I haven’t thought much of the supermarket intros at the start of each episode of Cucumber. Last week I didn’t even mention Henry running off into the woods, lost to the old order of his life. But the supermarket scene in “Episode 6” got me even before that fateful title card. Instead of Henry, it’s Lance shopping for groceries this week. That makes sense. They’ve just formally split up. No more waiting game. Even better if the sequence heralds a Lance episode, or so I thought. Then Lance is about to push past an aisle, but he stops and looks down it. He’s not sure if what he’s looking for is there, and he’d really rather not deal with the hassle of going for it on a guess. But eventually he decides to turn down that alley, and that’s when his fate is sealed: “Lance Edward Sullivan 1966-2015.”
“For a long time, I’d wanted to write a death that feels like a death,” Cucumber and Banana creator Russell T. Davies told RadioTimes after the original UK airing of “Episode 6.” “I’ve been thinking for years that in order to tell a death, I’d have to tell the whole life. And devote a whole episode to it. So that at the end, I hope, it doesn’t just feel like someone’s dead, it actually feels like dying.”
On the face of it Davies is telling a now-classic tragedy, one that Stranger By The Lake transformed into a thriller last year: To be a gay man is to court danger. Whether that danger is disease or violence, someone like Lance or Henry or, yes, Daniel risks something in the search for connection. There are ways to minimize that risk, but sometimes we let passion get the better of our defenses. A woman on Canal Street puts it bluntly. “You could just go home,” she implores Lance. “But he’s so damn handsome.”
The woman is Hazel, the guardian angel of Canal Street and one of several tactics Davies uses to give weight to this sudden character death that might have otherwise felt cheap. First of all, he tells us upfront Lance is not long for this world. He’s not out to shock us. And he’s not just after suspense, either: He gives us a lengthy, multi-act montage of moments in Lance’s life, starting with his birth. Nobody’s going to be wondering when Lance is dying for the first half of the episode. Instead we can focus on these particular moments that give shape to his life. There are the expected milestones like his first apartment and parental deaths. There are his gay milestones, like when young Lance runs into the woods with Playgirl and tries to bury the evidence of his sexuality or when he brings a boyfriend home for the holidays each year and gets rejected.
But this isn’t that tragedy. This tragedy lives in the pregnant pause after Henry refuses to have sex for the third time and guilts Lance for asking. The moment hangs there in the air as Lance gathers his thoughts. He’s not the one making this a problem. Sex is natural. Henry’s the one who got defensive. And then he turns to Henry and finally says something. “Sorry.”
Nine years of apologizing for nothing—how’s that for a description of repressing (homo)sexuality?—has built up so much pressure Lance can barely think straight. Henry surprises him to say, “I love you,” and Lance responds, “So what?” That’s the last half of the episode, one passed up escape hatch after another. Hazel is the big one. She asks Lance, “Is it worth it? The chance of one night with a handsome man, is it really worth it in the end?” He laughs and assents. “Really?” She forces him to really consider before making his choice. This time he’s more solemn, but he can’t help it: “Yes.”
And she still gives him more chances. “Go home. You’ve taken a wrong turn, but you can still turn back. Now listen to me, and go home.” That’s when Daniel shouts for him. Daniel always pulls Lance back at the exact moment he’s about to go. Hazel’s final words give me goosebumps. “I’ll see you again.”
The whole bad night with Daniel, Lance is on his way out. Daniel keeps getting drunker and drunker, and Lance doesn’t like the sloppy, macho aggression. When Daniel starts flirting with some young guys, Lance realizes he could just leave. He threatens to call a taxi several different times, but every time Daniel gets a little bit closer, until eventually he has one arm around Lance and the other pulling out his own dick. And still Lance keeps trying to leave. He doesn’t want to have anal sex, not like this. Daniel accepts that and sits back down. That’s Lance’s last chance.
It’s thrilling in the moment, but as soon as it’s over Lance is sitting next to a man with a fearsome temper who’s furiously repressed. Cucumber holds its characters responsible for their actions, but it’s interested in the long chain of cause and effect that got them there. Daniel is a murderer, and it’s awful that among the final images that pass through Lance’s mind’s eye are flashes of fucking Daniel sobbing in the corner. But it’s also awful that Daniel’s life has led to this. That he didn’t know how to be who he is. To be a gay man is to court danger. Sometimes that means the external violence of a homophobic society, and sometimes that means the external violence of a homophobic society internalized.
There at the end Lance’s life flashes before his eyes, not in much order, but there are patterns. Loved ones and Hazel appear before him on the couch in Daniel’s apartment. Henry transports him to the bed they shared for almost a decade. He remembers Cleo’s laugh. He has so many happy memories. He’s dancing, he’s fucking, he’s standing in front of that aquarium pining. He can’t get this Eurovision song out of his head, his version of a stroke victim smelling toast. There are moments of blackout, and flashes of Daniel, and then one last Eurovision clip before one last blackout.
- When Lance’s father tells him where babies come from, young Lance immediately responds, “I’m not doing that!”
- Jordan Adene and Isaac Ssebandeke play the younger versions of Lance. I especially liked Adene, who echoes Cyril Nri’s slightly apologetic, slightly frustrated deliveries, but both nail his babbling.
- The hospital scene with Henry and Lance’s sister is another formative memory. The sister doesn’t want Henry to see their father in case it exacerbates the father’s condition. Lance protests that this might be his only chance to meet Lance’s long-term partner. And Henry insists that he’ll be okay waiting in the hallway, effectively forcing Lance to give in. This isn’t about Henry’s feelings or comfort, though. Lance wants that basic life experience of introducing your parents to your partner. Henry helps deny him that.
- Lance waxes poetic on love to Henry: “It’s just some random association. It’s a phrase that goes with your face and this house. That’s all. And I love you, too, if you really want to know. Of course I do. But so what?”
- Henry: “Is this what I did to you?”
Banana, “Episode 6”: Amy
I was hoping the accompanying Banana would be about Hazel the karaoke queen, but instead it’s about a woman we haven’t seen before, Amy, and her first date with a woman named Kay. I had forgotten all about Cucumber when the connection revealed itself and I covered my face with my hands. Kay had a rough night prior to the date, and Amy asks if she can talk about it. “It was…a murder,” she says, and as soon as the line clarifies everything—Kay is a cop, and that’s what the rough night was about—we already know what the crime scene looked like. Daniel was catatonic, she says. He called the police himself, turned himself in, was waiting for them holding the murder weapon. I never expected anything else, but I do hope we hear from Daniel again.
But Amy and Kay quickly move onto more appropriate first-date conversation material, Amy’s obsessive-compulsive behavior. Banana delights in hypothetical avenues, like Dean imagining the course of his relationship with some guy on the bus or Scottie running through the streets of Toulouse. Here they’re all comically tragic depictions of Amy fearing the worst. For example, when she sees a stranger’s shoe’s untied on the bus, we see what she’s picturing: him tripping into the path of an oncoming bus.
Kay’s remarkably sympathetic, possibly because Amy is such a winning mess as she tries to spit out her words in the right way. Here’s a sample, and it’s just a preamble to what she’s trying to say: “Plus you’re in the police. You’ve probably spent time with people who are actually mad, or, you know, more mad, or madder, whatever you say, I, oh, fuck it, look—” It’s a little annoying and a little endearing, but she flies through that word maze, and I love the ending, where she’s trying to will herself over this bump and get to the point. Kay also tries to make her feel comfortable about some of her neuroses. Lots of people worry about leaving the stove on or the door unlocked, and worrying about causing pain to others is admirable. The problem is when that interferes with living your life, but Kay’s about to get to that part. She admits it is weird and silly that Amy has to land on her right foot at the top of the stairs.
It all leads to this climactic test of the goodnight kiss outside Kay’s building. “If that light goes on,” Amy thinks, looking at one of the rooms in Kay’s building, “I’ll kiss her. Turn on, turn on, turn on, turn on, turn on!” So we’re conflicted. We want the light to turn on, because we want them to kiss. After Cucumber, we could all use a happy Banana. But, Amy needs to get over this, so it would be all the better if she would just say, “I oh, fuck it, look,” and kiss Kay anyway. But in the space where her dreadful stall tactic is finally running on fumes, Kay leans in and kisses Amy instead. Good for the young romance, bad, well, neutral for Amy’s personal development. Test postponed.
As soon as Kay kisses Amy, though, the lights turn on in the room, and then in a few more rooms, and window by window the entire building lights up behind them. And after they take a breather, Amy’s the one who goes in for the kiss. It’s ambiguous, and based on the Scottie episode, it might make more sense to read this as the lights giving Amy permission. But you could also see this as a demonstration that the causality is off. It’s not about the lights allowing the kiss. The lights waited and waited and only after Kay kisses Amy do they come on. It’s like Kay severs the link, and now Amy doesn’t have to wait for the signal. After all, there is no signal. They’re already on for the second kiss, and Amy didn’t see them turn on anyway. In this one small instance in a life full of worry, Kay inspires Amy to stop being afraid. It’s a beautiful, vivid image, too, the two young lovers making out and bringing the whole street to life.
That’s the final connection. Cucumber ends with a blackout signaling death. What a relief that Banana ends with the lights turning on with life.
- Charlie Covell wrote “Episode 6” and stars as Amy. If the name sounds familiar, that might be because she also wrote the Helen episode of Banana. Al Mackay directs “Episode 6.”
- How quickly the episode establishes Amy. When she first meets Kay, she decides to go get them drinks. Kay tells her, “Surprise me,” and you don’t even need to hear Amy voice-over, “Shit!” to know exactly how excruciating those two words are to her.
- Amy worries about the man who sells her the paper every week because he’s not on his usual corner, but on their walk home, Amy finds him safe and sound and selling papers there. Amy had already confessed her worries about the man to Kay, so when Amy’s assured her paperman is fine, Kay asks dryly, “Not dead, then?”