It’s a Sin
To have It’s a Sin’s final episode close out with R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” running through its credits may explain all too clearly the mood with which this five-part miniseries leave us. “Take comfort in your friends,” Michael Stipe sings shortly after we see a fresh-faced Ritchie taking a bow in front of his friends in the sun-dappled flashback that ends the show. It’s a lovely image, full of joy and possibility. The first episode ended with the question of what Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin hoped to accomplish in their futures, and it’s bittersweet to find Russell T. Davies opting to have us travel back to brighter days when these young boys couldn’t have known what awaited them. It’s also, perhaps, an all too neat a bow to tie around what was occasionally a powerful chronicle of a group of friends in 1980s London at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Yet for all the focus on friendship during the bulk of the series, it was family that framed much of this final episode. Watching episode four, I sketched out a nagging complaint I had with It’s a Sin; namely, how it seemed to be wholly invested in the complexity of a character like Ritchie (Olly Alexander) often at the expense of figures like Ash (Nathaniel Curtis, here reduced to Ritchie’s “maybe boyfriend”) and more glaringly, Roscoe (Omari Douglas). Alas, this final installment did nothing to convince me otherwise. Roscoe’s complicated relationship with his father, which comes full circle when they meet at the hospital’s AIDS ward, is summarily resolved within a few minutes so the show can go ahead and spend its final half hour dissecting the feelings and motives (and machinations and confessions and delusions) of Ritchie’s mum. As much as the show billed itself as a kind of ensemble, I often worried it would turn into the “Story of Ritchie” in the end, turning most of its characters into supporting players.
That’s precisely what it did. While there were things to love (Keeley Hawes, of Bodyguard fame, is astonishing throughout) and things I could’ve done without (the sweeping melodramatic score punctuating Jill’s walk through the AIDS ward at the hospital), I admit I was left a bit disappointed by this narrative swerve, no matter how heartbreaking and tear-jerking it was. Conjuring up a now decades-old framework for how to tell a story about a young gay man dying from AIDS complications, It’s a Sin turned its final chapter into a tale about a mother’s loss. (That is, before it punctuated its storytelling with a screed about shame. But more on that later.)
After years of keeping his status (and sexuality) a secret from his family, Ritchie finds himself face to face with his mom and dad at the hospital. Unable to evade such thorny conversations, he finally tells them everything: he’s gay, he’s contracted HIV, and now he’s developed AIDS, which in turn has landed him in the hospital with lymphoma. I’ve often remarked that It’s a Sin has a habit of burning through its stories at a breakneck speed, so I was happy to see it acknowledge its most heart-wrenching moment by slowing down and making us follow Ritchie’s mom Valerie (Hawes) in real time as she processes what she’s just heard. Seeing her go from denial to anger to indignation — blaming Jill, picking a fight with a fellow mother, admonishing her husband, berating the nurse, and finally alighting on Ritchie’s bed with tears in her eyes, was easily one of the most powerful moments of the series. The tonal shifts, expertly handled by Hawes, got at the disorientation Valerie felt at needing to reframe everything she knew about her son. You could see her mind racing, both manic and measured, as if she were replaying her entire son’s life in light of this news and finding new ways of absolving herself for being in the dark or — as she ends up doing, hoping she can recast their relationship during his last few weeks alive.
That hospital scene and her final conversation with Jill (Lydia West), where she cruelly admits she let her son die without ever giving him a chance to see his Pink Palace friends again, go to great lengths to complicate Valerie in the eyes of It’s a Sin’s audience before having her stand for many other mothers like her. Jill’s grief-stricken righteousness edges us toward seeing her as the seemingly innocuous but truly insidious villain of the entire piece. Ritchie, whom she’s previously described as being beautifully gay, grew up in a loveless home that taught him to be ashamed of who he was, who he lusted after, who he fucked. “The wards are full of men who think they deserve it,” Jill tells her. “They are dying. And a little bit of them thinks, ‘Yes, this is right. I brought this on myself. It’s my fault. Because the sex that I love is killing me.’” She goes further, though, putting into words the show’s thesis statement with such mournful vitriol it’ll be days before I recover from West’s delivery: “The perfect virus came along to prove you right. He died because of you.”
Is it too facile? Perhaps. But there’s truth in it as well. The virus, after all, wasn’t the only thing boys like Ritchie and Colin were battling then (and, many of them since); shame and stigma made the virus all the deadlier, infecting everything from the rhetoric we used to the bureaucratic decision that were made, from the stories that were told to the messaging that was spread. It is a powerful point to drive home in a five-hour miniseries focused on young gay men coming of age in the 1980s, even if it’ll sound familiar to many of us who have seen similar stories told before.
But from the beginning, It’s a Sin pitched itself as a kind of memory capsule, and so it makes sense this is where it would end, with a kind moral of the story that’s both angering and uplifting in equal measure: we’re being nudged to follow Jill’s lead, not Valerie, to choose empathy and compassion over judgment and prejudice. It’s a way of sticking the landing for a show we always knew would end up here. If you end with tragedy, you risk pathologizing your characters, wrapping their stories in boxed-in genres that see them only as victims to be cried over. Avoid said tragedy, though, and you forgo the pathos their stories deserve. It’s why we get an ending like this, that straddles the line between the two and carves out as uplifting a final moment as it can, reminding us that everybody hurts sometimes, and so all we can do is hold on.
• The very obvious musical cues continue! This time around we get to hear Kate Bush sing “It doesn’t hurt me. Do you want to feel how it feels?” as Ritchie struggles taking his nightly meds.
• True to Ritchie’s cheeky sensibility, it’s no surprise he’d excel in Hay Fever, a Noel Coward play, or that he’d be so at ease reciting a monologue from Twelfth Night featuring one of the queerest characters in Shakespeare’s repertoire, Viola.
• “I just got lucky with who I fucked” and “He lies there all day lying of shame” are two lines that hit me harder than I thought they would, both functioning as kind of inadvertent mirror images of one another, lending more nuance and flair to what Jill’s final moments with Valerie captured.
• I’ve shouted out the show’s costume designer before (Humans and Giri/Haji’s Ian Fulcher) but I wanted to take this final moment to credit a below-the-line figures who made every episode of It’s a Sin feel authentic without drawing too much attention to their work: production designer Luana Hanson and art directors Tom Atkins and Gavin Lewis made it easier to immerse ourselves in the many spaces we visited — from the Pink Palace to hospital ward. I wanted to spend hours staring at Ritchie’s childhood bedroom, dissecting the many photos and posters and magazine clippings that adorned his walls.