Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 5, Episode 24 of The CW's "Gossip Girl," entitled "Return of the Ring."
"The more things change, the more they stay the same." Truer words have never been spoken on The CW's "Gossip Girl," and by the titular muckraker herself, no less. We've now witnessed five seasons of Serena's self-sabotaging and Blair's on again/off again/on again/off again relationship with Chuck, and frankly, I'm a little tired of just how thoroughly things seem to stay the same on the Upper East Side.
I usually format my "GG" recaps by evaluating the top 5 "OMG" moments of an episode, and though there were plenty of jaw-dropping, credulity-stretching scenes in the Season 5 finale, they were shocking for all the wrong reasons. In the blink of an eye, five years of character development has fallen by the wayside; Serena's back to being a selfish, self-medicating party girl; Lily has tossed away yet another marriage (to her soulmate, this time) at the first sign of difficulty; Bart Bass has returned, every bit as terrible as he was before; Chuck is once again incapable of recognizing a woman's worth; Nate has yet another interchangeable love interest; and Dan is yet again on the anti-Upper East Side bandwagon, relying on Georgina Sparks to facilitate a take-down. Why, exactly, have we wasted half a decade watching these characters evolve, if devolution is seemingly so easy?
The only character who came out of the finale looking better than she did going into it was Blair, which is just as well, since the writers have spent all season treating her alternately as a chattel, emotional punching-bag, delusional Bible-basher, megalomaniacal dictator and insecure schoolgirl. Her characterization has been wholly defined by whichever man is in her life this week, leading to some truly bipolar behavior, which sometimes fluctuated between the beginning and end of a single episode.
I did appreciate the fact that it was her mother who was finally able to make her believe that she was a powerful, confident woman, instead of a reject from her revolving door of suitors. But after everything that Blair has been through this year -- a completely forgotten miscarriage, an excruciatingly public divorce from a prince -- it would've been far more satisfying if she could have come to that realization of self-worth on her own. Lord knows she's been long overdue for an ego boost, despite how many times the men in her life have tried to tear her down or tell her she isn't enough to satisfy them.
I appreciate that Chuck was hurting during his rooftop confrontation with Blair -- that his father had just emasculated him and disregarded the years of the blood, sweat and tears he poured into Bass Industries -- and that he has spent all season putting his heart on the line for Blair, only to see his affections rebuffed. But oh my god, haven't we played this storyline out five times already?
The last three seasons have been characterized by the multiple times that Chuck and Blair have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, always so close, yet so far from each other -- like ships passing in the night. Conflict in any relationship is believable -- especially since TV romances can quickly grow stale if they're kept in a state of stasis. But there's a difference between organically allowing conflict to evolve over the course of a narrative, and using convenient plot contrivances (like, say, a pact with God or an illegal-sounding dowry?) to force distance between a couple for the sake of drama. Guess which category Chuck and Blair's story falls into?
This would be fine, if the end result was any different from the myriad of other break-ups we've seen for the couple before. Blair and Chuck have been "fighting for each other" for years now, but in the end, it still necessitated Blair, ever the martyr, humbling herself for her man before the pair could have any hope of reconciliation. Despite all the cruel things Chuck has said to her over the years, all the emotional abuse, the writers determined that this newly empowered woman, complete with her own empire, should once again go and make herself vulnerable for the man who is so insecure that he scoffed at the very notion of being in a relationship with a woman who was earning more money than him. ("I don't want to be Mr. Blair Waldorf -- I'm Chuck Bass." Ugh.)
I wholly believe in the idea of redemption, the prospect that, despite physically and verbally abusing Blair and attempting to rape Jenny in the past (in other words, being a truly heinous human being), perhaps Chuck has changed, perhaps he is sorry, and is thus deserving of a second chance. There have been a number of episodes demonstrating his honest regret this season, his feelings of remorse and his desire to make amends. But because the writers seem incapable of coming up with a story that they haven't already regurgitated twice before, that Chuck was nowhere to be found this week. And if a person can so easily regress to that default cruelty the moment that they're hurt, how much have they truly changed?
It's pure narrative laziness on the part of the writing staff, and it actually makes me angry that well-plotted, carefully crafted shows like "Awake" are killed by the networks and ignored by mainstream audiences, but sloppy, half-hearted, character-assassinating shows (like the latter seasons of "Gossip Girl" have been) are allowed to endure. For a show that is arguably supposed to be focused on the female characters at its heart, "Gossip Girl" presents some astoundingly damaging messages to and about women, especially its core demographic of loyal teens who deserve a far more responsible series to support, one that actually treats its female characters with respect and agency, instead of as punching or humping bags for the petty, vindictive men who surround them. I would be angrier that Blair chose Chuck, the man who has admittedly "devastated" her multiple times, over Dan, the guy who makes her feel "safe" and "strong"; but judging by the way that Dan behaved at the end of the episode by going to Georgina to exact his revenge against the UES, she might have dodged a bullet there too.
Nate and Rufus seem to be respectful, loyal guys, and yet, they're the ones who receive throwaway plots and zero screen time, while the machinations of Dan and Chuck -- and the childish ways they lash out at those they love when their egos are bruised -- are examined in endless and repetitive detail. It's no wonder the actors are all desperate to get out of their contracts (which trap them until the sixth and, thankfully, final season, which was just announced by The CW).
No one should be more frustrated by the cyclical monotony of the storytelling than poor Blake Lively, who has actually proven to be a fairly compelling actress when she's given serviceable material ("The Town"). I recognize the narrative symmetry of bringing her from fooling around with Nate on a bar at the beginning of the series to fooling around with Dan (in almost a shot-for-shot recreation of that tryst) in the fifth season finale, but poetic irony shouldn't take precedence over consistent characterization. Serena started the year trying to better herself, to find a proper job and start trying to grow up, but as soon as things got difficult, she succumbed to manipulating her friends, sabotaging her relationships and once again, stealing her best friend's boyfriend out of spite. Then, when her bad behavior inevitably blew up in her face, instead of apologizing, she decided to run away, drug herself into apathy and allow a complete stranger to take advantage of her sexually. What a positive and empowering message to send to your impressionable audience!
This show, people. The first two seasons were, for the most part, frothy, frivolous fun -- back when the writers were required to come up with original storylines instead of recycling them for the second or third time. I'm not sure whether Josh Safran's leaving to helm NBC's "Smash" will be a positive or negative change for "Gossip Girl" in its final season, but I have a feeling it's bad news for "Smash." Regardless of what he does over at NBC, he's left "Gossip Girl," like its dethroned titular character, as a shadow of its former self. I don't even care who the real gossip girl is at this point, nor who Chuck's real mother may or may not be. I don't even care who Blair ends up with, since all of her suitors have proven wholly unworthy of her. I'm sure that Season 6 will definitively answer all of these questions, but at this point, I don't think the answers will be worth waiting for. I'm all gossiped out.
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