Close to a decade ago, a shift in my circumstances led me to, after a long hiatus, return to soap operas. Not how I refer to the dramas of my existence, you’ll understand, but the long-running episodic drama series which are the mainstay staples of television programming.
In the light of YouTube, Netflix and podcasts, to name but three challengers traditional entertainment media faces, the likes of Coronation Street, Hollyoaks, Neighbours, Home and Away and EastEnders (I never really got on with Emmerdale) seem almost ridiculous in their dated approach to catering for our needs, but somehow they still demand my intention. Perhaps it is so I can keep an eye on what passes as normal human behaviour to the normal humans so alien to me that make up the viewership. No, not for the first time, I don’t have to be alerted to the irony.
I sometimes struggle with the storylines, and will abandon even my sporadic viewing until a specific plotline runs its course or, so I’m sure it can’t be resurrected, at least one of the characters involved is killed off. Largely, however, and to varying extents across examples, soaps are informative mirrors to society, and progressive. There’s the banal and the misrepresentative, sure, but soaps educate and enlighten as a matter of procedural policy.
One case of this occurred over recent weeks. On EastEnders, a quite brilliant complex character named Sean Slater briefly returned. Don’t get me wrong, he’s no Michael Moon - alas, he won’t be back - but Sean’s mixture of charming, cheeky, impulsive and self-destructive was compelling, and he fleetingly performed the Phil Mitchell counterfoil role to perfection, so his resurfacing was very welcome, especially as his persona hasn’t let up.
Sean’s comeback consisted of learning that his ex-wife and arguable soulmate, Roxy Mitchell, died two years earlier, and his mother has been diagnosed with cancer with a vague prognosis. Fun stuff, but this is Albert Square after all. Even so, Sean has his own demons - particularly relating to his perceived role in the death of his father - which hang heavy on his shoulders, so when he compares an exasperated voicemail message from his sister with a fondly beckoning old message from Roxy - given new meaning in the light of her demise - he apparently concludes his place is no longer on this mortal coil.
Sean, in a countryside barn, clasping a shotgun he loaded earlier - two cartridges, oddly - is found by his long-suffering mother and sister. As mother Jean attempts to talk him down, in a beautiful set of scenes that should provoke delivery of awards to several of those involved, the selective logic of the decision to take one’s own life is laid bare. Whilst Sean may have hurt people, indeed may have killed people, that is not all he is. He’s also done good, and been loved, in spite of his flaws. Whilst that may not matter to anyone who loved his father, say, and not Sean - and the desire for someone to stick around is often selfish and not necessarily big picture-focussed - it is no less true than the negative memories which are so prominent in the mind of someone suicidal. And there is an egotism to the conclusion that the world, and loved ones in particular will be better off without “us”; we can’t hope to know the short- and long-term impact of our sudden departure, and certainly won’t be able to control a future we don’t exist in.
As I say, the storyline and portrayal may have been moving, but it wasn’t perfect. Jean tells Sean to focus on the good, such as his health - impactful when delivered by a cancer sufferer - and his youth, but the former may well be up for debate, considering his predicament, and the latter is by definition forever slipping away. Time will do for both, and it smacks of a “it could be worse” approach to comfort which tries to rationalise away an outlook which is often impervious to objective rationality.
Indeed, when going through a particularly traumatic fallout from tragedy as a child, I was given, amidst the love and comfort I was so blessed to receive, the advice to think of those worse off than me - with examples given - but the scale of anguish does not perfectly correlate with received wisdom on calamity ranking.
So, yes, I saw, and indeed see much of myself in Sean. That is what provided the impetus for me to write this piece, but prior to starting it I realised Sean, with his greater propensity to be violent, his more frequent brushes with the law, and, frankly, his seldom-resistible good looks, is far more similar to someone I knew from my own days in east London many years ago and hadn’t thought about for a very long time. Someone troubled I was charmed by, then grew to despise, then dismissed as meaningless, to my life, as I more logically redirected my hatred onto myself.
I assume that man I once knew, like Sean in the EastEnders universe - implausibly packed off to The Priory, to hopefully receive the help he needs - still walks the earth, as do I, obviously, at time of publishing, and that can only be celebrated, as is the status quo when it comes to (potential) suicide. Of course, it’s a Churchillian concept, in that of course the sticking around is (almost) universally regarded as the correct decision, because only those who overcome their suicidal tendencies are present for the debrief. That said, the most striking take on suicide I ever heard concerned a person who leapt from a bridge, who after surviving said that they were certain they wanted to die right up to the moment they jumped, at which point their view was entirely reversed, and they became certain they wanted to live.
Bravo to EastEnders, even if a following and unrelated storyline did culminate in someone taking their own life. Sean's return wasn't perfect, but enough to save lives, and avoid the ruining of others, and the shockwaves that can be felt for decades.
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