Date night in Manchester is so much fun it could convince you something actually happens. Okay, some turning points are reached. Henry and Freddie both embark on new relationships, and that wonder of physics Daniel takes another several inches forward and backward at the same time, literally and figuratively. But by the end of the episode, not much has really changed for the characters. And it’s the funniest episode yet.
Even after Dean’s kidnappers get in a little marital squabble about making sure Dean can still breathe while tied up in the trunk of their car, it’s still well within the realm of possibility that we’re witnessing the prelude to a hate crime, so for a while there I was tapping my foot all through the other dates just to make sure Dean’s hook-up was a role-play arrangement. It’s clear from the moment we see him strapped to the bed, but the anticipation really gives way to comedy when one of the ski masks pulls out a canister, unscrews the lid, and reveals a fleshlight. Naturally Dean doesn’t last long, foiling the plans for a whole evening of sex slavery. We don’t learn much about Dean, which is par for the episode, but unlike some of the other characters, Dean doesn’t learn much about himself either. Instead he’s good for some comic relief, as when the three of them, Dean still strapped to the bed and the other two all in black, make more milquetoast plans for the evening, EastEnders and toast. That night one of the guys hooks up with Dean on the sly, but they get caught, and Dean walks home with a wrecked relationship in his wake. But Dean has always been pretty good at ignoring the consequences of his actions.
Cleo also blithely intrudes on a relationship, she with an old friend who happens to be engaged. But Cleo does stop herself before they go very far, and the fact that she imagines herself at their wedding is a pretty good indication of why she called things off. Why she couldn’t have told him that before he popped a Viagra is another question. But that’s how the four dates (as opposed to Dean’s hook-up) go: slightly awkward conversation at dinner, hesitance in bed, frank and revealing discussion as the night wears on. For Cleo, that involves talk about hand technique, vaginal reconstruction, and ultimately an affirmation of love for her friend. Then she gets home to find her son definitely feigning sleepiness after rolling off his buddy, both of them shirtless in bed together.
Which brings us to Lance, who also sleeps with a friend. Lance actually discovers something about himself: He doesn’t just want any old sex. “I could still fuck you,” he tells his date who exclusively bottoms, “but I’ve waited for nine years. That’s nine years of waiting for the sex that I want, and I can’t fake it for one more night.” It’s an incredible moment when he makes that realization and says, “No.” He’s disappointed but relieved and empowered. It’s also relevant to him that this is just a fling. Lance wants something more. Daniel would just be a fling, too, but Lance is in way too deep with that guy. After the usual sexual banter, with at least one instance of Daniel suddenly mocking Lance with extreme contempt, they decide to go to sleep in Daniel’s one-bedroom flat. Daniel insists. But not in the same bed, see. No homo. Except Lance can’t sleep, and he rolls over to face Daniel on the floor, and Daniel, eyes closed, is on his side facing Lance. And there’s a sound of a hand going back and forth really fast underneath fabric. (Another revealing sound effect: At the diner when Daniel agrees to stick around with Leigh, suddenly the air is filled with the sound of zippers, terrifying zippers playing overture to a sexual encounter Henry won’t be able to live up to.) Surely Daniel knew Lance was up, since Lance was rolling around in bed and readjusting his pillow. Is he waiting for Lance to make a move? Or is he just so repressed that he actually convinces himself he’s being inconspicuous?
Freddie and Anna’s discussion is more universal, less rooted in the specificities of Freddie as a bisexual man. But the conversation is still funny, honest, and topical, the two of them going back and forth about fetishizing bisexuals, straight guys’ fascination with anal, and of course Michael Bay’s flat-faced, round-assed starlets. At first Freddie’s put off by Anna’s curiosity about the fact that he’s had sex with men, but by the end Freddie gets off on it. It’s like Anna’s both his partner and his voyeur. He gets to perform. Still, it’s the same old Freddie. At the end, when each of the storylines flashes forward to an imagined future, Freddie predicts a blow-up about her texting too much. Yet he doesn’t let that scare him off. Is Freddie actually going to try to settle down?
It’s not clear if Henry intends to keep seeing Leigh, but their night together is beautiful. Like Cleo and her friend, they bond over the clumsiness of dating at middle age, which leads Henry to confront how afraid he is of sex. Normally prudishness in stories about gay men is a double-standard. For Henry—in an episode full of bare backsides, model six-packs and guts alike, men kissing each other throughout—it’s the defining fact of his personal life. He waxes philosophical about a generation of gay men who came into their sexuality at a time when sex was nearly inextricable from death. When you’d get a bruise after a one-night stand and wonder if your time was up. “That was terrifying. Walking around for days thinking, ‘I’m dead.’” He’s wrong to project his own personal experience onto a whole class of men who seem to me to be often quite sexually open, and he’s wrong to suggest that lust-shame-mortality cocktail is specific to men of his generation. But giving voice to such an embarrassing idea as sex being scary is one of the functions of art. Sex is supposed to be easy, natural, programmed on a primal level. A caveman could do it. But Henry can’t, even though he desperately wants to. And the longer it goes, the greater the anxiety. He blames porn, and Leigh agrees. The prevalence of hot young men who are always at peak performance frightens Henry into his shell. “It makes me think that sex is for sexy people.” In that light it’s even more important that the episode is full of imperfect bodies having imperfect sex.
That list includes Henry, too, although it’s nothing he wasn’t already doing with Lance. Then again when was the last time Henry and Lance even had non-penetrative sex? Henry’s making progress. He’s admitted his fears with an understanding partner, and he’s taken a step toward facing them. Plus Leigh makes a crack about Muslims, so there’s not a lot of pressure to impress him. What could go wrong?
- “Episode 4” is written by Russell T. Davies as usual, but there’s a new director for the next three episodes, Alice Troughton.
- Four episodes in and I still wince at the cleaver slicing the cucumber.
- One of the kidnappers is a softie. “Are you okay?” Dean: “Yeah.” “Can you breathe?” “Yeah.” The other kidnapper: “Clive!” Clive: “Sorry.”
- Henry’s online set-up, Rupert, tells him, “I love a man who knows exactly what he is.” Henry, who hasn’t seen the profile Freddie made for him, asks, “What is that exactly?” “Power bottom.”
- Rupert takes off his underwear and flings it behind him. “Ta-da!”
- Henry isn’t into certain porn actors but doesn’t want to seem racist. “I feel pressured into wanking over Japanese footballers just to prove I’m a nice man!”
Banana, “Episode 4”: Helen
Helen (Bethany Black) is the first Banana point-of-view character who hadn’t previously appeared in Cucumber, giving the Lost-like moment when Helen pours wine for Cleo on her date the pleasure of a puzzle. But there are other connections, too. Like Freddie bristling at the thought of being a fetish object for Anna just because of his sexuality, Helen drops the mic on her stalker ex Eddie with, “It’s really boring being someone’s fetish.”
Helen certainly isn’t Banana’s fetish. This isn’t a story about transition or an afterschool special about a trans-specific tragedy. Helen’s a grown woman who’s great at her job and starting to date a guy who’s cool with her identity. But Helen being transgender is vital to the story nonetheless. Her ex is a creepy in any event, but the fact that she’s trans is apparently a big turn-on. He clearly isn’t interested in Helen as a person. He’s interested in her as a body. An object. And that makes it easier for him to hurt her by publicizing some nudes and a sex tape via the Banana equivalent of Facebook. It’s an intense montage in spite of incredible (as in not credible) responses, because some of the details are exactly right and the soundtrack is just a pulsating drone, creepily generic computer sounds, and Helen’s panicked breathing. And that’s just the main trauma. In her daily life Helen has to endure “Yes, sir” snipes from a bitchy underling and a strained relationship with her family.
That turns out not to be the expected strain. Whereas Helen has a couple trans friends who were totally disowned by their parents, Helen’s family is actually very supportive in their own way. Mom unwittingly guilts Helen (“I spend my life worrying about you!”) and Dad unwittingly stresses her out with his protectiveness (“I’m gonna kill him!”). Little brother Arnie even adds to Helen’s anxiety, as she worries about her identity being a problem for him among his peers. But to get a sense of how supportive they are, when Mom tries to video-chat with Helen on her birthday and can’t get through, a cut shows us that all three of them were sitting on a couch with party hats, balloons, and a Happy Birthday banner. In short, they’re imperfectly accepting of Helen, like a real family.
So after the leak, which doesn’t leave Helen with much legal recourse and everyone’s already seen her naked anyway, both decks being a little too stacked if you ask me, there’s nothing to do. Helen’s family can’t save the day. But they can demonstrate growth. For Mom that means saying about Eddie, “What a cunt.” And for Dad, that means calling Helen Helen. As she tells him after a heated and equally implausible moment, “First time you’ve lost your rag and not called me Ken.” That’s a huge deal. It’s been how many years and Dad’s finally accepted—really truly accepted—that he has a daughter named Helen. Mom says there’s something much worse than a leaked sex tape. “Watching your little boy being unhappy for 18 years.”
It’s kind of cheesy and sappy and like a third viscous substance, watching this family come together, but even more than that it’s rare. There are so few trans stories on TV that a bit of sentimentality is still powerful. Even fewer are set in a period this far after transition, when the protagonist is fully living her life but her family relationships are still reforming. And fewer still are as optimistic as this. Banana was made for stories like this.
- “Episode 4” is written by Charlie Covell.
- Helen chases her dad down to his car. “You’re not gonna kill him!” “Yes, I am!” “You don’t know where he lives!” He didn’t realize that until just then? What was his gameplan?
- The IT bit gave me similar pause—why are they just now thinking about using Arnie’s award-winning computer skills to help—but Arnie saved it: “I did try. I’m not actually that good at that stuff.”