Perhaps I’m anticipating the show ending its run next season, with eight short episodes in which to wrap up the sprawling melodramatic plot. But my sadness at the end of this season’s The L Word felt much more like the grief I experienced at the end of the first season, knowing I’d have to wait months to watch, rapt, until this lesbian soap opera started up again.
Maybe it’s because the resolutions this season were more satisfying than usual. Maybe it’s because the typically ham-fisted cliff-hanger ending seemed so over-the-top . Maybe it’s because the narrative captured the spirit of an ending more than any of the other seasons. Whatever the reason, I feel this year the same sort of separation anxiety and sadness that plagued me for weeks after the first season ended.
I’ve saved the season finale on my DVR, and watch it (well, parts of it) regularly, not because the writing is particularly good, but because I feel moved by certain threads in the story, and because certain images and scenes strike a chord in me that makes them both familiar and keenly nostalgic.
For instance, I’m embarrassed by how delighted I am that Bette and Tina have rekindled not just their relationship but their romance. The scene I’d wear out if I were re-watching it on tape happens toward the end of the final episode, at the wrap party for Les Girls, when Tina and Bette join the party’s dancing women. The camera tracks Tina leading Bette by the hand toward the dance floor. It’s not particularly artful camera work; in fact, the lighting is dark, the subjects far from the lens. But you can see Tina in control, with Bette following almost shyly, as they wind their way through the crowd toward the floor.
Laurel Holloman, especially, got this moment right. She performed that nuanced pride that a woman in the lead radiates as she parades her partner into a public party space. In some ways, she demonstrated that deeply queer sense of what Joan Nestle called “erotic responsibility” (although Nestle was talking about butch lesbians in the 1950s, which hardly describes Tina). Something in her manner, in the proprietary way she lead Bette to the floor, showed off her newly found sense of agency and social and sexual power. I’ve found it inexplicably satisfying to watch Tina come into her own in this way, and to see her role in her relationship with Bette strengthened and broadened. I also find it rather sexy to see Bette “topped” in this subtle way, to see the erotic power between her and Tina grow and shift.
When they reach the floor—as a lovely cover of “Walk on By” plays on the soundtrack—they perform a dance of mutual seduction that’s both breathtakingly intimate and boldly public, caressing each other’s hips and arms, shoulders and backs, moving in for kisses that look almost artful in how well they meld together physically and emotionally.
Uber-producer Ilene Chaiken, who wrote and directed the episode, also does a good job using the “audience” for their dance floor performance, letting the Greek chorus of Bette and Tina’s friends note their reunion and agree with Kit when she remarks that “they belong to together and always will.” Chaiken also cuts into the scene several reaction shots of women on the floor who note Bette and Tina’s seduction dance with a kind of proud envy. These moments of public feeling, if you will, are crucial in lesbian communities—or at least in my own historical experience of them. Before lesbian weddings or commitment ceremonies were options for public display, these moments on the dance floor were when we acknowledged relationships, approved of partnerings, and shared a kind of community pride in how we were learning to love each other.
I remember those moments in smoky dyke bars, leading a lover to the floor to visibly declare our existence as a couple. I recall almost viscerally how necessary the affirmation of our community was to believing we could continue to love each other, to figure out how to be together, to make our way in a world in which we were never as visible or as supported as we were in those moments on those dark, loud dance floors, twirling together under disco balls. Fortified by those moments, we made our way out into a much less compassionate world.
While party scene reminded me of my bar dyke days, Bette and Tina’s conversation beside their luxurious pool reminded me that lesbian relationships are now solidified and acknowledged in more domestic ways. As they reminisce about their history, Bette protests that she never really left Tina, and Tina corrects her, saying, “Yes, you did. But you came back.” I was moved by their renewed commitment and enjoyed watching the staged intimacy of their conversation at home But then Chaiken had to go and ruin it all by having Bette whisper into Tina’s hair as they embraced, “Should Angie have a baby brother or baby sister?”
I regret that this representation of what finally seems like a good lesbian relationship has to be marked as reproductive and conventionally kinship-based. Angelika is a cute little kid (and a sweet little actor, giving her one-word lines the appropriate inflection: “Jodie!” “Honk horn?”). I like seeing Bette and Tina raise a bi-racial child. But do they really need another baby? Do they have to underline the newly found, hard-won health of their relationship by reproducing again?
And why can’t Chaiken and company cut poor Shane a break? Why does her inability to commit have to provide the overly melodramatic cliff-hanger for every season? This year, it seemed the show’s resident Don Juan (or Don Juanita, as Lily Tomlin would call her) had finally found her match in the reluctant lesbian turned Sapphic enthusiast Molly (Clementine Ford). Although Molly was just coming out, her initial refusal to fall for Shane’s charms made her a worthier conquest for Shane, who had to modulate her expectations and her seduction strategies to Molly’s slower pace.
When they finally had sex, their emotional connection was already established, their affectionate give and take already grounding their physical connection. Their sex scenes seemed to work better than any others Kate Moenig has played over the years—Clementine Ford actually seemed to be fond of her, and they seemed to meld physically in more fluid, persuasive ways than Moenig’s other on-screen sex partners.
How disappointing, then, to have the writers contrive this too-predictable, abrupt and self-abnegating break-up. When does Shane get to show some strength and self-respect, instead of acquiescing to queer shame and abjection at the end of every season? She actually seems to love Molly, and only leaves her because Phyllis, with her arrogant class snobbery, can’t bear the thought of her precious daughter’s life sullied by a street kid like Shane (who, let’s face it, as a hairdresser on a Hollywood movie, is hardly slumming anymore). Shane caves too easily; casting off Molly at Phyllis’s behest doesn’t make sense. When will Shane get to fight for herself?
And what’s with this casual sex with Nikki at the episode’s end? Granted, the sex is nicely explicit, happily public, and pretty hot (I’ve enjoyed, all season, the actor playing Nikki. Her bedroom scenes with Jenny seemed sincere, and their attraction more authentic than other sexual liaisons performed on the show across the seasons). I can be persuaded that Shane and Nikki’s mutual loneliness would throw them together. But honestly, who cares anyway? Why does sexual fidelity always arbitrate who stays together and who breaks up? In this sense, the show wears its conservativism on its sleeve, even though the fact that it exists at all continues to be something of a political and cultural miracle to me.
Jenny and Nikki have been a compelling couple this season, appreciating and honoring each other’s vulnerability, ambitious in their sexuality, yet caught in the strictures of a Hollywood system that requires its stars to stay closeted. Jenny’s diva-dom falls apart when the viper Adele replaces her as the director of Les Girls, and she and Shane have a sweetly intimate but Platonic moment together at home on their couch, getting high and cuddling to take Jenny’s mind off her fall from grace.
Jenny and Shane, in fact, provide one of the more interesting relationships on the show—the friends who’ve never been lovers, but whose love for each other is foundational, necessary, motivating. Yes, Shane seduces Nikki (who could resist Shane hanging over your table making eyes at you as she did to Nikki?). But why does it have to break Jenny’s heart? Why does sexual betrayal have to be the period put on the end of the season?
Likewise, Alice’s relationship with Tasha needed the addition of a new love interest for Alice to help it dissolve, instead of more frankly addressing the couple’s incompatibility. Rose Rollins as Tasha has been an elegant presence on the show; her throaty, sometimes nervous laugh always added a level of sincerity to the proceedings, while at the same time, seemed to underline the show’s essential falseness. But Tasha and Alice were never a good match.
Chaiken and company, however, write their pending break-up as a clash of class values and politics instead of addressing straight on their racial differences. Alice can’t understand why Tasha would join the police academy, a choice that fundamentally contradicts Alice’s liberal politics and also disappoints her class aspirations. Alice’s attraction for a white woman (another actress with a British accent of unknown origin) and Rose’s isolation from any vestige of a lesbian community of color isn’t interrogated or even explored, leaving the show’s racial implications strangely unexplored in the narrative.
The parodic Sopranos-esque subplot about Kit losing The Planet to Dawn Denbo-and-her-lover-Cindy ended in grand style. Deus ex Helena came to the rescue with her newly re-released trust fund, encouraged by her possibly-dying mother (played by the divine Holland Taylor) to solve the situation by simply buying Denbo out. With The Plant secured and Cindy freed (whether into Helena’s arms or not), we can rest assured that our heroines will have somewhere to get their lattes on their way to work in the morning, and can return there in the evenings to listen to women musicians, fall into each other’s arms on the dance floor, and otherwise not engage in Turkish oil wrestling, the show’s ridiculous wet t-shirt contest moment of the season.
Perhaps next season, Kit will get her life back. Without a paramour, she’s left without a plot-line, except as little Angie’s babysitter and Bette’s disapproving older sister. She also carries the show’s “color,” performing race with the colloquial greetings she tosses out regularly, but never written to have a life in which her race is truly explored as a factor.
It’ll be interesting to see if Rachel Shelley returns fulltime from her sojourn with the tax-dodging prison-escapee in South America to bring some allure and levity to the L-girls’ machinations. And hopefully, Bette and Tina will continue to grow their relationship without necessarily growing their brood.
Eight episodes next year should be enough to wrap things up. But anticipating the series ending, I already regret not having The L Word‘s Sunday night escapades as a touchstone in my life. Over these last five years, loving and hating the show has been not only a pleasant pastime, but a meaningful, moving incursion into pop culture territory for an old-time lesbian feminist like me. I’ve enjoyed watching Chaiken (who’s chronologically my contemporary) mature as a writer/director—with lots of help from her co-producers, especially Angela Robinson, whose own directing and writing always bumps the series up a notch. Chaiken’s willingness to parody herself with the Les Girls subplot, using it to mirror and acknowledge the excesses of The L Word itself, proved a generous gesture to fans.
The season’s treasure trove of in-jokes, too, seemed shout-outs to lesbian and queer culture that made me feel part of a community, not just of the show’s viewers, but of a certain strata of lesbians who’ve traded in open secrets about closeted lesbians and other subcultural knowledge for many years, without a cable tv show to affirm us. This season’s casting of Kelly McGillis as the closeted army sergeant prosecuting Tasha under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was particularly fun, especially in the same year when Jodie Foster finally acknowledged that she’s a lesbian, given rumors of her affair with McGillis on the set of The Accused. This kind of reference added to the show’s fun.
I’ve also enjoyed watching the actors grow with their characters, especially this season, as some of that growth was portrayed with more nuance and sophistication, and seemed more complicated, hard-won, and heart-felt. Jennifer Beals, Laurel Holloman, Leisha Hailey, and even the boyish Kate Moenig all look older than they did five years ago, when The L Word began. Looking at the new lines on their faces, and the way even their lithe, toned bodies are starting to soften, I’m moved by the time I’ve spent with them as actors in this lesbian comedy-melodrama. Their familiarity with and affection for each other as people seems reflected in the ease of their characters’ interactions and commitments. Their growth over time is evident in the comfort of their physical relationships with one another, regardless of their dialogue. In their screen presences, and in their acting, I sense how they’ve matured and aged, and I’m reminded that I’m older, too. I already feel nostalgic, watching the last episode of the season; I’m already starting to miss them.
The Feminist Spectator