SPOTTED: Sad13 Watching Gossip Girl, #3

Sadie Dupuis, Shamir, and Kate Meizner dissect the scandalous lives of HBO Max’s rebooted elite.

Episode 3

Shamir Bailey and Kate Meizner (The Glow, Jobber, Hellrazor)

Planes (private), trains (er, MTA buses) and automobiles (Lyft Luxes, natch) jet this week’s Gossip Girl away from its stronghold on the Met steps, with jaunts to Williamsburg, Joe’s Pub, and one huge overseas hammam. As our trust-y teens accrue air miles, they seem leagues transported from Episode 2’s drama, which was mostly egged on by their melodramatic parents. Kiki’s Chapter 11-inspired bender? Forgiven and forgotten. The epic feud between dads Davis and Nick? A hatched buried. Even Julien’s inextinguishable flame for Obie is now a blank space, baby. Things aren’t so crystalline between Audrey and Aki, who both would like to live deliciously after covert entanglements with Max. And Zoya, “basically imported from Siberia,” is not warming to life in the metropolitan limelight, especially as her Prince of New York, Obie, does little to dissipate the heat of baddies Luna and Monet’s relentless burns. (One primo diss in defense of their cyberbullying: “You can’t dress like the Paramus Uniqlo’s back-to-school sale and not expect feedback.”)

Joining me this week to dramamonger are Shamir Bailey and Kate Meizner. Kate, who works with DSA to write arts and culture policy for New York city council candidates, is a current member of The Glow, Jobber, and Hellrazor, as well as an alum of Western Massachusetts bands like Potty Mouth and Honeysuck. Her GG cred goes all the way back to lining up at Barnes & Noble on release days for Cecily Van Ziesegar’s original books, and in college, she’d orchestrate weekly common room watch parties for the TV show (from which her favorite character is Nate Archibald’s “ludicrous, outrageous, hilarious fail dad,” the Captain). Shamir is new to the series; I roped him into watching the reboot at my birthday party, because the pilot episode had just come out. I’m elated he’s taking a microbreak from his prolific career as a musician, label head and artist developer at Accidental Popstar to try to make sense of these ridiculous rich kids. “I’m new to the Gossip Girl game, but I really like Audrey,” he tells me. “I like her imperfect relationship with her mother, and the parent and child going through things together.” Hopefully their matrilineage can survive whatever bombshells verified IG defamer Gossip Girl hurls, with the immoral instructors of Constance Billard still holding the two-factor-authenticated keys!

This episode’s called “Lies Wide Shut.” It’s directed by Jennifer Lynch—daughter of David—and has less prestige drama pallor hanging over it, thankfully. 

Shamir Bailey: Being new to the show, I was deeply confused by the first two episodes. I don’t know what socialite New Yorker teens with money do in real life, but I’m glad I was able to start to individualize each character in this episode. They’d all kind of congealed together into one weird rich teen.

Kate Meizner: Yes, I’m pleased. In the first two, what struck me most was how all the resolutions happened so fast and ended on a positive note where everyone was aggressively reasonable and rational, in a way that I don’t want Gossip Girl characters to be.

We open on a classic Gossip Girl New York skyline, and a Gabriel Garcia Márquez quote about secret lives. First of all, how have the kids not picked up that Gossip Girl is the teachers, if Márquez is who they’re quoting on Insta?

Shamir: I was completely down from the first episode when I realized the role of teachers in this show. The first few episodes portrayed them as vigilantes, which was weird to me—they’re grown-ass people. What I want is for them to all get away with it and pin it on Rafa. I don’t like him! He hasn’t done anything yet, but he’s come too close, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Kate: A lot makes me uncomfortable about the teachers. This is where I put my tinfoil hat on, but there are theories that the original Gossip Girl, Dan Humphrey, is an allegory for Jeffrey Epstein, a theory also shared with Eyes Wide Shut. People thought Kubrick knew about these elite, powerful sex trafficking rings. Kate, as she gets verified, is finding her way into power by wielding other people’s information as blackmail. Which is exactly what Epstein did, and Dan Humprey, too! This gravity-brain theory is not mine; I listened to a podcast about this a few years ago. But the parallels are: it starts at an elite private school, where someone who’s middle class—not really—gathers information as blackmail and weaponizes it against the elite to build his own power and write himself into the story.

Speaking of someone who’s potentially fake middle class. Zoya is struggling with the weight of online notoriety, and Gossip Girl didn’t have to lift a finger. Little Z is being cyberbullied with the hashtag #ZUGLY, and virally compared to pizza rat. Somehow, the most likable thing Obie has done is defend pizza rat as an iconic New Yorker! 

Shamir: Zoya goes from “not like the other girls” to  “fuck that, I wanna be like the other girls.” I find it weird that Luna starts coaching her. Is she gonna sabotage Zoya? Or is it because Julien is a mess and Luna wants to pour her energy into some new blood? My favorite scene of all the episodes was Luna on the phone and working with Zoya, the best one-liners of the show so far.

Luna hears the phone ringing and is like, “Is this an Amber Alert?” Then answers the phone with “Do not call list.” And later tried to give Zoya armpit botox for her sweat!

Shamir: Honestly, a dream of mine since I was fourteen!

And while Luna takes this drunk Pygmalion consultancy call, I was glad to see Monet, who has been described as a lesbian, finally kissing another girl.

Kate: They’re making out, and the girl goes to say something to Monet—

Shamir: She tries to say her name! And Monet’s, like, “No.”

These characters are driving all the action and I need their backstories.

Kate: I predict episode four will shed some light. As Julien becomes self-actualized, Luna and Monet are ruthless in finding a new pursuit as the PR agents of Constance. I loved the whole Princess Diaries, She’s All That makeover on Zoya…but the fashion in this show is straight up bad. Luna and Monet’s glittery, preppy tweed look that’s supposed to recall Blair Waldorf looks very 2013 and dated. A 14-year-old would call their clothes cheugy. 

There’s not enough tie dye for 2021 teenagers. During the absolutely ridiculous makeover—where Luna tells Zoya to wear vision-obstructing contacts so she can permanently smize—Zoya tells Luna she’s secretly living in her grandma’s rent controlled apartment. For some reason this is explosive gossip to Luna.

Kate: I think they’re gonna weaponize that to get the Lott’s rent destabilized. I don’t know how a teenager would know the ins and outs of New York rent control law, especially one of Luna’s background. But it appears like she’s gonna try to get Zoya sent back to Buffalo, because they’ll no longer be able to afford the apartment. And I think Obie’s family is gonna be revealed as the owners of the building.

Interesting! And that’d be why Nick’s one critique of Obie when he came over for dinner is that his parents are developers?

Kate: We may get a conflict where Obie has to pick between his material interests and doing the right thing. His performativity is such a funny joke on this show—he’s a parody. He goes to one DSA meeting and gives tenants’ unions donuts.

Shamir: That’s what I love about him. He’s so deeply privileged and it’s so funny that someone with that level of privilege can only be performative. Nothing is his real experience. It’s all secondhand.

Kate: He’s just LARPing, being a boyfriend who’s checked out from social media, not helping out his girlfriends who experience bullying.

He still spends his money to intense degrees to woo Zoya—whose big transformation amounts to hitting up a Drybar, taking a cab, and wearing a cocktail dress. The dull emotional maturity of the kids is akin to the fashion.

Kate: Julien at least has the fire Balenciaga sneakers which she wears hungover. And that catsuit

Julien’s outfits could do more for me, but I liked when she was truffle-hunting with an Italian royal and protested, “This is a sample!” The first Gossip Girl drop this episode showed a bevy of male suitors Julien attempts to date, including a Jonas bro. Her minions insert all these “fuck the patriarchy” jabs, but still insist Julien needs rich arm candy.

Kate: I can’t tell if it’s a joke that they’re taking the elite corporate approach of paying lip service to feminism while insisting their friend dates an heir and reinforcing those norms.

Shamir: But Julien doesn’t actually need to find an heir, right? It’s just to build herself up. She needs a “Stand by Your Man” moment in reverse—a man who can stand by his woman!

This post about Julien’s dating life gets the teachers called into a meeting with the principal. I think this is the first episode where, as the teachers devise new rules to protect their hustle as GG, it’s 100% clear that they’re meant to be scummy. The parents are so upset, they’ve donated an intelligence agency to find Gossip Girl!

Kate: One of the funniest parts of the episode was the parents hiring a consulting agency called Black Cube, who “invented firewalls.” This is where the Kubrick ties come in. All this elite and power and extended universe of Constance Billard goes so much bigger into the root of Big Brother.

I also liked seeing Audrey and Aki cast as doppelgangers of each other through their mutual cheating with Max. They get put in twin situations: confessing to friends, making eyes at Max, dressing similarly, both internalizing the big Gossip Girl blind item about cheating to be about themselves.

Kate: I loved this little detail—is Audrey the Nicole Kidman, and Aki the Tom Cruise? Both have the wandering eye of Eyes Wide Shut, and each of them having their own private lives and infidelities is where the title came from. I liked Max at the center, like, “I haven’t had enough Vyvanse and espresso for this.”

Max cannot be bothered with their drama at any point. He’s finally coming into his own as more than Chuck 2. But I rolled my eyes a bit when he invited Julien to a “Manhattan Maxploration.”

Shamir: That’s when everything went down! It finally felt like teenage shenanigans. That they’re still trying to push on us that teenagers spend free time drinking martinis in lounges on Wednesday nights…

Kate: And what did they call the ketamine and cocaine on a platter?

Space coke! Taken to Rico Nasty. There’s a lot of coke, this episode.

Shamir: Coke and ket on a Wednesday. Still went to school on a Thursday. Impossible.

But with a tray of beverages: a Starbucks cup, a green juice, a turmeric latte. These kids are dropping like $40 on hangover elixirs. 

Kate: A whole spread of self-care items. The fun of Gossip Girl is it’s depraved, and everyone’s a craven opportunist. They were trying so hard to make all the conflict ethical, and it kind of didn’t work. This is the first episode where it came together cohesively.

I loved Julien getting a whole crowd to cheer about her being posted about in her underwear on the Daily Mail. As well as her amped-up, affectionate first interaction in the bathroom with her dad’s new girlfriend, Lola. 

Shamir: The girl from You! That’s Beck.

Yeah, Elizabeth Lail. The girlfriend who gets murdered by Penn Badgley in season one. And in that show, he plays a similar character to Dan Humphrey, except a serial killer. So now his foil in the first season has come to Gossip Girl…I feel like everything’s gone 720 degrees.

Shamir: Do you think the producers did it on purpose?

Kate: Definitely. They wanted us to make that connection. I read a rumor on Reddit, it’s possible Penn Badgley will come back—purely unsubstantiated. But it’d be amazing if the You plotline just ran a train over the plot of Gossip Girl.

This is where both Max and Julien discover their dads are dating other people, or in Max’s dad’s case, making a Scruff profile.

Shamir: Max comes from a queer household. To find his queer dad on the apps…I feel in the real world, it wouldn’t have meant much?

Max’s whole M.O. is free love to all of my classmates and teachers, whether or not they want it. So why’s he holding up a spyglass to his dads? Chuck’s origin story as this twisted hedonist made sense because of his distant father. By all accounts, Max has two nice dads who are just going through some shit. Why is he disaffected?

Kate: The scene in which his dads have apparent tension because one of them comes downstairs in an incredible outfit…maybe Max has been privy to this for a long time, and seeing his dad on Scruff was the icing on the cake, making the problems afoot real.

Shamir: He’s the only child! The stability of his fathers being broken is his last straw. I thought it was cool how they tied it into the fetishization of masculinity within the male-loving-male gay community. The dad that’s on Scruff probably got with the other father when they were more masculine-presenting, but over the years, became comfortable in their femininity. I’ve never seen that insight tackled in any show realistically. I felt it resonated, as a genderqueer nonbinary pesron. But it did feel orchestrated, just to have that kind of unique plot point in the show.

Kate: And to give Max’s interactions with Rafa a little more momentum. Everything Max asks Aki to do, every insane thing, coming to a bathhouse to stalk a teacher, making a catfishing Scruff profile—Aki just does it all.

Aki is backboneless. These kids are having SO MUCH sex, it’s a little hard for me to stomach. But I enjoyed the scene where Audrey tries rimming Aki, who panics.

Shamir: Evil bi man got homegirl eating ass! Love that for everyone involved. This show is so queer inclusive, but still very much homophobic and biphobic. But Max is lovably evil; we still stan him. I want Audrey and Aki to reckon with their shit and get down to the nitty gritty and figure out how their relationship will transform and grow. Do you think it’s gonna be a throuple?

Audrey says something about not not liking being with Max. So they’ve at least cleared a path.

Shamir: But does Max want a throuple? Probably not.

Kate: He just doesn’t care. He’s checked out. His eyes are on Rafa because he can’t have him. He’s acting like Anakin Skywalker in the first three Star Wars episodes. Horrible, contrived emotion, exposed way too quickly in this series, much like other plot points. Did I catch Kate Bush in there? 

Yeah, “Cloudbusting.” When Max has a little too much coke, reveals he’s been fucking Audrey and mentally fucking Aki, then cries and sleeps on Rafa’s couch.

Shamir: It felt very melodramatic for his character, and blown out of proportion. Ending up in tears was weird.

Kate: Was it during this scene that the teachers are having dinner? Kate Keller, Jordan and Reema learn from Reema’s husband that he’d been fired from his teaching job because he learned about a parents’ escort business, or something like that…

Shamir: Hiring escorts on the company dime.

Kate: He gives Kate and Jordan and Reema a very stern warning to not mess with power, with a quote that’s basically the show’s thesis: “privilege and power, no matter how amoral, will always win in the end.” He stresses that accountability is a petty point-scoring activity with no long-term effect. What Gossip Girl is doing is small fries. It’s not gonna bring down this network of power in Manhattan.

Shamir: I tune out anytime the teachers are talking and/or plotting. Oh my god, grow up! But the mythology of Reema’s partner makes me think Gossip Girl will either unravel, or not make the change they’ve hoped for.

This episode did a good job of making Gossip Girl more than Kate’s pet project, and distributing the blame among some other teachers. But ostensibly, they started Gossip Girl to protect their jobs. And at the first sign of turmoil, they set up Reema, one of their own, to take the fall! 

Shamir: Gossip Girl is their ticket to save their asses and their jobs. But they also want to rule. They want to control, but it’s not gonna happen because of a little clout. These parents got money. Money money! And power outside of Instagram. Their ambitions are so unrealistic and now they’re swimming into delusional territory and have to get their shit together.

Kate: Because are they really doing this to protect themselves? Or are they doing it to gain power? We’ve seen it pivot from a moral, ethical thing to protect their underpaid teaching jobs. Now they’re sacrificing one of their own to keep power. But they don’t know what they’re getting enmeshed in. It’s a full heel turn. Kate is a villain now.

And thank God. They toed that line for two episodes. Finally we can know what we already knew: these teachers are bad. 

Kate: Hopefully it sets a tone for the rest of the season. The original scoring felt Lynchian to me. It made the scenes at the play, where all the wealthy parents were gathered, absurd.

The score is Ariel Rechtshaid, and seems to mostly play off the teachers’ plotting. It sounds like Mark Mothersbaugh’s Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack or something else with all the pizzicato strings, recalling motley New York wealth. Whereas the kids get the fun contemporary soundtrack with Hayley Williams. The class divide permeates to the music.

Shamir: I noticed that too, and I like it. You’re automatically in a different world, whether it’s teachers or students, even in how it’s directed.

Kate: The teachers’ color palettes are very dark and foreboding. In their apartments, the shadows cast in an evil way. 

And the kids are lit under saturated color. We end on Julien leaving her phone behind, in a big moment of personal growth. And yet again everything gets tied up in a tidy bow for her. She gets an apology from Obie, thanks to Zoya—who, also, managed to impress Jeremy O. Harris by shittalking Broadway? And Julien makes nice with her dad Davis. Though I loved when she was investigating him and his “pied-affair” in Williamsburg, wearing a trenchcoat as if that’s gonna disguise her at the Bedford L stop.

Kate: That’s a direct Eyes Wide Shut parallel to when Tom Cruise is walking around the West Village in a trenchcoat, trying to find a woman to cheat on Nicole Kidman with. That was clever. 

Shamir: Did they really explain why he was keeping Beck a secret? Is it just because he has the money to have two houses?

Kate: He was trying to be considerate for Julien, but maybe there’s more that hasn’t been revealed? Lola is a singer-songwriter, he’s this music producer, maybe he was protecting her from public scrutiny. But that’s a reach.

Shamir: The endings are becoming so one-note. Would it kill them to give us a juicy cliffhanger? All three of these episodes’ endings have been very unsatisfying. 

Kate: They were too quick to resolve. I don’t want everyone to respond in such a sanitized way. 

So much happens so quickly, I can’t even process. The show ostensibly is about the pull of social media. And this show is written like scrolling through apps. New things every ten seconds. Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine.

Kate: It’s the tone of all entertainment these days—every action has that hyper-energetic pacing. There’s a lot to unpack. But I want more drama.

Sadie Dupuis is the guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter of rock band Speedy Ortiz. She’s also the producer & multi-instrumentalist behind pop project Sad13. Sadie heads the record label Wax Nine, has written for outlets including Spin, Nylon, and Playboy, and holds an MFA in poetry from UMass Amherst. Mouthguard, her first book, was published in 2018.

(Photo Credit: Jordan Edwards)