It’s a Sin
Remember how I said It’s a Sin loves itself a montage? Look no further than the opening moments of this third episode, which places us now in 1986. Following Ritchie (Olly Alexander) as he tries to nail many an audition while coyly flirting with a fellow actor who catches his eye, and Jill (Lydia West) as she shuttles between performances onstage and shifts at a sexual-health helpline, we’re quite quickly caught up on the goings-on with the Pink Palace gang.
Thankfully, what follows may be the strongest episode of the series so far. And part of it, I think, has to do with the way its narrative finally stops in its tracks, bracing for what turns out to be some devastating news. But before we get to that we get to see Ritchie and Donald (Nathaniel Hall) nurture an intimacy that’s as disarming as it is welcome. We’ve seen Ritchie take plenty of boys home, and as soon as we met Donald, I feared the show would make us mourn for the talented actor who immediately takes to calling Ritchie “sweetheart” and broaches a conversation about safe sex while fumbling with a condom with our dapper young protagonist.
“I’m clean, you can trust me,” they say to each other. At which point I held my breath. Every time we get a scene like this one (like in episode one when Ritchie threw the condoms overboard, or episode two when Roscoe threw out those trying to circulate informational pamphlets about sexual health), I’m left feeling like I’m sitting here watching a horror movie where we have to watch our beautiful young lead unknowingly go down into the basement where we know the monster is hiding. I get that same “No! Don’t do it!” instinct even when I know the genre demands we see our characters make decisions we know might put them in jeopardy. But therein lies, perhaps, the power of a piece like It’s a Sin. It’s a reminder that hindsight is 20/20; a reminder that those snap judgments we can make in 2021 (about, say, how cringeworthy it now sounds to talk of “being clean” and the very stigma it perpetuates) was not only commonplace decades ago but also, in fact, quite a progressive leap from what we’ve seen already from the Pink Palace gang (see, again: that condom-throwing scene). They’ve been listening to Jill, at least, but not soon enough. It’s hard to not think that, even if this isn’t a horror film, it’s a more depressing version of And Then There Were None. First, it was Mr. Coltrane … Then, it was “Gloria” …
Which brings us to the heartbreaking moment of the episode: Colin’s diagnosis. We knew it was only a matter of time until the Pink Palace would see one of their own getting this type of news, but there’s a bit of narrative manipulation here by making the shy young boy who’s only been with one guy the first one in the apartment to develop symptoms (dementia and seizures, no less) — a perhaps all too obvious reminder of the arbitrary nature of the virus. Promiscuity, the show seems to stress, is never an indication of someone’s status (Roscoe all but says as much when he gets a negative result from a nurse). Moreover, as if to drive the point home, we even got Jill reminding Ash to not obsess over the one guy Colin slept with: “Don’t be looking for a villain; it’ll be just some bloke.” But boy did it feel like overkill to then see who it actually was, in an end-of-episode reveal that nevertheless makes us see him as a kind of villain for how he treated Colin himself.
I’ll admit that, even seeing how cravenly the show was pulling at my heartstrings (a supportive mother will always do that to me), I teared up seeing good ol’ Colin slowly lose his bearings and eventually pass away. And, to go back to that anger Larry Kramer demanded of his contemporaries in episode two, I felt angry on behalf of the entire Pink Palace for how the state treated Colin, of the sheer bureaucratic cruelty he was subject to that kept him a prisoner in the hospital, away from his mother and his friends. A line like, “If he chose to be part of that cesspit, well, who am I to judge?” got my blood boiling even, as in episodes past, It’s a Sin was all too didactically walking us through a kind of “AIDS in the U.K. 101” crash course, which makes such historically accurate statements feel all too absurd.
Which brings us to Ritchie’s decision: Unlike Roscoe and Ash, who sit in front of nurses and hear of their results (negative, if you must know), Ritchie opts to live in doubt. Or, perhaps, with the resigned conviction of what he knew he was going to hear. Donald has, as Ritchie’s agent put it, “gone home,” like many boys those days — a heartbreaking euphemism he understands right away; it’s why he’d pulled away from him after seeing his KS lesion, choosing to distance himself rather than brave that storm alongside him (a tough decision I wished the show had more explicitly agonized over). As he slinks down to the floor while his flatmates absorb the news of Colin’s death, his face betrays little emotion. Gone is the swaggering lad from 1981, the braggart from 1983, and, sadly, even the smitten boy from just a few months back. What will he look like the next morning, the following week, in the months to come?
It’s taken three episodes but Davies and crew may finally have gotten me onboard. There are only a number of ways this can end, and I’m already bracing myself for It’s a Sin to pull a “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers production in Chicago” ending on us, where every boy we’ve been introduced to meets a tragic fate and only Jill is left standing. The question is whether the show can surprise us still.
Stephen Fry! Such a delight onscreen, as usual. I’m curious to see how he factors in moving forward as Roscoe begins to imagine a new future for himself where he gets to wake up at a place that has such a beautiful view of London. (Though, again, the show so breezes through their meetings that we’re left to color in our own idea about what’s happening between the two.)
“If I said I’m gay I’d be just, like, the clown.” Credit where credit is due. The conversation may be egregiously meta, but there’s something quite endearing and empowering about seeing an out performer like Olly Alexander being able to voice apprehension about Ritchie’s dire career prospects of being an out gay actor in 1986 and know that such a line is now decidedly quite dated. He and the rest of the cast of It’s a Sin are proof positive of the kind of future Ritchie and Donald couldn’t even dream of.
With lines like “That’ll be yer head!” and “I love a faggot, thanks!” we truly are a hop, skip, and jump away from this being a cheeky sitcom. (Though, “La!” I’m afraid, wore out its welcome for me far too quickly.)
I was drawn in by one of the posters at the health clinic where Ritchie, Roscoe, and Ash get tested. “AIDS Is a White Man’s Disease,” it read, in big white letters against a black backdrop. I knew there had to be more: Upon finding it online, I could see the fine print: “Famous Last Words. Anyone can get AIDS. Find out how to prevent it. Call today. PEOPLE OF COLOR AGAINST AIDS. INFORMATION 296-4999.”