Where the original Gossip Girl had us hating a new person every episode, four episodes in the HBO Max reboot appears resistant to tarring any of its main characters. As if protecting them from being ‘cancelled’ in an era where depiction can be conflated as endorsement, the show absolves any wrongdoing by episode’s end. There’s only so many times we can watch Julien denounce bullying before doing it again – especially when episode four features some of the reboot’s most callous schemes yet.
This week, Zoya’s pushed to the brink on her 15th birthday, a reminder of her mother, who died giving birth to her – “Today’s her day, not mine”, Zoya tells her dad. She wants the day to pass unnoticed, but Gossip Girl and Obie are already telling the world. Unsure what she’d want for breakfast, Obie parks a fleet of food trucks outside Constance Billard – another sign that overcompensating with cash comes naturally to the ‘prince of New York’.
Puppeteering from the sides, Julien’s friends Luna and Monet are beginning to resemble Shakespearean antagonists. They’re the reason for Zoya’s frustration, both leaking her birthday to Gossip Girl and reporting her and her dad to housing authorities for illegally living in her grandmother’s rent-controlled apartment. Facing eviction, Zoya can’t help venting to Obie, who worries his new girlfriend might not be the down-to-Earth accessory he hoped.
Obie pretends to be above aesthetics, but between his protest badges and dating two Black women back-to-back, is he (subconsciously or otherwise) constantly trying to show he’s more than another wealthy white straight cis boy? Despite all the talk of its diverse cast, Gossip Girl so far has barely addressed race head-on, though it does make Obie the most annoying character by far and frame his allyship as a little suspect. A generous reading says that the show is building to something; we’ll see.
Meanwhile, Max goes on a week-long bender after helping implode his dads’ marriage. Only hot Teach Rafa is concerned. After Max’s kicked out of home, he accepts his help, and by episode’s end, Rafa gives into Max’s advances. Thomas Doherty might be one of the cast’s best actors: he really sells Max’s drug addiction and desperation. Max is damaged goods, and a teacher-student relationship won’t give him the stability he needs. In a show so concerned with optics, it’s surprising Rafa sleeps with his vulnerable student – again, a generous reading says the show will explore the power imbalance.
Another thing we need Gossip Girl to explore further is Zoya’s new ally Milo, a 10-year-old and potential Russian spy who offers hacking help for unknown reasons; the character is so absurd that it works. The two launch #CancelCalloway after finding a fat-shaming tweet by Julien from 2014, using Russian bots to get it trending.
But without missing a beat, Julien seizes the moral high ground. Convinced by Luna and Monet to throw a party so she can overshadow Zoya’s birthday, Julien turns the bash into a ‘fundraiser’ for research into lupus, the reason her mother died, and invites Zoya to co-host. Milo spikes J’s dinner so she’s drunk on-stage to introduce Princess Nokia (who’s name-dropped more times than we care to count), but she keeps it together for Monet and Luna’s opening act: a video showing why Zoya was expelled from her old school.
In the video, Zoya’s called a “mother killer” by her friends, and desperately lights a fire to get out of the science classroom she’s been locked in. “You’re probably wondering why I showed that – and I’m asking the same thing,” says Julien. It’s far too cruel and sad to be the checkmate Luna and Monet hoped for.
Julien apologises, and Zoya reveals she was so desperate to be accepted, she did anything her ‘friends’ dared her to. Like Julien, she compromised herself to be liked. Princess Nokia plays, and the viewer learns a lesson about bullying: it’s bad. We’ll see if the showrunners take that to heart, or if they’ll trot out another repetitive cycle of battle and ceasefire next week.
Dishing the dirt
- It’s tough to pick this week’s top reference. Was it Milo telling Luna she owes him one after he spread a lie that Lily-Rose Depp has E. coli? Jameela Jamil weighing in on #CancelCalloway? Julien name-dropping Josef Fritzl? Or Kate comparing herself to fellow Iowa writers’ workshop drop-out Hannah Horvath?
- Luna and Monet are truly evil characters, and they have so little character motivation beyond one-off mentions of running Julien’s socials in order to get coveted internships. Can’t decide whether they need their own plotlines, or if they should stay this thinly developed.
- Milo must return: Between his photos with Putin, Blair Waldorf and Ed Sheeran, his gold tea cup, and a reference to Succession, we’re sold. Plus, could he somehow be Georgina’s son Milo with a Russian dad from the original show?
Gossip Girl episode four 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.