It’s a Sin
I don’t know about you, but while watching the opening of episode four of It’s a Sin, I made a mental note to Google the ad campaign our characters were watching. You know, the one Ritchie’s parents barely acknowledged as it blared on their television. As a public service ad, it’s utterly fascinating to me. Directed by Nicolas Roeg, it uses dark and gritty industrial imagery of a monolith being carved with the AIDS acronym as actor John Hurt informs viewers that “there is now a danger that has become a threat to us all.” A part of me wanted to spend the entirety of this recap unpacking the 50-second clip, which ends with the monolith-cum-tombstone toppling over as a funeral bouquet and an info pamphlet (“AIDS: DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE”) are strewn above it.
There is just so much going on, so many things to be said about the rhetorical work that “now” and “us” are doing; about the way such a public investment showed enormous progress on the part of the U.K. government. So let’s not so much leave it behind (as Ritchie’s parents did) as keep it in mind as the Channel 4–HBO Max series enters its final two episodes. Which means talking about Ritchie and Roscoe and the disparity between the way each of those characters have been treated by the show itself.
Let’s start with Ritchie, as the show does. With daily routines that now include checking his skin and his gums, as well as daily doses of whatever vitamins he can get his hands on, it’s clear Ritchie (Olly Alexander) is convinced it’s a matter of when, not if, his HIV-positive status will become (as he finds out later in the episode) an actual AIDS diagnosis with visible symptoms. (Again, I cringed my way through the music cue used here; I mean, honestly, who wants to hear the Eurythmics sing “Everybody’s looking for something” while Ritchie inspects himself for lesions?)
Such an intimate moment is characteristic of how It’s a Sin has approached Ritchie. More so than any other character in this five-part miniseries, Ritchie has been given plenty of moments of quiet introspection that cut against his own public pronouncements. That’s definitely the case here, where, as well as this morning routine, we also witness him calling health hotlines to ask about possible ways to deter the virus, taking in the words of a nurse informing him of his AIDS diagnosis, and gazing at the sky on his way to the Isle of Wight as he ponders what (or if) to tell his parents. These are all very private moments, which show the actor grappling with an inner debate he has not yet shared with his friends.
Publicly, after all, he’s constantly wanting to push HIV and AIDS out of his worldview (a coping mechanism, no doubt). “You know what’s the worst thing about it? The absolute worst? It’s that every single conversation has to go on and on about AIDS. It’s all we ever hear,” he complains. “I came to London when I was 18. I thought, Great! I can be gay! But then I just end up as this problem.”
Rather than let such flippant commentary go unchallenged, It’s a Sin spends plenty of time trying to unravel why Ritchie would choose to suffer in silence — in denial, even; cue those moments by himself throughout the episode. He agonizes while making food for his family, drinks by himself at a bar, and later still, has a teary coming-out moment with a schoolmate. There’s a quiet dignity and complexity being afforded to this otherwise boisterous young man (a Tory voter who supports Section 28, no less). That nighttime ballet moment, for instance, is lovely and plays into the many ways It’s a Sin finds to make Ritchie into a charming, multifaceted lead. Hearing him sob his way through a line like “I could’ve done anything but I never will. I’ll never be anything” is heartbreaking on its own — but in a show that rarely allows its characters such lucid self-awareness, I was left wondering why he’s afforded such narrative heft.
Contrast that to the way It’s a Sin handles Roscoe. In Omari Douglas’s hands, Roscoe is a vivacious force to be reckoned with. He’s quick-witted and fabulous, with an undeniable sense of style. But beyond a scene here and there (in the car waiting to attend his sister’s wedding, at the Pink Palace reveling in having become an uncle), the show hasn’t mustered much of an interest in his inner life. His relationship with Stephen Fry’s Arthur remains as much a mystery to us as to his roommates. Is it merely a meal ticket or is there something else there, sexual, romantic, or otherwise? There are hints throughout (I’m thinking of the cab scene where they discuss what they’ll be role-playing that night), but it’s all too nebulous.
Roscoe’s gazes around the table when he has dinner with several other older men and their young companions, for instance, feel weighted with meaning, but unlike Ritchie, who gets to articulate his vexed feelings, the show then turns Roscoe’s epiphany about how Arthur sees him into a bit of crude comedy about pissing in Maggie Thatcher’s coffee. Where Ritchie gets the tragedy treatment, with teary monologues and tender ballet moments, Roscoe gets to live in a broad comedy (“I work hard for this!” “You get hard for this!”) — something that’s been true since we first met him, when he turned his storming out of his family home moment into a killer punch line about his new London address (“I’ll be staying at 23 Piss Off Avenue!”).
Even the ending of the episode and the manner in which both characters make their way to the protest turns one into a hero figure while keeping the other as a buoyant presence meant to lighten the mood. It’s a disparity I feel bogs down the overall message of It’s a Sin — especially if, as Ritchie’s final “I’m gonna live” line suggests, we’re being set up for a last installment that hinges solely on whether he (and only he) will be proven wrong.
• If COVID-19 imagery recontextualized earlier scenes around hand-washing, PPE, and conspiracy theories about a budding virus, there’s no denying the imagery of police officers brutally removing protesters from a peaceful die-in on the streets of London hits a bit different in 2021.
• Fry’s “I’m not gay!” explanation (“Well, every so often one has to shove one’s face in the shit just so you can lift your head up and smell the sweet roses afterwards”) doesn’t quite go the route of Roy Cohn’s famous “I’m not a homosexual” speech in Angels in America. But it can’t help but echo it. It similarly sketches out the ideological acrobatics some high-powered men used to enjoy sex with men while refusing the accompanying labels, lest they be lumped in with the likes of Roscoe, Ritchie, and their friends. As with everything else in the show, the element of class (and race, most pointedly) is briefly telegraphed but never quite fleshed out.
• Did you miss the aural Pet Shop Boys cameo? The show’s titular song, whose lyrics are perhaps a tad too on the nose for It’s a Sin the TV show (“When I look back upon my life, it’s always with a sense of shame”), could be heard briefly during Ritchie’s night out at his local pub. Which reminds me: Do yourself a favor and listen to Olly Alexander’s cover of the song.