SPOTTED: Sad13 Watching Gossip Girl, #4

Sadie Dupuis, Mel Stone, and Julian Tepper dissect the scandalous lives of HBO Max’s rebooted elite.

Episode 4

Mel Stone and Julian Tepper

Scheming and Superstars and soft blocks, oh my! Our poor little rich kids can’t seem to escape the snare nets Gossip Girl lodges Upper Eastward—especially not the ones woven of their own ruses and ruinations. When we said goodbye to all that at the end of episode three, the teachers were one man down, sacrificing Reema to the school administration so they could keep running their depraved Deuxmoi deux. Julien schemed up a play-within-a-play prestidigitation to get her dad to confess he, an adult man, has an adult girlfriend (grievous, I know); as per usual, they patched things up by closing credits. Zoya survived a hashtag harassment campaign and Luna’s Pygmalion-ing with newfound self-assuredness, while her BF Obie was his usual self, hanging around pointlessly. Aki and Audrey’s relationship entered a precarious new phase, their twin infidelities with Max publicly revealed by Max himself. And Max, after shoving his dads’ shaky marriage onto thinner ice, sank into a weeklong pill bender, emerging this episode from a Mt. Sinai transport vehicle. 

Speaking of Mt. Sinai—one of this week’s very special guests, Julian Tepper, called in from that hospital, where his new son Augie was just born! Let’s all give Augie Tepper a warm welcome into the beautiful world of Manhattanite drama. In addition to authoring three novels and playing bass in Yes New York-era three piece The Natural History, Julian is a native New Yorker and Gossip Girl superfan; “I’d grown up on the Upper East Side and gone to private school and had a secret fantasy that I was actualizing myself onto the show,” he tells us. That actualization worked when he made a guest appearance in Season 5, which we made him tell us about immediately. Our second special guest is musician Mel Stone, a New York-based songwriter who just released pop-rock single “Cat’s Song” off her upcoming EP Princess Part 1. She recently wrapped her third re-watch of the original series, and though she was a teen when it first aired, she’s starting to identify with the parents, particularly Rufus: ”a mid-30s singer songwriter trying desperately to impress teenagers.” 

Julian, you played yourself on the original Gossip Girl! Tell us about taping S05E20, “Salon of the Dead.”

Julian Tepper: I ran an arts club called The Oracle Club with Jenna Gribbon, the mother of my first son. The Sunday Times did a piece on it in the Style section, and the Gossip Girl gods were watching that day, because it just so happened they were planning an episode about an arts salon Blair and Dan were going to form. They contacted us and we were completely shocked they cast us. Elizabeth Hurley was also a special guest! It was mostly shot on Silvercup Studios’ soundstage; you walk onto the full set and see all the apartments you’ve ever seen on Gossip Girl. Chuck Bass’ actor came on like he’d walked in straight from the club. He went straight to his bed—this was not a scene being shot, he just passed out. We hung out with Leighton Meester mostly, who was super nice. But they were all bored out of their minds. By season five, they were over it, and it seemed the day could not wrap fast enough for them. But it was really fun, and I’m glad it happened.

I’m curious how your experience of the original compares to this new season. 

Mel Stone: The first three episodes felt beautiful, but the stories weren’t clicking. It’s soapy and ridiculous, but this episode is when I felt actually engaged with the characters. 

Julian: There’s too much happening on the phone, and it gets in the way of the flow. Gossip Girl’s playing an active role in this series, so we have to see her use it. But Episode 3 kept that to a nice minimum, and things got good.

This episode is called “Fire Walks with Z”—maybe too on the nose for another episode directed by Jennifer Lynch? And this week’s drama centers around Gossip Girl exposing Zoya’s traumatic 15th birthday, which Gossip Girl later calls a “glitz-krieg.”

Julian: The age gap between Zoya and everyone else seems a bit much. Not that you didn’t see “junior-freshman” exchanges in my own high school experience.

Mel: Bringing attention to the fact that she was 14 and is now 15, it’s jarring to remember that these are children. When I was originally watching, I was close to the age of the actors playing the kids. Now I’m mid-30s, like, “Baby! What are you doing!”

Julian: With her birthday as the device for the episode, I liked how it opened the story to what may be a major theme: her mom’s death.

It’s a little similar to the Chuck Bass origin story. Do we believe their mom is really dead?

Julian: Yeah, I do. But I agree, that device is stale. And the sister dynamic is not working for me. I know it’s early, but I don’t care about them yet, and their mom doesn’t make me care more.

Mel: It’s hard to get invested in the squabbles. Somehow, they keep having massive schisms that are repaired by the end of the episode. Are they just going to fight again and come back together?

It’s very monster-of-the-week with these micro-conflicts that wrap up magically. 

Julian: One thing I liked about this episode, and the original series, was the drama between the parents, and especially Max’s parents. I was glad to see the tide shift away from teachers.

Mel: There are a lot of characters to keep track of. I liked [Max’s dad] Gideon’s conflict in episode 3, but it went off the walls in episode four.

Max’s escalating reactions to his dads’ relationship struggle seem overblown. He’s very quick to dismiss Roy as “not my real dad,” which felt unrealistic for his character.

Mel: I like the coding between Zoya and Julien’s dads. It’s like they’re setting up a relationship between them. They have a conflict, then they’re at a bar, suddenly they’re sharing cabs. I’m here for it, but it’s not clear what they’re doing with the characters.

At some point they decide their daughters’ fighting is their shared dead ex-partner’s way of bringing them close to each other…I agree, they’re looking for excuses to hang! Meanwhile, Julien starts this episode narrating into camera about her newfound transparency, like a YouTuber. Which we finally discover is where she became a child star, interviewing Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson and Robyn.

Mel: I have a lot of feelings about Julien, but where she comes from makes sense now. She’s the daughter of a dude who’s won Grammys, is connected in the industry, had access to that as a kid, and leveraged that into a social media presence. Which she now feels trapped by. She’s had fame since she was a literal kid, and now she’s an older kid stuck in the public sphere.

Julian: When I watch teenagers taking drugs on TV, I get really anxious. And I feel the same way watching kids discuss their digital presences. Are kids waking up in the morning now and presenting their fashion and cosmetic lines on YouTube to their 20 million followers? It gives me anxiety. 

Luna and Monet keep sowing discord, reporting Zoya’s family to the housing board and pinning her eviction on Julien. Julien wonders what she’s ever done wrong to deserve a feud, and Monet remarks, “You were in the ‘Imagine’ video.” 

Mel: That was great. What made this feel like a classic episode of Gossip Girl was their competing schemes, an outsider getting dragged into the bullshit of the Upper East Side. And Obie not feeling great about it—it felt like classic Nate and Jenny stuff.

Julien, for some reason, plans a party to get back at Zoya on the anniversary of their mother’s death, with Princess Nokia at Webster Hall. Zoya immediately asks Obie to retaliate-book Governor’s Island with Rihanna or SZA. They lived through the same pandemic we did, right? Venues are booked, like, 18 months out right now. Webster Hall was available, day of? 

Julian: To that point, their access and their wealth feels too forced. It felt right on the original series, but I don’t believe the absolute privilege of these kids yet, unlike, say, Blair Waldorf.

Mel: Especially in the early seasons of Gossip Girl, the wealth felt more realistic. They could pull together expensive parties quickly, especially with Blair’s access to the fashion industry. This feels absurd.

Julian: And it’s off the WB and onto HBO. Do you miss when it was tamer?

There’s a little too much implied full frontal nudity, for my personal taste, for high schoolers.

Mel: Especially with Max and Rafa, I’m getting Queer As Folk vibes. Dudes are fucking all the time, which is great! But not what I expected from Gossip Girl. It’s an adjustment.

I would prefer less Rafa, and more Aki and Max. An element of this episode that bothered me was Audrey’s sudden homophobia surrounding Aki. Last episode she was eating ass, presumably learned from Max!

Mel: It’s so weird. They both hooked up with Max, who’s established as bi or pan. Somehow, the idea that her boyfriend might be bi is an overriding concern for her. I’m presuming that Luna, as a character, is also trans. In a pretty queer friend group, it’s strange and forced to me that Audrey’s suddenly so concerned that her boyfriend is bi.

Julian: I just don’t think she’s into Aki anymore—I’m not getting “I really care” vibes. I liked what Max was doing to their relationship, but I don’t think Audrey’s character is very good yet.

Mel: She’s probably my least favorite of the core crew, simply because I don’t see her purpose or identity beyond being annoyed by her boyfriend. Which is a bummer, because the actor seems great. But it took Blair and Nate’s breakup for those characters to thrive and develop into the characters we love today. I’m hoping that’ll be the case for Audrey—once she and Aki break up, she can explore and we can know more about her. 

Until this episode, I was rooting for Audrey. Maybe because she’s the bookworm… that’s not a character trait, but at least it’s an activity other than posting! Aki’s one hobby seems to be film fandom, so I liked that the guy Audrey uses to make him jealous is interviewing for an internship at Criterion. 

Julian: I love Aki. He’s gonna be great.

Mel: I like Aki too. But I honestly thought Aki was bi from the beginning. It wasn’t until the characters started speculating, “Could he be gay?” that I realized it was not established. I just figured Audrey had a bi boyfriend and that was cool and great and Gen Z, whatever!

There’s too much strange conservatism. Meanwhile, Max apparently didn’t show up for school for a week until he rolls out of a Mt. Sinai transport, tonguing a nurse. Rafa asks Gossip Girl if she has tips on Max, which is so helicopter-y. Later, Rafa is nude in the school gym with Max—is that legal?

Mel: And a box of pills spills out of Max’s pocket in front of Webster Hall! Good lord. The way the marquee was angled up when Rafa and Max fought was so beautiful, maybe my favorite scene of the whole episode. I was like, oh yeah, Jennifer Lynch directed this. But I really hope Rafa is quickly kicked off this show, and that whole situation simmers down.

There is a kiss scene with Rafa and Max, and it’s the first time I shouted “no” at the screen this series—I shouted it twice. I’m like, “Finally, this teacher’s a confirmed scumbag, too!”

Julian: It would’ve been more interesting if they’d kept that tension without us suddenly having to accept them as lovers. A teacher and a student? No.

Mel: Ugh! Rafa has been grooming Max for weeks. Max comes to him completely broken, sad, depressed, saying, “You’re the only one who believes in any good for me!” And his teacher takes advantage of that and goes in for a kiss. 

I don’t want a redemption arc. Can they come out and say Rafa’s not a good guy?

Julian: They haven’t established that. But he definitely made out with a student, a serious violation. 

Mel: Rafa was a good guy, lending Max emotional support, taking away his pills, doing the things Max actually needs. Then at the last moment—”okay, we’re gonna fuck now!” It undercuts everything good Rafa has done. In a show that’s so queer-forward, the idea of a predatory male teacher taking advantage of a young, vulnerable queer student is just shades of gross. 

Rafa’s fellow scummy teachers sure are getting exhausted by their cyberbullying. We learn Kate, like Hannah Horvath before her, is an Iowa Writers Program dropout. She needs to submit a short story to the Paris Review, so Jordan and Wendy finally get to take the GG wheel, making posts without Kate’s involvement or awareness, and eventually blocking her! They’re all power hungry, using whatever flimsy excuses to retain tiny shreds of online agency.

Julian: It’s an interesting point that the children rule the school because of their parents’ wealth, and can get people fired, and I’m sure it’s accurate to some extent. But it’s too bad they abandoned that thread. Ultimately, this is a soap, which I say in the best possible sense. But we’ve lost why the teachers are doing it. Taking in so many characters and plot lines each episode, it’s only during the teachers’ scenes when I can rest my brain.

Mel: In the first episode, they went out of their way to get us to empathize with the teachers, and help us understand why they’d reboot Gossip Girl. But now it feels like watching the origin story of Harley Quinn. All these teachers jumped off the deep end. It clicked for me how weird it was when the three teachers showed up at the birthday party, just to cyberbully students.

As I said in the second episode’s recap, all I have wanted was for Georgina Sparks to come back. We don’t get that yet, but I actually squealed when we did get Milo Sparks, Georgina’s baby from the original series. He’s holding a golden teacup and looking so much like a haunted baby and it was so fun.

Julian: It was a master stroke. He’s gonna be a scene-stealer, the whole way through. When you see him sitting in his family library, I was thankful for that “holy shit” wealth factor. I need more of that from these characters. 

Mel: Genius. This is the first time it’s felt like continuity was a benefit for Gossip Girl. I mean, it’s Baby Milo! A great character, a great connection to the original series.

Milo requests that Zoya Google him, and in the autofill results, I noticed “milo sparks russian embassy scandal,” “milo sparks new yorker profile,” “milo sparks imdb.” And of course, when we get to Milo’s house, there’s a gallery wall of Easter eggs: Georgina with Elon Musk, Kim Jong-un, Ed Sheeran, Putin, and a shrine to Blair!

Mel: I think, at least in season 1, Milo will play a role like Georgina’s: popping up for a few multi-episode arcs here and there. Too much too fast and it’ll burn out. But strategically dropping him in—how did this crazy thing happen? Oh, because Milo’s a little magic boy! I’d be very there for that. I loved that Luna knew exactly who he was, and there’s an established past relationship.

Milo helped her give E. Coli to Lily Rose Depp.

Mel: That made so much sense for both their characters. Milo feels like calculated chaos. Luna is rampaging chaos. She wants to fuck stuff up just to feel something. Hopefully they do a Luna A-plot at some point, to give her some background and depth. 

Milo and Zoya re-circulate a fatphobic tweet from Julien at age 13. It’s a shitty tweet, but maybe only in this show’s selectively Puritan ethical framework was it “cancelable.” They did use it to set up a joke that Jameela Jamil defending you online is a worst case scenario. 

Julian: I hope they put this sparring on rest for at least one episode. It’s gonna come right back, I know, but I don’t find it compelling.

I don’t know, I love the ridiculous bullying. Zoya brings in a step-and-repeat to embarrass Julien with uncool sponsors—dandruff shampoo, Le Pain Quotidien. Luna sets up a GoFundMe—“Keep Z in NYC! Help our destitute classmate’s housing crisis” to shame Zoya. And Milo orchestrates Julien’s Venmo being spammed with petty cash for “HJs” and “BJs.”

Julien: But the bullying video was so dark. All of a sudden, we were in the darkest imaginable place, with Zoya in a science lab on fire, her bullies banging on the window. It got me to feel something, but they’re grasping at straws.

Mel: Again, they need to settle on something for an episode or two. It shouldn’t be a frenetic back and forth between “deeply bonded sisters” and “mortal enemies.” Maybe there can be a legitimate conflict later, but I hope they’re friends and sisters for at least a few episodes. 

Even if Julien was only trying to show the first part of the “Zoya being bullied” video, in which Zoya vandalizes her school, how does that cast Z in a negative light? She spray painted “FUCK SCHOOL”! She might as well have spray painted “ACAB.” I would’ve much preferred if the video had shown Zoya to be a former bully.

Mel: I think you’re spot on. It could’ve tied back to how Zoya is taking to social warfare too easily. The payoff could have been that she’s good at it because she was an awful bully at her old school, a narrative of her running from the person she used to be and getting sucked back into toxic behavior. Instead, I felt nothing but bad for Zoya.

Julian: With this and the thing with Max and Rafa, it’s surprising none of the 20 characters ever feel like speaking up. That could flip plot points a tiny bit, and the show would hugely benefit. 

It was heavily implied that Milo dosed Julien with “alcosynths” to make her vomit or shit herself, right? But they dropped that thread. As soon as this bullying video plays, Julien is suddenly lucid, launching into a stern speech admitting she is a bully. Princess Nokia still performs, despite everything, then we get a hotel slumber party between the two sisters. What?

Mel: Do you think they charted out the whole season and have to frantically hit too many plot points to get where they’re going? That might account for this breakneck pacing. 

Julian: The first series had so many episodes per season, 30 or so. They need to slow down a little bit.

This season has ten, so you’re probably right. What should they do in the remaining six? 

Mel: By the end of the season, they gotta get Gossip Girl out of the teachers’ hands; it’s not working for me. Number two: chill on Julien and Zoya a couple episodes. Let other characters develop and grow. But I’m sticking through this season, for sure. It’s soapy, but the aesthetics of the show are better than the original, and it’s shot nicely.

Julian: That all feels true. Also, the New York of this show feels a little abstract. They’re for some reason choosing not to tell us where we are. Every once in a while they do.

Right, Webster Hall this time, I guess Joe’s Pub last time.

Julian: True, and Indochine. But try to think of where that stationary scene was located—they’re almost being purposefully vague about where we are, and I don’t know why. They should remember it’s a New York show, and lean into that a little, or a lot. That’s part of the fun. I want to be overwhelmed by the New Yorkiness, in all the good ways!

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)