Barry Monahan
University College Cork | Views:

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The Finite Televisual Narrative: Pure Mule, The Last Weekend (RTE, 2009)

It is testament to the vast ideological scope of television within the imagined community, and its central position relating to the dissemination and manipulation of ideas, that Irish programmes such as The Late Late Show, 7 Days and Primetime, are often cited for their profoundly influential role in holding a polemical mirror up to Irish society. Regarding the first of the three, Lance Pettitt goes as far as to state that the chat-show hosted by Gay Byrne was so significant in interrogating the ethics and attitudes of citizens of Ireland, and such a potent driving force for social transformation, that it could be considered a “Mid-wife to contemporary Irish liberalism” (2000: 166).1  However there is another sense in which television and televisual broadcasting can be seen to negotiate and present community to the community, and this operates through fictional programmes and is dictated by structural imperatives of the television series.

PureMule1

Most commonly played out in the format of the soap opera, the form allows a regulated number of characters to interact across an on-going narrative development of infinite possibilities and connections. As the elasticity of the coordination of the human dramas and conflicts threatens narrative coherence, the format dictates that community is very clearly defined as containing the randomness of individual actions and interactions. This results, on a basic level, in the constant and concrete naming of locations: the public and private spaces in which dramas occur or are linked by gossip, accusation or eavesdropping. Furthermore, it is complemented by the very strongly “community-located” titles given to many of the most popular soap operas (from home) Bracken, Glenroe, Fair City, (and away) Eastenders,Coronation Street, Emmerdale. This apparent delineation of space and place also has a clear economic rationale: while stage sets can remain relatively (cheaply) unchanged, developing over time only as the given budgetary situation allows, actors can be woven in and out of narrative lines if and when they are needed.

In the case of some recent Irish television, exactly the opposite is the case, and it is with an innovative formal inversion of typical television practice that a new aesthetic has come to Irish screens. Last year, Element Pictures oversaw the production for RTÉ of Pure Mule, The Last Weekend, a two-part revisiting of many of the characters introduced four years earlier in the six episode series Pure Mule.2 Eugene O’Brien returned to work on the screenplay, and Declan Recks directed both of the new sections. These latter installations dramatise small community life in the same mid-west Irish town over one weekend “four years later”, and blocked as “Friday/Saturday” and “Sunday/Monday”. Where, in the first set, one weekend is replayed from six different  —  but interacting  —  characters’ points of view, and each episode is titled with that character’s name, the new episodes concentrate on two protagonists: Jennifer (Charlene McKenna) and Scobie (Gareth Lombard).

The busy property development of the town that formed the backdrop against which the dramas occurred in the first installations, and perfectly reflected the zeitgeist of Ireland’s then booming economy, has now become a frozen industry. The construction site on which Scobie and his brother Shamie worked is now abandoned, with houses left in various states of completion. Shamie has moved to Australia where Scobie is intending to move; a decision with which he grapples over this last weekend. Jennifer has been in London and returns with her boyfriend of two years, for her mother’s funeral. In terms of narrative, the balance between death and unemployment-motivated emigration on the one hand is set against new romantic relationships and returning emigrants on the other, in a way that creates a dramatic fluidity that presents the community with certain vulnerable instability. As is the case with O’Brien’s writing for the screen, this quality is offered aesthetically with perfect objective correlatives as sequence transitions dramatising indecision or mobility are shot at crossroads, borders of the town and rural spaces, or looking down roads that vanish into the distance. The strength of the visual writing is perfectly complemented with a cinematic style of lighting and framing designed by Owen McPolin. A visual restraint establishes a rhythm of cutting from long shots to close up as the eye of the camera adds to the reflective nature of the two protagonists who work towards a moment of self-knowledge. Jennifer and Scobie’s enlightenment is marked in two cases when each looks contemplatively into a mirror; the cinematic shorthand for a personal epiphany, perhaps most famously used by Bergman in Wild Strawberries (1957).

O’Brien’s powerful visual writing centralises specific props with metaphorical significance as perfect objective correlatives. In one scene Jen bursts onto a hall at which a wedding party has taken place. Distraught in confusion over her romantic situation and frustrated at the smothering and restrictive nature of the town and its inhabitants, she punctures a helium heart-shaped balloon on the floor and then sitting at a table releases another. She watches as the red heart floats upwards and stalls, stopped by the ceiling. The lucidity of the metaphor reflects perfectly the connection between O’Brien’s script and McPolin’s realisation of it with Recks’ direction.

The opening shots of each episode are held with a stillness that demonstrate how both the town and its people will be put under the microscope. In the last two, more specifically, the imagery of landscape and settings depicts not only an Ireland at a time of economic recession but a location that is frozen in time like a cinematic still offering itself up to scrutiny. The movement of characters, or the use of “outsiders” (whether Irish or not), further emphasises this quality and allows an exposure of the town and its community as a place that must be analysed. At a critical moment, amongst a crowd of locals, Jennifer shouts: “This is not who I am anymore, I swear…it must be this … Jaysus town … all of you that bring it out in me.” This sense of looking inside from beyond is articulated in numerous shots in which characters observe others through door and window frames, or watch them through crowds of townspeople.

The set six-episode and then two-episode structure affords a certain narrative flexibility that accords well with the somewhat dysfunctional, fragmented nature of the community presented. Individuals move in and out of sexual relationships as easily as they seem to come and go from the town. The dénouement is as much an unravelling of interpersonal interactions and social cohesion, as it is a logical winding down of characters’ narratives in typical resolved closure. The ultimate lesson that individuals learn is the extent to which they are restricted by their performed role within, and relationship to, the town’s inhabitants and social structure. The collective community memory becomes an ideological apparatus in which individuals and their personal narratives get hopelessly caught. Escaping from that history (the broader collective narrative) becomes the aim of Jen and Scobie, and this is only possible after a moment of self-realisation which marks how embedded their stories are within the broader narrative of the town.

The typical soap opera offers integrity of community  —  even, and especially, in cases where the plot lines represent social fragmentation, interpersonal arguments, or the arrival and departure of characters  —  where its narrative structure is centrifugal, diffused and infinite. It is precisely because of the finite and fixed form of the episodic structure of Pure Mule (and some other recent Irish television programmes like Prosperity (Lenny Abrahamson, 2007)3 that writers can play with the fragmentation of community, so that emigration, uncertainty about the future, and the problematic nature of relationships, can be addressed harmoniously both thematically and through narrative construction. This structural ambiguity, one that emerges from the creative imposition of the finite over the unlimited nature of human interactions, may also reside by implication in the title. Acknowledging a real-world association with the town in which they grew up, the writer and director have pointed to the double meaning of the phrase “pure mule”: one that expresses a positive summary of a thing or event, the other suggesting the exact opposite. In the closing sequence, as Scobie, his mother and her fiancé drive down the road away from the town into his uncertain emigration, two characters met earlier drive alongside him in their car, and they scream elatedly the ambiguous words at each other.

  1. Pettitt, Lance. 2000. Screening Ireland. Film and television representation (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press). []
  2. For an analysis of the first six episodes of Pure Mule, see Tony Tracy (2006: 172-74),Estudios Irlandeses Issue 1 []
  3. For an analysis of Prosperity, see Díog O’Connell (2007: 239-41), Estudios Irlandeses Issue 3 []