their day after a night of loud sex and quiet intimacy. (Scenes of them sleeping intertwined are all shot from above, too; the goddess is watching, don’t you know.) Quoting the threesome’s exchange from the first season, Shane teases them about having sex—she can always sense when they’ve been at it, and her envy is rueful and sweet. Using the same moment to bookend the series is a lovely acknowledgment of the couple’s longevity.
Jenny’s farewell video for Bette and Tina brings all the women together for a nostalgia fest. The intercut clips of testimonials from friends near and far serve as a benediction for the show as well as the characters. Karina Lombard appears in a silly clip as the long forgotten Marina, speaking now with a French accent since she’s apparently moved to the south of France. She’s probably sorry she missed those six seasons of steady work. Tim (Eric Mabius) pops on to wish them well, cracking jokes about “crazy” Jenny. (Mabius generously sets aside his Ugly Betty character to resurrect Tim.) Ivan (Kelly Lynch), in his rather Goth trans regalia, sends regards staged in front of a placard that says “Vote No on 8,” bringing the show into the political present.
The soigné Peggy Peabody, played by the inimitable Holland Taylor, gives Bette and Tina her blessing, making me nostalgic for the good old days when Bette was mounting the “Provocations” show at the LA museum. Angus (Dallas Roberts), who betrayed Kit with Angie’s babysitter, says he’s got his heart open and waiting for Bette and Tina in New York. Jodi (Marlee Matlin) signs to the camera how much they’ve changed her life, surprisingly setting aside her ugly break-up with Bette (or maybe she’s just being ironic). Even the jilted Carmen (Sarah Shahi) appears, looking self-serious (and not at all like “herself” or like a lesbian) to wish the couple well.
Kit jokes that the video is a catalogue of her ex-lovers, but the clips recall many of the women’s former romantic entanglements. (At least Jenny/Chaiken steered clear of including clips of the long dead and gone Dana, which would have been really cloying.) That these old characters appear in Jenny’s video brings the show full circle and gestures toward a truism of many lesbians’ lives—ex-lovers do eventually become friends, because we need and value the extended circle of people who once were intimates. Watching the women watch what amounts to a home movie underlines their intimacy and their kinship. (Max calls them “framily”—more than friends, not quite family.)
As they watch her (three hour) video, the gang finally realizes that Jenny isn’t there to see their reactions. Alice, who’s valiantly decided to be friends with Jenny again, goes to search her out. Max quips, rather uncharacteristically, “Maybe someone threw water on her and she melted,” which turns out to be not far from the truth. They should have noticed Jenny’s Pomeranian frantically sniffing and whining around the pool while they were eating popcorn and watching the video.
Some viewers are disappointed that Jenny’s murder, so touted in previews and so anticipated in the script, was so anticlimactic. Did Jenny fall in the pool? Did she jump? Was she pushed? By Bette? Who cares? We’ll never know and it hardly matters. Perhaps Chaiken was just trying to fulfill fans’ wishes, many of whom have wanted Jenny dead since the first season. Like so many others over the show’s run, the plot point was contrived and unnecessary; Bette and Tina’s move from LA would have been enough to wrap up the story.
But Jenny’s death keeps The L Word true to its roots. The show was always a fantasy, a fairy tale about beautiful, sexy lesbians who never seemed to worry about money, despite how often they changed precarious jobs. The clothes, the bodies, the situations—few of them were authentic to most people’s idea of what it’s like to be a lesbian, or a dyke, or queer in early 21st century America.
But The L Word’s flashes of humorous insight, and complicated desire, and hard fought relationships, and fraught friendship networks, and love and commitment among a group of women who helped one another survive really did hit a vein of something true. For those moments, I’ll miss it.
Mourning an era’s end,
The Feminist Spectator