'Skins' recap: 'I'm like a joke to everybody'
For a character who's gotten so much screen time as a central knot in the "Skins" kids' messy web of romantic entanglements, Michelle has remained somewhat mysterious. She's beautiful, sure, and apparently easily manipulated; Tony dribbles her like a basketball, faking one way with rich, pretentious Tabitha, passing to Stanley when it suits him, going behind her back with Tea -- and throwing her through the hoop just often enough to keep her coming back for more. Is she stupid, or what?
As we find out in this week's episode, Michelle is no dummy. In fact, as we learn in a heavy-handed meeting with her attractive female principal, she used to be one of the school's best students. But, as the eagle-eyed administrator intuits, now that Michelle is gorgeous, has a hot boyfriend and spends her free time partying with her cool friends, she's become a disappointment in the classroom. "1992," the principal says. "That was the year I stopped pretending to be stupid because I was pretty."
Yes, Michelle is a bit of a cliche. Or, rather, she's a slightly more interesting combination of two cliches: the smart girl who downplays her intelligence because she wants boys to like her and the clueless girlfriend who's the last to know that her boyfriend is cheating on her.
While Michelle is sobbing in the bathroom, the show's designated nursemaid, Daisy, goes over the long list of girls Tony has hooked up with since they've been together. (You'd think one Tracy would be enough!) Michelle asks why none of her friends have ever told her he was screwing around, and Daisy says she assumed Michelle knew. "We thought you didn't mind or something." Translation: We all assume you have horrible self-esteem.
Michelle's mom is no help. In Cadie's episode, we learned that she's the kind of mother who dates filthy, pathetic men and throws her daughter boozy parties, all the while wandering around in a bikini and flirting with Michelle's teenage friends. This week, we get a more complete picture: Gillian, like her daughter, is a combination of two stereotypes. She's the sad, slutty single mom who bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend with no regard for adult responsibilities or her child's needs, and she's the liberated yet embittered middle-age woman. "No man tells me what to do," says Gillian, who tells Michelle she knows it's time to cut off a relationship when the man feels comfortable enough to start passing gas in her bed.
The only person who really stands up to Tony is Stanley. In a school-bathroom confrontation, just after he glibly tells Michelle he's sorry he gave her "the clap," Tony promises his best buddy that he'll get her back. "I can fix anything," he says, flashing that awful smirk. Stanley tries to come at him, fist raised, but Tony moves aside just in time, and our poor hero slams face-first into a stall wall. He comes away from the confrontation with nothing but a fractured nose. The scene is a pretty good metaphor for Stan and Tony's friendship as a whole.
From then on, the aftershocks of Michelle and Tony's blowout just keep coming. A guilty Tea comes over to share a jug-sized screwdriver with Michelle, assuring her that whoever Tony was cheating with must feel absolutely horrible. "I love you, Tea," Michelle tells her. So it's particularly crushing when, the next day at lunch, she stumbles upon Tea's chlamydia pills and figures out what happened. Now, not only has Tony destroyed his own relationship, but he's broken up Tea and Betty and driven a wedge between Michelle and one of the few people she still trusts.
Finally, Michelle sees her situation with fresh eyes. In a genuinely sad scene (told, somewhat awkwardly, through a private monologue), she recalls that she and Stanley have been best friends since they were 9. "I thought when we grew up, we'd be married," she says. Their innocent fantasies ended when they met Tony.
Stan, meanwhile, tries to video chat with Cadie, who is (finally!) back from the hospital, and finds out that she's fallen for a constantly half-naked guy named Warren who's "addicted to sports." He has to watch himself, she says, to make sure he doesn't become "too physically perfect."
When Stanley doesn't show up for school the next day, Michelle shows up on his doorstep. And then, seeing no other way to resolve her longing for the simple days when she and Stan were childhood friends, she wants to jump into bed. Despite his broken nose, he can't say no. But what is supposed to be his first time ends abruptly, with Michelle's hand down his pants. (Can't Stanley ever catch a break?) "I'm like a joke to everybody," she laments as they lie on his bed.
That night, once she's torn up his photos and thrown them in the jacuzzi, Michelle tells Tony she's ready to talk. And it appears that he's getting exactly what he wants: "You love me," he tells her -- because while she's free in expressing her affection, there's no way he'll say "I love you to her." She tells him no, she doesn't. Then, all of a sudden, they're kissing.
"Tony, do you think I'm smart?" she asks later, when they're in her bed. "I think you might be the smartest woman I'll ever meet," he replies, patronizing her with every syllable. I know I can't be the only one who let out an audible "Yes!" upon hearing Michelle's response: "Then you'll understand why I want you to leave now and never come near me again." She isn't about to come crawling back to Tony, after all; she's only invited him over because her brief encounter with Stan has left her sexually unsatisfied, and she'd rather sleep with someone who's already got chlamydia than spread the disease. Now, Tony knows what it's like to be subject to someone else's selfish, horny whims.
"You love me," says Michelle, in a wickedly satisfying script flip. "I'm just too bright for you. So is she," meaning Tea. Soon, Michelle is off to Boston with Betty -- two scorned women skipping town, "Thelma and Louise"-style, via a Chinatown bus that is far skeevier than the real thing.
Michelle's episode isn't the best or worst of the season, but it is welcome proof that, despite what critics have said, the "Skins" kids' actions do face consequences -- eventually. After last week's anemic Abbud story line, it's nice to get some insight into an episode's protagonist. And unlike James Newman, who can't decide whether he wants to play Tony as a shallow imitation of Nicholas Hoult's evil character from the British series or a more delicate and insecure lothario, Rachel Thevenard did some real acting this week as a girl who finally understands what she's allowed herself to become. The real test of the actress, her character and the show's writers will come now that Michelle realizes she's a cliche. Will she stop being a type and start being a person?
Your weekly Top 5 parental panic moments:
5. In just about every scene this week, Michelle and her friends are chugging vodka.
4. Daisy recites the long list of girls Tony has bedded.
3. Chris and Tony pass a joint and loudly plan to take pills, in the middle of a crowded club.
2. Michelle and Betty leave for Boston on a Chinatown bus, apparently without telling anyone where they're going.
1. Tony gives Michelle (and Tea, and God knows who else) chlamydia.
Photo: Rachel Thevenard as Michelle. Credit: Jason Nocito