Gossip Girl 3.11 “The Treasure of Serena Madre” (aka Detournement)
Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.
– William Bradford, History of the Plymouth Plantation
Gossip Girl graces its fans with a belated Thanksgiving episode this year; these episodes tend to be the bulwarks of the season, playing directly to the show’s core strengths: filial and political intrigue, incredible awkward moments, and reversal upon reversal upon reversal. This year’s episode is no exception.
The “Jenny-as-neoconservative US interests” allegory continues in full force, as somehow Jenny cannot comprehend why after exercising heavy-handed domination and humiliation over Eric and his boyfriend Jonathan why they would somehow hate her and why Eric would not want to be best buddies at Thanksgiving. Of course, once the cards come out and Eric reveals that he was behind the attempted sabotage of cotillion, Jenny promises retaliation while Eric promises never-ending war. This is part and parcel with the disparity of force brought to bear by the hegemon and the challenger. The hegemon is on the defense; the challenger is on the offense. The hegemon has everything to lose; the challenger has nothing to lose. The hegemon has to win every time; the challenger only has to win once. Most likely something (perhaps not Eric, but something) will bring Jenny crashing back down to earth, if only because turning Jenny into a permanent Blair clone holds little long-term narrative potential.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the Dan-Vanessa-Olivia threesome continues to reverberate; Olivia is out of the picture and shooting a new film (and possibly off the show for good?) leaving Dan to stew with the seemingly newfound feelings for his best friend. This plays off as awkward banter during the Thanksgiving dinner proper and Vanessa’s mother Gabriela bringing her perception and wisdom to the situation. It’s actually quite difficult to summon interest for this plot, because as mentioned before, Dan Humphrey is no longer our point of entry into this world. Back in the salad days of Season One, we were traversing into unknown territory, and Dan — good old cynical outsider Dan — provided our viewpoint into the world of the Upper East Side. However, his transition over the seasons has made him into as much of an insider as anyone else on the show; he’s become one of the soapy characters without any of the interesting soapy plots. Again, this is the same transition that The O.C. went through somewhat unsuccessfully, and calls into question whether there isn’t something inherently self-limiting to this narrative cycle — it’s got enough life for a couple of seasons, but trying to sustain it is like keeping a corpse on life support.
What ends up happening in this kind of narrative cycle is that we become inured to your standard soap plots; either the plotlines have to be thinly-veiled retreads of things we’ve already seen, or things have to be pushed to newer and more extreme levels, eventually creating an atmosphere and mood that is unsustainable. For example, now that we’re fully ensconced in this world, it seems that the only things that can hold our attention and have some narrative oomph are indeed the crazy soap-bubble plotlines — aka the Serena-Nate-Tripp clusterfuck. This is a plotline that was mind-numbingly boring when it was merely about Serena wondering whether or not she should sleep with a married congressman, but with the introduction of Tripp’s wife as an active antagonistic force, there is an actual sense of intrigue when played out over the course of the Thanksgiving meal. This is also complicated by Nate’s revelation of his own feelings for Serena, which seems to pose a parallel to Dan: note how Nate’s active reaching out towards Serena ends up in heartbreak, while Dan’s denial of his own feelings results in a pleasant status quo, regardless of how false it may actually be.
The French theorist Guy Debord (I told you the Situationist International would show up here sooner or later) discussed two opposing forces at work in representational culture and media: detournement and recuperation. Detournement happens when marginalized, avant-garde, or oppositional forces take a piece of mainstream culture and invert it to create a new work with a subversive quality, one that often challenges core assumptions of the mainstream. One can argue that this is exactly what happens with the centerpiece of the episode, the continual series of relationship-shattering revelations that summon a feeling akin to a boxer getting pummeled in the face repeatedly. The scene is backed by the Jason Derulo track “Whatcha Say”, which samples Imogen Heap’s song “Hide and Seek” — which any follower of Josh Schwartz’s work knows is indelibly linked with the most hilarious scene from the entire run of The O.C. (In its own way, the connection between the two may be seen to be a cry for help.)
In opposition to detournement is recuperation, in which mainstream media takes oppositional forms (for example, punk music — or the decentralized multicentric communication style of today’s youth) and repackages it in such a way that it retains or generates mass appeal while being stripped of its oppositional or subversive content. Gossip Girl exists in the grey zone between the forces, playing with mitigated versions of each. At its best, by purposefully taking a different tack from the novels from which it was spawned, the series’ self-awareness plays directly into upending its own forms; the viewers can engage in negotiated readings of the material, and the show becomes open to various form of critique (such as from a Marxian perspective). At its worst, the show abandons this course and takes the path of least resistance, only playing at a hip self-awareness while it attempts to rely on its performers’ natural charms to get through tired retreads of done-to-death plotlines.
This precise position is not exactly one of recuperation, but it evokes similar responses because the question facing Gossip Girl is whether it is relevant to its audience anymore. A recent article in The New Yorker noted that
Even before the financial crash of last fall, the sales of “Gossip Girl” books had leveled off, and since then they have declined — in part because “fans are getting their ‘Gossip Girl’ in other places,” as Morgenstern puts it, but also because the books’ milieu is less beguiling, and less relevant, than it once seemed to be. At Alloy, too, a certain weariness with brat lit has set in. “We are really a little sick of mean-girl stuff”… “More serious, angsty literature is where girls are right now. Morbid, dead-girl lit.”
Twilight is the new Gossip Girl. Perhaps it’s right that a navel-gazing focus on the decaying dead space within American culture, a twisted and somewhat sadomasochistic Nietzschean power fantasy, has replaced a cynical and self-conscious quasi-celebration of excess and style as the flashpoint in young adult literature and media. So then, what is to be done with Gossip Girl? One can almost feel this awareness of being marginalized in the series itself, and this season has been one long mission to transform and transition into a form that is still viable. Will it succeed? It’s up in the air at this point, but if a country can seriously transform a singular semi-fictional event that happens to be one of the few points in Native American relations that wasn’t wholesale massacre and oppression into one of its major national holidays, then anything is possible.
(I assume it will be covered in great deal in the upcoming episode, so I’m shelving discussion of the Serena-Lily-Dr. Van der Woodsen plotline — but let’s just say that the “identical coats” plot element was so brazenly transparent that it works. More intrigue is afoot…)