The last episode of Gossip Girl continued the show’s return to form, and thankfully contained various acts of wanton cruelty.
try to humiliate her best friend, crush an innocent underclassman, thwart her mother’s crucial fashion show not once, not twice, but three times
(that’s from NY Mag’s weekly breakdown of the show’s finer points).
We can debate (and they do) whether any of her assorted misdeeds was effective at getting her friend back, a point I’ll take up later. But we don’t need to argue about her motivation: her best friend has rejected her and her mother is neglecting her in favor of a younger, blonder, protegé.
This is actually a hallmark of Blair’s character, and of one style of drawing a character in general: Psychological transparency. Her motivations are intelligible, and her actions are related to them in a straightforward way.
On the other hand, there’s Chuck, whose relationship to his motivation changes in this episode. A brief examination of how will shed light on how the show is written, and what it means to write (and read) a character.
Previously Chuck’s the motivations had been inscrutable. It was vaguely clear that he wanted to bring about Serena’s re-ascendancy in order to get Blair — maybe if she was dethroned, she’d turn to him for help being even more Machiavellian. But why would he want Blair in the first place? She’s a queen bee, but Chuck, who rejects the norms of any social order, surely ought to reject this enticement.
Why does he take Dan out for two nights in a row? Amusement, as he states? No way. Nobody could be less amusing than that loser. It’s a mystery.
The problem with Blair’s psychological transparency is that it situates her actions within a discourse about effectiveness. She is handing us criteria by which to judge her. Set aside the fact that her motivations are stupid. (She wants mommy to pay attention? Please.) Because we know what she’s trying to achieve, the fact that she doesn’t achieve it is a mark against her. And the fact that her strategies are so ill-chosen — I mean, isn’t this girl supposed to be pulling all the strings? — makes her seem like a petulant, spurned child, blindly throwing a tantrum.
The inscrutability of Chuck’s motivations (again, up until this episode) added to his allure, because it made him impossible to judge, at least on any terms he’s willing to grant us — as opposed to say, morally, by which standard he’s a jerk. There was a constant deferral of judgment, a missing piece of information that was necessary to forming a complete picture of him. This kept us involved with the character and, they should hope, kept us watching.
This is why it was such a mistake to spill the beans about Chuck’s dead mother. It flattens him out, makes him seem two dimensional and schematic like Blair. By giving him a soap-opera backstory (have I mentioned that I hate backstory?), it makes the front story much less compelling.
But there’s still hope, I think: really none of Chuck’s schemes seems well-calculated to ingratiate himself with Bart Bass. (He’d have an easier time ingratiating himself with Lance Bass… speaking of which, the show really dropped the ball on the gay sub-plot, huh?)
So his motivations are clearer now. But the relation between his actions an his motivations remains a mystery.
I just read William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell, one of his memoirs of the movie biz. (He’s the writer of The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy, and others.) He also took issue with the idea of backstory. His argument went something like this:
Imagine you’re watching Casablanca and Rick’s just been introduced. Then someone in the bar says, “Man, why is Rick so cynical all the time?” In response, another character (maybe Renault) explains something along the lines of, “Oh, well, he had a family in America but then lost them in a car accident so he got depressed and moved to Paris and then met up with this girl but the girl turned out to be married so he got fed up and moved to Casablanca to get away from his problems.”
Makes Rick look like a total loser. No more mystery.
I agree and disagree. Backstory can work, but it has to be pulled off in an appropriate way. Just having a third character explain the soap opera history of a protagonist is clunky. But we have no problem watching the flashback in Casablanca, which essentially IS Rick’s back story. Seeing Rick waiting for Ilsa and knowing she won’t come is heartbreaking. It makes us understand his motivations (or lack thereof) and bitterness, but for some reason it doesn’t make him look like a loser who runs away from his problems.
This is all a long way of saying it depends on how it’s done.
Now, why hasn’t some shameless Hollywood exec made a Casablanca prequel based on Rick’s backstory?
“Rick Begins.” I like it.
You know, I love that book — I can’t believe I didn’t remember his story. The first one is good too.
Belinkie and I watched “Bourne III: With A Vengeance” (I can’t remember the Latinate noune for #3) the other day, where the backstory is in fact the McGuffin. (MacGuffin?) We split on whether it works — he thought it was too little payoff for the setup; I thought that, for an action movie, it was an uncharacteristically deep parable of choice and responsibility.
But the point in Bourne is that he’s separated from his psychology — he’s actually brought up short when it becomes clear that there *IS* a reason for his actions. Up until that point, he had been a cipher even to himself. (Much like modern man. But I digress.)
Backstory fails when it’s a lazy shorthand for other, richer kinds of character development. Not surprisingly, you see it in TV all the time. For whatever reason, the examples that leap immediately to mind are from police procedurals: “You know, when I was 8, I saw a robbery in progress and nobody stopped it. That’s when I decided I was going to be a cop. And that’s why I have to solve this completely unconnected case.”
It also depends on a kind of simplistic psychology, a one-to-one correlation between a character and her history. And it fails to take into account the myriad other factors that affect behavior or interfere with agency. (The Departed actually took up this question pretty directly, pitting individual history against family, ethnic, and group loyalty.)
Re: “Rick Begins.” I know it’s sacrilegious to say so, but maybe Batman in all his forms would be cooler if we never knew why he put on the cape? Just a thought.
As for police procedurals, I thought the new cliched backstory was “My wife was killed so I became a cop to try to track down her murderer and get revenge on humanity (but maybe learn something about myself along the way?). Luckily I turned out to be REALLY good at it. Like, much better than anyone else of those ‘by the books’ guys– especially my boss.”
Why would a prequel necessarily have to lay Rick’s background all out? Ilsa didn’t know his background when she became involved with him, after all.
Gossip Girl is the best TV Series for me. every teenage girl love this TV Series.