When Money is Thicker Than Story: Blood & Water Review

Criticizing a teen drama series won’t change popular perception of the genre nor prevent the springing up of more teen dramas. The audience for shows about the high school elite have their unchanging reasons for watching. Consider this review like the intentions of Tahira Kahn, played by Mekaila Mathys, a supporting cast member and also my favourite character on Netflix’s Blood & Water.

In the third episode titled, Propaganda, Kahn delivers a sensible speech warning the learners of Parkhurst High that many of them are privileged and judge people based on their circumstances. She contrasts this to how she was treated by Natasha Thahane’s character, Wendy Dlamini, who befriended her in the series. This part of the series and this character are virtually erased from conversation and debate about the show.

It would seem Khan was actually addressing the audience. She was reminding us that we neglect many people in our pursuit of elitism. This includes our choosing to only celebrate shows like Blood & Water while neglecting any form of media that does not entertain us as much. It is understandable why an audience so deeply condemned in those remarks would ignore that section of the show and the character.

Instead, the primary focus for eager viewers is the revelry, the scheming and the drama. Khan does not contribute much to this at all. She has little in the way of a devilish agenda. She consistently maintains moral fortitude. She develops a fondness for the most underappreciated character, Wade Daniels, played by Dillon Windvogel. There is very little about Khan that would excite us. She is in many ways representative of the kind of media that we ignore.

The demand for excitement pushes filmmakers and Netflix into investing more creative energy and screen time to dramatic flair rather than developing sensible content which may be critical of the audience.

This is my biggest concern about the media we choose to consume. We neglect any story that does not entertain us. So, it comes as no surprise that Blood & Water has received immense acclaim -- the show is exciting.

However, to paraphrase Khan, this is only a good thing on the surface. We must look beneath the uniform that these shows wear and reveal the hidden prejudices and issues. We must continue to encourage audiences to expand what they are willing to engage because “everyone deserves a chance to speak and be seen”.

The major issue with Blood & Water is that it is unconscious. It’s politic is slightly problematic and its scripting is nonchalant. It may do this on purpose to attract an audience that does not need to think too much while watching it -- they can just enjoy it. But, I believe there is a deeper reason. If the show were too conscious, it would be too critical of the audience it wants to profit from.

Suspending Belief

The chain of events in Blood & Water are consistently over convenient, under explained and sloppy. Ideas are underdeveloped and then dropped. Characters are constantly changing their convictions and the achievement of their objectives is too quick and easy. In some breath, this is a good representation of the elite in society, but for storytelling, it represents poor writing.

The main character, Puleng Khumalo, played by Ama Qamata dons the detective cap and investigates possible adoption fraud mostly to fulfill her agenda of proving that Fikile Mbele, played by Khosi Ngema, is her sister. Usually, mystery shows spend time developing the competence of their protagonist so that when they achieve great sleuthing feats, the audience is amazed but expectant. This is not the case for Puleng. Her competence at collecting evidence or happening upon significant events is not probed.

She convinces her mother to send her to a school that her parents cannot afford. This is not well-explained. She manages to purchase a DNA testing kit for R2 500 by stealing her mother’s credit card. Her mother does not find out. She catches different significant characters having sex, which turns into major dramatic plot elements. It is mightily convenient that she just happens to almost always walk in on people having sex. She is so easily able to discover Fikile’s birth certificate copy. Throughout the entire series, Puleng always strikes lucky.

In fact, from the very beginning, the show is foreshadowed by how easy everything would be for Puleng. When Zama Bolton (played by Cindy Mahlangu) and Puleng arrive at the party where only Zama was invited, the tension is almost instantly eased when Chris Ackerman played by Arno Greef, returns and lets Puleng in. This is simply how easy Puleng’s detective work is. It is rarely her own abilities. It is rarely explained. We can’t admire it. We are never concerned that something may go awry. At some points, we even predict events because her sleuthing becomes so formulaic.

There are never any serious consequences for obvious mistakes that Puleng makes. If she stays out against her mother’s rules, it matters little. Her mother will let her out again. She is not allowed to have boys in her room, but this warrants no punishment. When she is grounded for fighting and her phone is confiscated, she just snaps it out of her mother’s hands later. She effectively undoes her punishment. In fact, after fighting in her previous school, she is moved to a much more elite school. At this school, she fights again. She receives no punishment. The problem here is that there are never any stakes. We do not think she might fail. We do not even root for her to succeed because we know she will.

Her world no longer feels real. Her protections and abilities are just too unbelievable. So we suspend our belief. We no longer concern ourselves with rooting for Puleng at all. Now, all we can do is just consume the drama, which we know won’t last long. Other characters, at least, face consequences for their actions so we end up developing tension around the subplots of the narrative and the fates of the supporting characters.

I can see this as an allegory for the life of the elite. They are rarely challenged as they glide through life, unconcerned by all the trouble and misery they cause others. But this series glorifies this life, instead of criticizing it. The show creates an experience of wealth and invites its audience to one long tour of its glamour.

But even still, there is a sense of brevity throughout the series. The events move quickly from one dramatic element to the next and are almost always immediately resolved. Very little of the drama is given enough time to develop competing interests, power plays and develop complexity. For instance, the election of Head Girl was done quickly and off-camera. There was rarely any anxiety or tension about this election and ultimately, the only relevance later on in the series was to qualify a demeaning sexual joke. Tamira Khan is not even shown doing Head Girl duties, despite the fact that in the first episode, she tries to enforce a school rule on Reece Van Rensburg (Greteli Fincham).

Older story arcs are rushed to completion and then abandoned, without explanation. When at last Puleng has the opportunity to collect DNA samples at Fikile’s house, she does not. In fact, she has completely changed her mind about using a DNA test to prove Fikile’s familial connection. The series addressed this much later when Puleng just states that she did not use the test. Otherwise, it is not explained why she has abandoned this strategy.

It just seems the story wanted to develop the subplot about Karabo Molapo’s father and Fikile’s parents. That subplot was itself eerily convenient. It just so happened that the boy who took interest in Puleng is the son of the attorney who defended the fraudulent adoption agency with potential links to the abduction of Puleng’s sister. Convenient.

Many story points seem to have no intrinsic relevance. They are only important for developing later subplots. The series moves from one dramatic event to the next. Parkhurst quickly moves on from cyberbullying Puleng to cyberbullying Fikile. Zama summons away her homophobia and reconnects with Chris. It would appear that prior tensions are irrelevant in themselves.

Character motivations are not well-explored in the show. Fikile wants to get a scholarship to be less dependent on her parents, but is unconcerned about exploiting their influence and wealth to campaign for the Head Girl position which is supposed to help her earn that very scholarship. We don’t ever really see her strive for independence outside of this scholarship which makes us struggle to understand that motivation. Most supporting characters adopt single-dimension typecasts. Reece, Tamira and Siya Dlamini are just passer-by characters with dialogue, but we never truly explore or understand these characters. There are very few overall characters in the show and all of their storylines are deliberately connected in an overly-convenient web.

The combination of all these elements is not a good story. There is absent conflict, little rising action and no need to invest in the characters and the short-lived tragedies that befall them. We struggle to develop deeper bonds to the characters and find meaning in the storyline. Instead, we are bombarded with party scenes, aesthetics, swimsuit shots and teenage drama. We don’t even believe any of it.

Purging Politics

But the laziness of the show is most poignant in its coverage of woke politic. This is primarily through school revolutionary and politically-connected Wendy Dlamini. Early on Wendy tries to enforce a conscious history curriculum about the exploits of Belgium’s Leopold II. This is a very lazy and mainstream reference to colonial history. The show costumes Wendy as an activist but never shows Wendy doing anything outside of begrudging Fikile.

This is either a snarky comment on wokeness from an elite perspective or a genuine attempt to write a woke character with flaws. However, it would be helpful to also genuinely develop and display the progressive parts of Wendy’s character and not just her flaws. However, upon closer inspection, Wendy is not woke at all. She is knowledgeable about history but she participates in elite life at Parkhurst, exploits her mother's political power and is overconsumed in pursuing Fikile. I would argue she has a greater “Fiksation” than Puleng does. The show only quickly explains this as Fikile being the ‘poster-girl’ for everything Puleng decries.

But we see consistently that the white characters, Reece and Chris, are much more antagonistic to Wendy. It would make sense that a ‘woke’ character would spend their resources challenging whiteness and also white characters who are consistently provoking and demeaning her. It seemed that Wendy was written as a caricature of wokeness with obvious flaws and contradictions.

One of the show’s primary antagonists is the only major openly-queer character and their queerness is mostly elaborated through sex. Moreover, it intersects with polyamory creating a complex character that one would expect requires immense nuance. Instead, the show approaches the character with offensive simplicity. The show explains pansexuality as following one’s heart and not their sexual organs; except they put it much more bluntly. Pansexuality actually refers to sexual, romantic or emotional attraction towards people regardless of their sex or gender identity.

Zama displays relentless queerphobia which she never apologises for or takes measures to address. In fact, Chris and her simply kiss and move on. This is a very irresponsible approach to resolving queerphobia.

The show almost entirely ignores racial politics in South Africa, perhaps to make the show more palatable to weather white audiences. The class criticism is mostly directed at the wealthier Black characters. But even that criticism is overshadowed by a glorification of opulence in multiple party scenes. Karabo tells Puleng that a seaside hotel room is “not as expensive as you think it is” in many obnoxious moments displayed by the character, who is also supposedly aware of his privilege.

However, this awareness never encourages him or any other character to commit substantially to assisting other characters in the show or addressing those structures of privilege. The writers of the show explicitly wrote a character to be aware of their privilege and to be well-read enough to understand its oppressive nature -- but then continue to revel in wealth.

There is something seriously malicious in the simultaneous consciousness of poverty and maintenance of the structures which perpetuate it. But there is never any significant criticism of this wealth. The only character who once does this, Tamira, is effectively written off as a crush-pursuing side character for a love triangle subplot.

We Must Write Ourselves Into Form

The reality is that the show cannot criticize its characters. That would amount to criticizing its audience. So it ignores race, boasts about wealth and chastises wokeness. For the median Netflix account, this is a sensible choice given people with monthly Netflix subscriptions tend to be middle to upper class -- and may even have backgrounds somewhat similar to characters.

This should worry us because it means mainstream South African content will continue to pander to wealthier audiences to ensure success. The only way around this is to lose concern for the Netflix audience. People will need to come together, pool resources and create alternative media which tells more complex and critical stories. We can’t expect much money or praise from this. We should do it only out of the genuine will to express ourselves and share narratives of our experiences.

These stories deserve to be created and seen. Netflix will not do this. It is entirely up to us to write ourselves into form. It is we who will make something thicker than water.