The final season of Skins opens with an early morning downtown London crowd parting as the camera works its way through it. It’s raining, naturally, and nearly every person stares glumly into the camera as they walk past, huddled under their umbrellas. Initially it’s not clear the camera is just a camera. It seems more likely that it’s Effy, the star of this opening episode: the new employee, the tall, blue-eyed, fresh-faced twentysomething played by half-Brazilian, half-British Kaya Scodelario. For this final season of Skins, the writers offer up their crown jewel first. Within a wealth of superior writing and character development, Effy has nonetheless stood out, and she’s probably best represented on this show what exactly is so difficult and wonderful about being young. Eventually the camera veers to the left, and we see Effy leaning against a bridge overlooking the Thames. She’s about to face another workday at the bottom of the totem pole. The party’s over. Or is it?
It’s been a few years since we last saw Effy; in its fifth season, Skins moved on to a whole new crop of Bristol teenagers. Now, Effy works at a hedge fund in London’s financial district, where she mans a front desk alongside a redheaded peer who, unlike Effy, has no interest in moving up the corporate ladder. This girl takes frequent breaks, falls asleep at her desk, and messes up her boss’s schedule. Effy, on the other hand, works long hours, does her boss’s work for her, and plasters a wall of her bedroom with printouts from work. Eerily, Effy’s direct boss Victoria (Lara Pulver), closely resembles her: piercing blue eyes, long dark brown hair. She is Future Effy, but in Effy’s eyes we see some glimmer that suggests she would do everything better than Victoria does. That she will be Victoria 2.0.
She gets home to chaos long after dark. Her roommate, Naomi (Lily Loveless) from seasons three and four, doesn’t have a job. She wants to be a comedian, but spends too much time smoking weed and drinking wine and not enough time writing jokes. Effy, suddenly, has become the disappointed older sister, resentful of her rent burden and impatient with Naomi’s jokes. But what does Effy do after Naomi’s party has finally wound down, after Naomi has attempted and failed at a drunken Skype with her long-distance girlfriend? Effy puts on a dress and goes out.
The feeling Effy gives us is infused with many of the same ingredients of brokenheartedness: sadness, envy, exuberance, anxiety. There is a hole inside her, and the show has always partly been a quest to figure out the nature of it. She discovered it — or else dug it out herself — long ago, at the start of adolescence, as most of us do. Nighttime — drugs, dancing, slipping into the guise of some mysterious but daring alter ego — seems to fill it best.
Skins has always been able to convey, better than most shows, the feeling of being stuck, for better or worse, with yourself. And unlike so many contemporary shows — too many contemporary shows — it hasn’t tried to build its foundation out of the romantic relationships between its characters — desire, courtship, breakups, reunions — to get us to keep watching. There has been plenty of romance, but it’s never been the focal point of the plot. Love, we’d like to say, is everything. But life is mostly filled with a struggle with the self: self-loathing, self-involvement, self-discovery. Skins gives credence to this. It sees life as it is.
So is it frustrating to see that Effy and the director of the hedge fund, Jake (Kayvan Novak) are in quiet pursuit of each other? Yes, but it’s also accurate. How clichéd that Effy would long to replace Victoria, who is sleeping with Jake, and how clichéd that Jake would be looking to trade Victoria in for a younger model. But it’s a power trip as old as time, and it’s not just Jake who’s on the power trip.
With the help of Dom, Effy’s nerdy friend from a different department, her power trip becomes more than sexual. He teaches her the basics of finance, the information that she isn’t trained to know and which Victoria would probably prefer she never learn. Then, when Effy’s spacey coworker accidentally double-books Victoria’s schedule, Effy decides to go to one of the meetings in Victoria’s place, and baits a potential investor with some knowledge of his company’s financial situation (and, it can’t be denied, with her looks). She sits there calmly drinking water as the investor becomes increasingly charmed and drunk.
Effy quickly becomes the hedge fund’s designated beautiful woman, unquestionably intelligent but undeniably alluring to the male clients the firm is trying to woo. This also, unfortunately, is not unrealistic. Effy quickly proves herself a shrewd trader, but she is not allowed to just be that: she is asked again by Jake, who is himself pursuing her, to wine and dine the investor she took out to lunch. We follow Effy’s logic while Naomi looks on, dismayed by her friend’s choices and not afraid to show it. We understand Effy’s predicament. She has gained power by making a bold trading decision when all her peers around her — all men, needless to say — make the opposite trade and criticize her for being reckless even though she turns out to be right. But it isn’t enough for Effy to be smart, apparently. She is young, she is a woman among men, and she’s attractive. First she is cast aside as a pretty receptionist that Jake hopes to eventually nail. Then when she proves her intelligence, she is asked to do more than should be expected of her — or of any woman.
With great responsibility comes money, power and pleasure, and we’re not led to believe that the financial world will give Effy anything else, anything more substantial, anything that could fill the hole better than dancing through the night can. But power is the strongest currency amongst those. We know Effy, and we know she is capable of more than pleasure-seeking and being used. Despite the likely fraught situation Effy gets into — in the final scene of the episode, she and Jake are pressed up against the wall of his apartment — it’s hard not to want to be in those shoes. It is a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy too close to reality to resist on the basis of rationality, so close we can almost touch it.