In its mid-season finale, HBO’s Gossip Girl resolves our biggest gripe about the reboot so far: Instagram. Once getting over the initial cringe of the choice to move Gossip Girl from blog to grid posts, it’s intuitive: where else would GG live in 2021? But what hasn’t worked is our new Queen B Julien’s career as an influencer. Just like the viewers arriving with their minds already made up on Gossip Girl’s reboot, Julien keeps going back to something she’s never expressed any genuine interest in.
Episode six fixes the flaw by addressing it head-on when Julien aims to prove to her dad that being an influencer now could set up her future – if she focuses on her brand instead of studying for college exams. “And your brand is?” he asks, finally voicing what we’ve wondered all season.
“Who am I?” is a question all 16-year-olds obsess over, but Julien has the added pressure of thousands of followers. She wants to monetise her account, but has no idea of who she is beyond “sellable”. The realisation hits hard this episode when beauty brand representatives fight over partnering with her ‘unique voice’ – but drop off after she attends a protest and demonstrates how that voice can be used for more than self-care tips.
Although her ambivalence isn’t necessarily a bad plot point, it has been frustrating to watch. Unlike Zoya, who could benefit from Instagram fame, Julien already has all of the access and influence she needs through her pop-powerhouse producer dad. It makes sense she likes the attention (most of us do), but the lack of any material stakes has meant we’re basically watching someone anguish over a hobby.
Other TV shows and films about influencers like Ingrid Goes West, Eighth Grade and Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ work because their characters are trying (and largely failing) to be influential to make up for a lack of power elsewhere, but Gossip Girl’s own brand of escapism means Julien can’t want for anything.
It’s like the show creators sold Gossip Girl on the premise that “the new queen bee is an influencer!” before realising that it was hard to flesh out. Maybe that’s why it’s been a little awkward. They’ve been writing around a problem they couldn’t remove. Now that Julien has realised that, for better or worse, influence was built into her birthright, she can use ‘her platform’ for more than herself.
This protest visually resembles Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial, and considering Julien can only say “it’s important” to go after spotting Obie there on Instagram, it’s questionable whether she’s really motivated by morals. It’s easy to trash-talk Obie’s badge-bearing activism, but his presence is significant: it’s against his own mother’s plans to sell dockland space to Aki’s father, a Murdoch-esque figure whom Zoya can’t help but argue with at dinner. Obie wishes she could cool it with the activism over hors d’oeuvres, and after his line “[they] are wrong, but we’re at dinner!”, Zoya realises that while her millionaire boyfriend might talk about social issues, he has no intent of rocking the boat when it really matters.
The next day, he does attend the protest – a genuinely ballsy move against his own family (then again, there’s truly nothing more performative than attending a protest knowing you’ll get media coverage). It’s not because of Zoya’s berating but Julien’s, who stands side-by-side with him. The two kiss at episode’s end, setting them up as a potential ‘activist influencer couple’.
It’s the exact kind of ‘woke Gossip Girl’ storyline that will turn people off, but the show’s shown a deft hand when it comes to exploring performative actions. Julien and Obie offsetting their privilege with activism that centres them as good people has a lot of potential: at least, it’s much more promising than Julien vying for brand sponsorships.
The mid-season break is a shame, because the show hit its stride in the last two episodes, the pacing and plot-juggling reminiscent of the original Gossip Girl’s wonderful chaos. While Julien sorts out her Instagram, new feuds develop. Rafa gets vindictive with Max, and the two both send juicy tips about the other to Gossip Girl. Meanwhile, computer teacher Jordan takes Kate’s rejection not-so-well, posting her date with Zoya’s dad to GG’s grid, manipulating her into breaking it off because she’s ‘getting too close’ to their subjects. Audrey accidentally outs Aki to his parents, and they finally have a threesome with Max. It’s all happening.
This episode, Kate decides that Gossip Girl needs to start planning content ideas and a schedule, instead of throwing things at the wall. The show writers have done the same, and it’s a joy to watch – the last five to ten minutes are filled with so many twists that demand gasps and lots of frantic messages to your group chat. Gossip Girl won’t return for a few months, but it used its mid-season finale to establish that it’s back for good.
Dishing the dirt
- With Audrey’s mum in hospital, Emily Alyn Lind has been given more to play with. And she was a great comedic relief all episode, between her rants about optimal room temperatures to nurses and her frustrated screams – by our count, the first “ughhhh!” of the reboot. Hopefully now the show’s established itself, Audrey gets plenty of screen time.
- Learning that Aki’s dad is Gossip Girl’s equivalent of Rupert Murdoch was a surprise. While we’re not holding our breath for a Succession crossover, it does open the door to explore Aki’s character more beyond being bisexual.
- Line of the week goes to Luna, who tells Julien that she’s been waiting to level up her Instagram “from content to creator, icon to iconoclast”, a word that means the exact opposite of becoming a brand-friendly influencer. At the risk of giving too much credit to the writers, it does seem like a word a 16-year-old would misuse.
Gossip Girl episode six is streaming on HBO Max in the US, HBO GO where available in Asia and Binge in Australia, with new episodes premiering every Thursday. The show will come to BBC One and BBC iPlayer later this year.
The series will return in November with Part Two of its first season with the final six episodes.