HBO Max’s Gossip Girl is fond of a cultural reference, and episode three goes all in on the name-dropping. Not only does Zoya slyly shade Hamilton, but Pizza Rat and Zora Neale Hurston are cited in the same breath, as are Deux Moi and Dubsmash. ADHD drug Vynase and Ketamine also get their dues, Timothée Chalamet is mentioned twice, and Millie Bobby Brown is called “pre-sexual” by teens supposedly one year her junior.
In between it all, an intelligence agency with ties to the Israeli army and Harvey Weinstein is a central figure of this week’s Upper East Side drama – and the teens attend the post-pandemic opening night of a fake Jeremy O’Harris Shakespeare adaptation. Yet despite the overwhelming 2021-ness of it all, this episode is Gossip Girl at its most classic: Characters betray each other for clout, secrets are spilled in elaborate schemes and parents cause as much mischief as the kids.
First: concerned Constance Billard parents want Gossip Girl gone, and in comes security agency Black Cube to find out who’s behind the account. Lest the gossiping teachers lose their jobs, Kate Keller and co. extend Gossip Girl’s scope to spread rumours of another teacher’s affair. After straying further from their already vague mission statement of ‘accountability’, they’re shaken when teacher Reema’s husband expresses disapproval at dinner. “Privilege and power, no matter how amoral, will always win in the end,” he says, stressing that their ‘accountability’ is petty point-scoring with no long-term effect. Consider that line the show’s thesis.
The teachers then later concoct a plan where Reema gets fired so they won’t be. Considering she’s the one person of colour of the teachers running the account, it’s a pointed exit: the freshly verified Gossip Girl is now part of the elite it supposedly meant to take down.
Meanwhile, the fantasy of dating Obie – the anti-capitalist son of a billionaire – cracks. Zoya struggles under the social media trolling she gets as “his girl”, turning to Julien’s PR guru Luna (Zión Moreno) for help. Luna senses a power shift in the offing as Julien, post-breakup, begins to lose her raison d’influence.
Luna gives Zoya mostly etiquette advice rather than a full makeover, and Zoya spends a date with Obie barely talking and not eating – that is, until she can’t help but push back on one of Max’s parent’s painfully obtuse analysis of the O’Harris play they’ve just seen. In a cameo, the playwright overhears and is charmed by Zoya’s defence of him, and Zoya learns tidy lessons on the power of being yourself. She calls Obie out on his posturing, and helps him realise he owes Julien an apology for not acknowledging the pressures of dating ‘the prince of New York’. Is this what showrunner Josh Safran meant when he said the characters will ‘examine their privilege’?
While Obie likes to pretend he’s of the people, Max continues to play puppetmaster. This week, it’s a power-play within a power-play at the theatre, as he meddles with two relationships: Aki and Audrey’s, and his dads’.
The double As eventually confess they both cheated with him and decide to move forward anyway, but Max using a fake Scruff profile of hot teacher Rafa to entrap his dad Roy (John Benjamin Hickey) is a step too far, and the dads seem destined to split. Max ends the episode acting his age, for once, crashing on Rafa’s couch after crying into his shoulder. Kate Keller should take note: playing with people’s lives backfires, even for the powerful.
And then there’s Julien, who seems a little lost without Obie. This episode, she traverses the world to find a rich boyfriend, has a massive night out with Max, and discovers her Logan Roy-knockoff dad is secretly dating a singer-songwriter. The two agree to live more honestly, and she starts with the 2021 equivalent of throwing her phone in a bin – she leaves it at home for a day.
As you can see, Gossip Girl is burning through plots and schemes with no time to spare. Just like Zoya’s makeover, the reboot’s changes remain skin deep, and the show thankfully retains the original’s chaotic charm.
Dishing the dirt
- When Audrey tells Julien about her affair with Max, she teases it as something huge. “Did you kill someone?” Julien asks, a nice nod to Serena van der Woodsen’s much-hyped ‘murder’ confession.
- Jennifer Lynch directed this and next week’s episode – even before the credits rolled, we couldn’t help but wonder if Headmistress Queller’s line about Gossip Girl “happening again” was a subtle quote from her father’s Twin Peaks: The Return.
- In such a reference-packed episode, it’s hard to pick one stand-out line, but Luna calling New York “the land of schadenfreude on Adderall” deserves some love. It’s simply something no human would ever say and barely means anything: it’s perfect.
Gossip Girl episode three 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.