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Turn and Face the Strain: Changes on the Season Finale of BBC America's "Skins"

Some people hate change but change, like all things in life, can't be avoided simply by hating it.

Season Three of British teen drama series Skins embraced change wholeheartedly, ditching the cast of the first two seasons for a batch of fresh faces who were more age-appropriate (or, let's say age-appropriate for the original ethos of the series) than those who had already graduated from Roundview College. Kaya Scodelario's Effy provided one narrative link with the old crew, having appeared in the first two seasons as the mischievous and quixotic younger sister of our nominative series lead.

Some viewers were turned off by the loss of such characters as Sid, Cassie, Tony, and Michelle. But I went into Season Three with the hope that I'd grow to love Effy, Pandora, the twins, Freddie, J.J. Naomi, and Cook as much as I did their Skins forebears.

And ultimately I did.

Last night's season finale of Skins ("Finale") didn't feature the entire cast but it did offer the perfect end to a season fraught with complexity and bruised emotion, focusing the tail end of the season on the central relationships between our three former best friends--Cook, J.J. and Freddie--and their shared love for the destructive Effy.

Season Three as a whole used the breakdown of the friendship between the so-called Three Musketeers as a spine for the entire ten-episode run. When we first meet the troika, their banter is interrupted on the first day of college by their shared fascination with the stony beauty of Effy, a woman who leaves a trail of disaster in her wake. Her arrival into their world quickly tears apart these friends and the next batch of episodes find them grappling with Effy's choice to be with the mercurial Cook, despite the obvious lure between her and good-boy Freddie.

Looked at in its entirety, Season Three offers an examination of the fragility of male friendship. Seemingly impenetrable, the bond between these three friends is ripped apart quite easily when they soon learn that they can't all have Effy... and that she's quite content to pull their strings to amuse her. And yet each of them want Effy for different reasons.

For the sexually voracious Cook, Effy represents an easy access to no-strings sex but he quickly develops feelings for her even as he continues to sleep with Pandora and just about every woman he encounters. For J.J., he's in love with the fantasy of Effy, seeing true magic in her every movement. Freddie, out of all of them, loves Effy despite--or perhaps because of--her flaws. But he wants all of her and she's just not willing to open herself up in the fashion.

So instead we see Effy in freefall this season. Reeling from her parents' divorce and Pandora's betrayal, she throws herself into a series of self-destructive encounters with Cook, reveling in the darkness and perhaps willing herself to feel something, anything, rather than numbness. Even when Freddie finally tells her the truth about her feelings, she's drawn back into Cook's orbit rather than allow herself the opportunity of genuine happiness with Freddie.

And then there was the camping trip. With Freddie suddenly dating Effy's seeming social rival Katie, Effy hijacks her camping trip with some magic mushrooms, which leads to a nasty confrontation between the two girls. Which ultimately leads to Effy smashing Katie's head in with a rock, leaving her alone in the woods, and then sleeping with Freddie while Katie bleeds out before the gang leave her the following day, unable to find her.

Granted, Katie was strangling Effy, but it was an act with glaring repercussions for Effy. She lashed out at Katie, she concealed her actions, and she slept with Katie's boyfriend without giving the girl a second thought. (Yes, she did call emergency services the following morning when the gang couldn't find her but still.) When the truth about what she did comes spinning out, Effy and Cook take off for points unknown.

Which brings us to last night's season finale, which finds Effy and Cook arriving at the shabby village where Cook's deadbeat father (played with pitch-perfect precision by Peep Show's Matt King, a.k.a. Super Hans) and where Effy finally sees Cook slipping off the deep end and reaches out to Freddie for help. After all, sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom before we realize we need to start climbing upwards.

Offering a mirror to the start of the third season, the Skins season finale pulls together the now disbanded group of friends, bringing Effy together with Freddie, Cook, and J.J., with the latter finally making amends, thanks in no small part to former magician J.J., who works some sleight-of-hand here. It's a testament to the skill of co-creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain and their staff of writers that they were able to pull off such an affecting and realistic portrayal of shattered friendship... and offer a salve for the wounded feelings of all involved while stealing another man's boat. (Aside: I also thought the writers did a remarkable job this season dealing with the sexuality of both Naomi and Emily.)

Cook finally realizes that he wants more from life than to turn out just like his awful, no-good father. The two might share the same name, the same battered tendencies, and the same arrogant catchphrase, but we all have choices to make in life. We can blindly accept our fates or we can choose our own destinies. Just because Cook and his father--who threatens to burn his son's face off with a flare when he refuses to give him the boat's keys--might be coming from the same place doesn't mean that they're going to walk the same path in life. When Cook throws his nasty father overboard, it's the ultimate gesture of freedom, an assertion that he is his own man. Hell, it made me like Cook and I can only hope that he turns his life around.

Likewise, it felt entirely earned that the hungry ghost Effy would now, after wandering the English countryside with Cook for weeks, choose to be with Freddie. She's wandered into the darkness and come out the other side. She's made others suffer and suffered herself. Now, standing on the brink of ultimate destruction, she's choosing the light and giving herself permission to be happy. It's time to stop pulling other people's strings and start living her own life for a change.

There's that magic word again: change. The old gang may be back together but it doesn't mean that the winds of change won't blow through their relationship again. Life just keeps on going, even if we try to stay in one place long enough to make it stop or, like Effy, if we run from everything we know. When Freddie asks the group, "What do we do now?" it's an honest question.

I for one can't wait to see the answer.

Season Four of Skins is set to air in January on E4 in the UK.


Lizzy D said…
I've read a lot of negative things about season three and am so happy to finally see a positive review. While the season had its ups and downs I felt that, overall, it was hugely successful and really made me care for these characters. I like how the season finale paralleled the beginning, with just Effy, Cook, Freddie, and JJ and allowed the audience to reflect on just how much these characters have been through and how much they've changed.
Mimi C said…
I stuck it out because of your reviews early on and boy am I glad I did. Cook was just too much for me in the first 3 episodes. he seemed to be such a one note but as you said the writers (and actors) were able to flesh him out in a believable way.

I can't wait to see what happens in the next series.

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