aving now established Gossip Girl’s new world order (aka now with Instagram and mentions of Gaten Matarazzo), the HBO Max reboot spends its fifth episode finally getting down and dirty: characters fling mud and act suspect without immediately apologising so they can start afresh the following week. With the script loosening up, Gossip Girl episode five is its most fun one so far – which is a little surprising given it begins with a narrowly avoided shooting at another school on the Upper East Side.
On paper, this week’s plot-lines reek of after-school special. There’s gun violence, teacher grooming, Audrey’s mum’s overdose and undercover journalists pulling a Never Been Kissed for a scoop. But they’re all background noise for this week’s delightfully juvenile drama: Julien and Zoya’s burning need to win best Halloween couples’ costume (at, in classic Gossip Girl fashion, Bette Midler’s annual Hulaween party. No, she doesn’t cameo).
Gossip Girl doesn’t belabour the point, but it’s astonishingly dark how quickly these characters will centre themselves in the wake of a near-tragedy. Julien’s squad are mostly worried how the almost-shooting will offer pity points to the sisters’ main competition, basic influencers Pippa and Bianca (Ella Rubin, Katherine Reis), who take advantage of the attempted attack to self-promote during tearful Instagram Lives.
Teacher and Gossip Girl admin Kate Keller also makes it about her, as the attempted shooter named the account as one reason for his attack. She takes down Gossip Girl to refind her morals before reinstating it by episode’s end, writing that it’s merely “a mirror” of that one follower’s ugliness. Kate (Tavi Gevinson) lets herself be convinced by her fellow educators that they personally don’t bear any responsibility, in order to (momentarily) feel better. While the show doesn’t spell it out, one imagines this is how committees at tech platforms might feel about the hate speech and misinformation perpetuated by their users on their sites.
Zoya questions her own relationship to Gossip Girl too, after she meet-cutes a handsome and social-media-free student, Simon. Turns out he’s a journalist with a theory that Zoya runs Gossip Girl – after all, she is a literary-minded fish out of water, just like Dan Humphrey. But his point still stands, and subtly mirrors Kate’s inner conflict: for someone who acts above the drama, Zoya sure does pay it a lot of attention.
Simon also accelerates the tensions in Zoya and Obie’s relationship, as she openly questions whether she’s “just another box to check in your performative solidarity”. For all those who dismissed 2021’s Gossip Girl as a ‘woke’ reboot, the show has (mostly) undermined the performativity of these characters’ politics, whether it’s the wealthy white boy, Julien’s ‘filter free’ posts or Zoya getting sucked into a vapid world she wants to hate but increasingly loves. Whether she sees it or not, Obie’s box-checking appeals to Zoya’s need to self-style as an activist with pins and props, too, especially now she’s regularly attending (and even co-hosting) New York’s biggest parties.
Elsewhere in relationships, Max and Rafa’s fling ends after Max learns the teacher has a history of sleeping with his students. The show had previously portrayed Max as the pursuer, but flips to show that Rafa was planting seeds all along: Gossip Girl let us experience the grooming as it appears to the student for four episodes, before revealing the hidden manipulation underneath. Clever.
But back to the real drama. Julien and Zoya’s Beyoncé and Solange costume is a suspiciously popular choice at Hulaween, while Pippa and Bianca steal the show dressed as Blair and Serena. Gossip Girl doesn’t seem to be weaning off the meta-references any time soon, but, for now, they remain more cute than cringe.
Monet (Savannah Smith, finally getting her own plot) leaked Julien’s costume, frustrated that she’s undoing all their Instagram strategy. Unlike all other characters at the end of each episode, Monet doesn’t apologise for it, which lines up with how cruel some of her previous schemes have been. Defecting to help Pippa and Bianca become the new queen B, we now have three villains, and proof that Gossip Girl’s city-wide reach offers endless drama, if the account continues to stay focused on other schools. Just like Zoya, we can’t help but stay addicted.
Dishing the dirt
- For those interested in a Gossip Girl book club, this week Audrey’s accessory of choice was Joan Didion’s The White Album, while Zoya is reading Looking For Lorraine, a biography of Lorraine Hansberry, author of Raisin In The Sun.
- HBO Max must have paid a pretty penny to play Lorde’s month-old ‘Solar Power’ this episode, because they used the entire song for those opening scenes. After all, nothing says beach-side jam like a Halloween in New York. (And then Billy Porter of Pose making an unmentioned cameo as the Hulaween performer? This show sure has cash to burn.)
- Max’s costume was a pretty subtle reference to artist David Wojnarowicz, who sewed his mouth shut in response to the failure of the government to act on the HIV/AIDS epidemic (Max’s ‘fuck me safely’ shirt is also very close to something Wojnarowicz once wore). And that Rafa’s old flame confronts him dressed as Keith Haring? Perfection.
Gossip Girl episode five 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.