“Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”
— Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) Batman Begins
Throughout The A Word, creator/writer Peter Bowker has managed to balance all of the characters, with an overarching theme essentially good people can do bad things. The line between realistic moral ambiguity and nihilistic amorality isn’t that narrow, but in “Sleepover”, the latest episode of The A List, Bowker jumps it on several occasions.
The main focus of the episode centers on the ramification of Rebecca Hughes’s (Molly Wright) sexual encounter with Luke Taylor (Thomas Gregory). In the wake of the event, Luke starts to ignore Rebecca. Now, one would think that seducing a sexually inexperienced girl and then ignoring her would merit a fair amount of villainy, but not in Bowker’s pool of moral ambiguity. Rebecca’s uncle Eddie Scott (Greg McHugh) gives voice to the feelings of the young Luke, explaining that losing your virginity is such an important rite of passage for a young man. Men expect that the event is a transformative ritual. The next day, however, they wake up the same as they were the day before.
It’s far more an excuse than an explanation. Essentially, Eddie’s arguing that Luke felt like he was Popeye, and that losing his virginity was like diving into a vat of spinach. The fact that Rebecca might have some expectation of the act having some meaning as far as a commitment is apparently irrelevant. Bowker even gives Luke an out to break up the relationship. Eddie confronts him in a grocery store. In the next scene, he’s confronted by Rebecca, and uses the previous encounter with her uncle as his way out. Now, in a world with some sort of moral compass, Luke would be at best, a despicable womanizer. Not in Bowkerland, where empathy seems to be an apology for any awful behavior.
Rebecca’s seduction and dumping also led to a second subplot: the distance between Rebecca and her mother Alison Hughes (Morven Christie). A lot of the scenes between Alison and Rebecca ring true. Bowker cast Rebecca as the neglected but loving sibling. Joe’s (Max Vento) autism sucks away the attention of everyone in the family, including Rebecca herself. As a pubescent woman, however, Rebecca has her own issues to deal with. Rebecca only bleeps on Alison’s radar when she says something confrontational, or questions how her mother treats Joe. Bowker writes them as having a kind of hostile détente, with momentary flair ups of open hostility. There is, however, a farcical quality to this entire subplot; it seems everyone in the family learns about Rebecca’s sexual encounter before Alison.
“The Sleepover” seemed intent on pulling every character back to Bowker’s vision that we’re all just good people doing bad things. The unsympathetic characters are given moments that lighten their least sympathetic qualities. Joe’s adulterous aunt Nicola Daniels (Vinette Robinson) becomes more likable as she protects Rebecca’s secret valiantly before betraying it. We also learn that children love her, so she can’t be that bad. Her milquetoast husband Eddie Scott (Greg McHugh) goes forward with his bold plans to expand the brewery. The all-controlling, manipulative family patriarch Maurice Scott (Christopher Eccleston) is given a scene to show how sensitive and vulnerable he actually is.
Finally, Alison, who’s the closest thing to a real villain in the show, is given an entire subplot in which Joe gets sick during a sleepover. The fever helps mitigate the effects of his condition. For a brief moment, he seems like a normal child. We learn that this is referred to as the “fever effect”. Alison has a brief celebratory moment believing she has had a breakthrough with her son, only to come crashing down when she discovers her son’s improvement was only temporary.
The A Word has only had one fairly consistent good guy, Paul Hughes (Lee Ingleby). He spends a good deal of the episode being a bit of jerk to his manager Sally (Abby Ford), who happens to be his ex-girlfriend. At the end of the day, they share some beers and intimacies. Paul seems happily oblivious to the many layers of inappropriateness of this encounter. It’s his daughter Rebecca that remains the show’s most consistently sympathetic character. She seems to be the only person in the family to accept, understand, and deal with Joe’s condition. She demonstrates a great deal of maturity dealing with her ass ex-boyfriend, her meddling uncle, and her distant mother.
Joe remains Joe. He’s there to be the kid with autism. One of the most difficult traits of an autistic child is the inability to empathize. Ironically, Bowker’s depiction of Joe’s autism makes it all but impossible for the audience to empathize with the character. It’s strange that the focal character of the show is starting to become an afterthought in the very series that’s meant to be his story.