In my review of the pilot for HBO Max’s Gossip Girl, I praised the show’s decision to make the group of teachers Gossip Girl, comparing it favorably to the type of move Pretty Little Liars would’ve made. It was a truly unhinged character and plot decision that could only lead to more madness, as we see here in “Lies Wide Shut.” This episode not only follows up on the inherent promise of doing something as over-the-top as this, but it also makes the depths to which Constance Billard-St. Jude’s School teacher Kate Keller and her colleagues will eventually sink even more intriguing. That intrigue, combined with the (interestingly-timed) event-of-the-week and relatively grounded plots (that are compelling without trying so hard to be scandalous), makes this Gossip Girl’s most successful episode so far.
“Lies Wide Shut” (written by Lila Feinberg and directed by Jennifer Lynch) is also the first episode to really feel like this version of Gossip Girl knows how to move. For better or worse, the original Gossip Girl always felt like it was in motion—like New York City itself—as opposed to the sleepiness this version has. (The sleepiness is most present in how it’s been promoted though.) While Karena Evans created a distinct visual style for the series, it’s a look that specifically focuses on simply stopping and taking a peek into this world. It very much feels at arm’s length, keeping the audience at a distance because they’re outsiders. But being an insider isn’t just a Gossip Girl thing, it’s a television thing, and Lynch’s direction here officially extends the invitation.
Watching these characters at The Public Theater, just before the premiere of the new Jeremy O. Harris play, plans in motion and guilt in overdrive—it’s all simply the most alive this show has felt when it comes to its teen characters. When it comes to its focal point, despite who Gossip Girl actually is. As the camera spins around as Max and Julien scheme—and Audrey figuratively spins while overthinking things—Gossip Girl feels like Gossip Girl. It’s fun. It’s a little tense. It’s Gossip Girl.
The episode also confirms that getting away from the Julien/Zoya feud absolutely was the right choice. Things aren’t perfect—although Julien snarking at Zoya and Obie at the play kind of is—between the half-sisters, but in allowing them to branch off on their own, the episode (and show) is easily better for it. However, on her own, Zoya still struggles as a character because of her status as the show’s regular person. While there are obviously moments (like in this episode) of her trying to be someone she’s not, Zoya’s story is not the same as Jenny Humphrey’s; she’s not trying to get into the in-crowd, she’s attempting to just be. But much like in a supernatural series, a character who just wants a normal life is simply at odds with the show. That is one thing that the Gossip Girl situation hurts: As the teachers are the outsiders attempting to be insiders, the show isn’t all that concerned with its teenage outsider being an insider. On the one hand, that’s a valuable lesson about nonconformity in a teen drama. But on the other hand, that sinks interest in this character’s plot, comparatively.
In an episode that starts with the Gabriel García Márquez quote, “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life,” Zoya is the one character who doesn’t have that here. There’s the secret about what happened at her old school, but considering how easily she reveals to Luna that she’s not supposed to be living in her grandmother’s rent-controlled apartment, even Zoya’s secret life isn’t so secret. Gossip Girl adds a fourth life, a “dating life,” and Zoya does have that... But as this episode unpacks the layers of its characters—including the parents, other than Nick—it noticeably isn’t able to do that with Zoya. It gives a little more to Obie, as Zoya has him think about his role in his relationship with Julien failing, but compared to the rest of the episode and its intent for these characters, something is missing.
Yet, having said all that, the moment in this episode that is the truest to the spirit of the original Gossip Girl is the one where Jeremy O. Harris makes his cameo and takes Zoya aside for a one-on-one chat for his play.
But if, as viewers, we’re still pitting Zoya and Julien against each other, then Julien wins this particular round. There’s a bit of bumpiness early in the Julien/Max plot—as Julien having fun comes off as completely performative, which is not the show’s intention—but the episode quickly moves past that. Once things get into “space coke” and the very realistic bathroom best friends scene between Julien and Lola (Elizabeth Lail) territory, Julien is officially at her best. It helps that “Lies Wide Shut” also elevates the type of parent-children dynamic focus for Gossip Girl that “She’s Having A Maybe” featured. Nick remains a parent bot in his one scene and Gossip Girl forces Luke Kirby to permanently wear an obnoxious hat, but the parental scheming Julien and Max do in this episode works far better than Julien’s original scheme from the pilot.
In fact, despite the fact that this episode features the most open drug use, underage drinking, and sexual content—this is the Gossip Girl episode with full-frontal male nudity—it is also the episode where the kids are their most kid-like. In a good way, as their behavior throughout is the type of thing that makes you want to root for them or at least feel for them. It’s the reason the Julien/Max messaround is as successful as it is, as is Max’s emotional breakdown over his now broken family. As I’ve said many times before, “predictable” isn’t inherently a bad thing. It can be a sign that a story is following a logical progression, which is something that should never be taken for granted. In this episode alone, it’s “predictable” early on that the Gossip Girl crew is going to make Rima the scapegoat, just as it’s “predictable” (even if not to Max) from their first scene that the issue between Roy/“Pops” (John Benjamin Hickey) and Gideon/“Dad” (Todd Almond) boils down to gender norms. It’s also “predictable” that poor, sweet, naive Zoya once again revealing personal information is going to eventually be held against her.
This early on, the predictability also helps determine this world’s internal logic, especially compared to the original series. After all, this is a show that operates with a form of logic that explains why multiple teachers would think being Gossip Girl is a good idea. And despite how much it does so while winking, it also does operate in a more self-aware world. Take for example the fact that Julien never takes her issues with her father, Davis, out on Lola, his secret girlfriend. While doing the opposite would’ve provided drama—and would’ve easily been how the original Gossip Girl would’ve approached it—nothing is actually taken away from Julien not going after Lola. Unless you consider showing Julien to be a decent person once again taking away from the story the Gossip Girl crew is trying to craft. But I’m pretty sure that’s the point.
As I’ve noted Kate Keller’s outright villainy in the past two episodes, I can’t ignore that both Jordan and Wendy prove to be just as bad, if not worse, here. Keller actually somewhat takes a backseat to Jordan and Wendy’s planning and scheming this week, as “Lies Wide Shut” brings some more clarity to these character’s motivations. As has already been clocked, for Keller, Gossip Girl is a means to a bizarre form of high school popularity. Rima genuinely just wanted to teach the kids without distractions. For Wendy—who’s not a teacher but works in the school office—there appears to be a desire for chaos. As for Jordan, while it at first looked like he was simply all in because of Keller, this episode suggests he’s very much taken by the rush of power. So, the moment he brings up the school’s firewall (which he controls), it’s only a matter of time before he uses it to his (and Gossip Girl’s) advantage.
This whole thing began when Monet got one of their colleagues fired just because she could, and now they’ve gotten one of their colleagues fired just so they don’t have to stop being Gossip Girl. In terms of these characters losing the plot, I can’t imagine that anyone watching has actually bought into their claims that Gossip Girl is creating a better environment for the school. That a couple of their colleagues supposedly agree—and I question Rafa’s testimony that the students have been “more respectful”—with that assessment is all the fuel they need to continue down this path. Meanwhile, while Gossip Girl sends Audrey and Aki into a tizzy thinking a blind item blast is about them—and doesn’t even realize they’ve done this to them—the “more respectful” students of Constance Billard-St. Jude’s are cyberbullying Zoya under Luna’s hashtagging orders. It’s almost really funny that, even when Gossip Girl isn’t actively trying to ruin Zoya’s life for no reason, forces are still at work to try to ruin Zoya’s life (as a result of Gossip Girl’s humble beginnings). If anything, while characters like Julien and Audrey may work to keep hush-hush to avoid Gossip Girl hearing their secrets, “Lies Wide Shut” only shows that characters like Luna and Monet have either become emboldened by Gossip Girl or simply still don’t care. And the latter is much like the Gossip Girl crew itself.
Watching this episode, I did, however, find myself sometimes struggling to fully latch onto certain lines of dialogue, and that’s something that has been the case since the pilot. While there are quips, that’s not the show’s bread and butter. Instead, Gossip Girl feels in some ways like an updated Dawson’s Creek in terms of its verbiage, begging for “no teen talks like that” criticisms. Sure, no one is talking about their electrical synapses being on overload, they are talking about toppling the patriarchy during makeover montages. I spent a good portion of the pilot imagining what a Kevin Williamson version of Gossip Girl would look like, as the show’s self-awareness especially resembles that of classic Williamson. (I imagine that if it were present-day Williamson at the helm, it would be an adaption of Gossip Girl, Psycho Killer.)
And much like early Dawson’s Creek, it’s very apparent when the cast isn’t accustomed to the cadence of the dialogue. For example, up top, there’s the Julien/Luna/Monet “fuck the patriarchy” scene that I couldn’t help but scratch my head at during and after. I truly believe the scene is almost on to something satire-wise, but it’s not quite there—to the point where it ends up being the kind of scene posted on social media just to show people how bad the show is. (Because, again, “no teen talks like that.”) These characters are constantly monologuing at each other, and that’s a style that can work... but it can also fail. Right now, it’s hard not to sometimes zone out during these moments. With Luna getting to do more than just be the tall mean girl in this episode, Zión Moreno shines. Not during the monologuing moments but in beats like Luna’s confusion about a phone call or the “smizing” effect of wearing contact lenses when you don’t need them. Both work far better than the monologue she gives while on the phone—even though you’ve gotta love when a teen drama pulls a Pygmalion—or in that aforementioned Julien/Luna/Monet scene.
But as I mentioned last week, Evan Mock’s performance is the weakest and flattest of the cast, and the style of dialogue does him no favors. As Gossip Girl also comes from the Josh Schwartz school of writing, the episode delightfully does a back-to-back scene paralleling two conversations and anchoring it with a specific phrase (“I’m a terrible person.”) The energy and performance of the Julien/Audrey bathroom scene and the Aki/Obie hallway scene is like night and day, even though it is intentionally structured to have the same energy. It also doesn’t help, on a character level, that Aki is freaking out about kissing Max as part of a honeypot situation, which is nowhere in the same stratosphere as Audrey sleeping with Max. While there’s the sexuality question looming over Aki’s head because he enjoyed the kiss, the performance simply can’t handle it. When Aki says he’s freaking out just because he kissed someone else, all that comes across is that he’s freaking out just because he kissed someone else. While there is intention beyond what’s simply on the page, Mock doesn’t show an ability to actually evoke that intention. Instead, we have scenes like the one where he and Audrey have more bad sex and he freaks out about her going for his ass—because the subtext has to be text for anything to come across for this character.
That’s why it’s confusing that the episode focuses more on Aki’s spiraling than Audrey’s, especially since the small amount of anxious Audrey we get shows off Emily Alyn Lind’s comedic chops. In different ways, both Alyn Lind and Thomas Doherty prove their ability to pull off the kind of performance balancing act that makes a successful Gossip Girl character like Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass, respectively. So as the triangle continues, their energy—and the fact that they actually have energy—propels the story in every way, shape, or form. Because, unlike Aki, it’s not all that Audrey and Max have going for them, as evidenced by their familial plots in these past two episodes.
With Monet and Luna appropriately waiting in the wings for a great deal of this episode, the conclusion allows for the show to confirm that it does realize the better, more interesting story of butting heads stems from Julien versus her “minions” (and their decision to take matters into their own hands). Even if not outright a rivalry, Gossip Girl sees that the machinations of these antagonist characters make more sense to drive the plot than the forced feud between half-sisters who just want to get to know each other. While Julien isn’t 100% on great terms with Zoya yet, the fact that she’s blood means the show will most likely never go full scorched earth when it comes to these characters; but you can always do that with Julien and her “friends.” In fact, separating Julien from Monet and Luna—and focusing more on her friendship with Audrey and Max—really helps things fall into place as character and friendship dynamics, in general.
Oh yeah, and Gossip Girl will probably wreak some havoc or something too.
- Drink every time a character stares from the school hallway to (or through) the courtyard or vice versa.
- Julien: “Did you kill someone?”
Audrey: “Worse. I may have slept with Max.”
Julien: “May have or did?” Please note, I already made the “I killed someone.”/“U.R.A. Fever” reference last week.
- I’m interested to see what Gossip Girl’s ultimate plan is with Obie, as it continues to be cognizant of the hypocrisy of his non-stop privilege talk but has yet to truly reckon with it. (Zoya eventually tells Obie that he’s “The Prince of New York” but pretends he’s not, so it’s not like these characters don’t see it.) The choice to open the Zoya/Nick/Obie dinner scene with Obie mid-monologue about privilege is deliberate—I wrote “insufferable” in my notes—but I’m not sure to what end.
- Zoya: “I don’t want botox. I’m 14.” I want to start crowning a character “The Nate Archibald of the Week”—what that means will change from week to week—and this week, it’s Zoya. Solely because of this line. Imagine Chace Crawford delivering this line.
- This episode provides a strangely meta moment for original recipe Gossip Girl and You fans alike, in Julien following Lola around town. That makes Julien the Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) to Lola’s Beck (also Elizabeth Lail).
- Another reminder they’re still “just kids?” Julien’s plan to get Davis to tell the truth about Lola is just the same plan as Max’s, only with less high-tech subterfuge. She truly just copied his homework.
- Obie: “Who’s that your dad’s with?”
Julien: “Why? Do you wanna date her too?” This, of course, comes after she takes Obie’s snacks for herself.
- Sorry, Zoya, I would watch the hell out of a genderswapped My Fair Lady (also Pygmalion) starring Jake Gyllenhaal...
- Luna’s makeover of Zoya doesn’t quite work, but she was right on the money about not trusting the doorman.
- Much like I question how Gossip Girl wouldn’t count as targeted harassment—blind items seem like the way to go to circumvent that, in general—I also question teachers openly following the account in the first place.
- Paul James plays the titular Aaron in this episode’s Jeremy O. Harris’ play. You may remember him from another teen drama, Greek. There was no full-frontal nudity on ABC Family.
- Once again noting this show’s self-awareness, the fact that the three white teachers lay the blame on the one person of color in the group is clearly a very pointed choice. But who knows if it really even takes the heat off them, as they acknowledge that Rafa is someone they’ll have to deal with. While he may not know 100% for sure they’re all Gossip Girl, he does know they all considered it in the first place. While Rima didn’t snitch, Rafa would.
- For everything I wrote about the Max/Rafa plot last week, I appreciate how things ultimately go down this week, with Rafa talking to Max as his teacher and letting him (innocently) stay on his couch.
- As the Chuck Bass comparison is there, despite the Rafa plot, Gossip Girl’s doing well to make clear that Max isn’t a villain. This episode goes to great lengths to show Max is so much more than the kid who just wants to fuck everyone, especially in how he becomes so small when he asks Roy why he did this to their family.