"So What Does It All Mean?"

Gossip Girl At Its apotheosis

by by Stephen Carmody

illustration by by Becca Levinson

Diana: Well, I didn’t intend for things to get as serious as they did with Nate. And then I thought… if you never find out the truth, what’s the harm?

Chuck: [After a long pause] So what does it all mean? Now that I know?

Diana: That’s for you to decide. [She gets up to go] You know where to find me. [Chuck stares off pensively. Guitar strum, elevator bell. End scene.]


Dear reader: I never broke it off with Gossip Girl. It’s like a scab of popular culture hanging onto my very heart from a two-year fling at an all-male college, Deep Springs. Or that’s what I’ve told myself. A group of us students satisfied the craving for romance and intrigue late at night, crowded around a laptop, cackling and groaning. We even read the trashy teen novels that sparked the television show together at a female professor’s house like a book club might. We delighted to find out that, in the books, Chuck ends up going to our small school. There it was, his gaudy life, in over-saturated prose, touching our drab deserts.

Out at Deep Springs, we watched Gossip Girl for the same reason anyone watches television drama: it’s an exciting story to fill a void in your slightly boring life. But that time has ended, and I keep watching, still attached to its characters. This show wasn’t made for me. Just look at the things they try to sell me on the stream: designer fashions from Marshall’s, Almay “makeup for sensitive skin,” upcoming episodes of Vampire Diaries, Abby Wambach selling Gatorade, and Skechers shoes. But I finish each scene, each episode, and each season on the edge of a cliff, and only more Gossip Girl can get me through.

Gossip Girl reached its apotheosis this past Monday. To those of you who gave up on Gossip Girl so long ago, I will describe this scene. It’s not the moment when the series “jumped the shark.” That already happened—perhaps when Serena made a snuff film, or when Dan got his arch-nemesis pregnant, or when Chuck died (don’t worry, he was brought back to life by a semi-angelic French woman). This was the mimesis (and emesis), in two minutes and twenty seconds, of all Gossip Girl is, and in some way, of our entire culture. At some time slightly before nine o’clock on Monday, April 16, 2012, Gossip Girl achieved the sublime.

It happened in a dialogue between Charles “Chuck” Bass, the son of a late hotel magnate, and Diana Payne, the seductive, forty-something publisher with a raspy London accent. As usual, since it’s the end of the episode, some secret is being revealed. Open on Chuck and Diana, in medias res. Diana is telling Chuck how she came to be Chuck’s biological mother. Now, understand that Diana just joined the show this season, so this explanation had better be good. She’s going from incidental girlfriend of Chuck’s best friend to Chuck’s mom.

What’s more, this question has hovered over the series for years, informing almost everything about his identity. First, the rebellious son to a distant, single father. Later, the orphan whose stepmother softens his heart. Then, for a whole season, another one of Chuck’s stepmothers, Elizabeth, pretends to be Chuck’s real mother, faking her own death to con him out of his fortune. And now, he sits in a room with his real, biological mother. Diana’s egregious cleavage transforms from an object of erotic desire into a nurturing symbol of motherhood.

But Diana has some explaining to do, to Chuck and to us. Affairs are wrong, so why did she have one? “It felt as if he had the whole world at his feet,” she remarks, and that’s about all we need. Power is seductive. Why then, Chuck wants to know, did she give up her baby? She was “a mess; mixed up in the wrong things with the wrong people.” We’ve all been there, or at least Chuck has. Diana now only has to suggest that she still wanted to be with Chuck, but the situation was beyond her control. And let Chuck know she was ashamed. Guilt helps to move on. These things are just true enough to keep the narrative going.


Meanwhile, as the camera shifts from one close-up to the next, the Transcenders (who? only the founding members of The Black Eyed Peas, of course) fill the dialogue’s pregnant silences with moody electronic music. The music syncs with each change in emotion perfectly. Tension builds as an electronic guitar repeats a single note and Chuck accuses Diana. We’re in a new key with the uplifting spirit to Diana’s remorse. The Transcenders almost lull us into forgetting that Diana as Chuck’s mother is awkward narrative. As Chuck plaintively asks, “So you stayed away until eight months ago?”  We’re all asking the same damn thing.

And then it happens, the sublime moment, arising from narrative fragility. We watch Chuck’s Big Question, the essence of so many storylines in the show’s five seasons, come to its death. The whole thing almost makes sense. Right as Diana explains her reentry (“But a few years later, when I heard Elizabeth [who hates Diana] had died—although I now know that wasn’t the case—I came back”), Chuck lets out an abrupt sigh.

When someone starts to laugh in a moment of tension, it prompts you to do the same. And during Diana’s parenthetical, a nod to one of the show’s more ridiculous subplots, Chuck’s unfortunately-timed exhale sounded so clearly like the beginning of a chuckle. The sigh brought the show into reflection, almost laughing at itself. And I couldn’t help but join in, not quite sure why, even on the fourth replay. I don’t even think it matters if it was intentional. Gossip Girl, with a laugh that welled up from its subconscious, cast off its last façade of narrative self-containment, trying to tie up a story arc that was just not written with its end in mind. And it knew it.

Having broken the fourth wall with laughter, it’s as if the show now preaches to us. Chuck asks, after too long a pause, “So what does it all mean? Now that I know?” It dawns on us, clear as day, that every time we wanted to see what happens to these characters, we so desperately sought satisfaction, and through it, something to make this whole absurd saga worth it. In response, Diana looks straight into the camera at us, and offers a little comfort: “That’s for you to decide… You know where to find me.”


A history professor recently told me that before she starts researching a historical event, she reads the novels from that era, to get a sense of what people cared about. We find Gossip Girl almost plausible because it plays by our understood rules of character motivations. Greed corrupts. Love fades. Kinship binds. Desire overwhelms. On display each week is our cultural ethos, pushed to its extreme. The plotlines, even at their most ludicrous, must attend to some depiction of character that we think is believable.

And above our longing for scandal or romance, the show knows, we need resolution. The thirst for narrative conclusion—really wanting to know the truth, like Chuck—drives everything. When Freud, in On the Pleasure Principle, depicted life as a string of essentially erotic divergences that eventually succumb to the death drive, this is what he meant. What makes me painfully laugh at this moment is my own desperation. The show has uncovered so many little answers—usually at fancy social gatherings that get crashed—and fed me newer, wilder conflicts. But this moment was one of the Big Answers. Right then, I am Chuck, no longer jilted by the truth.

As fable, Gossip Girl objectifies our popular ethics. They’re the tools that drive its salacious plotline, caricatured to an extreme unrivaled by any show on television. But they are still our ethics. Forgiveness might just be recognizing someone’s genuine expression of guilt and taking a long pause. An affair, as slimy as it is, can still be understood. And in crystallizing this ethos, we have a touchstone, perhaps, upon which we can reflect and pivot. If we don’t find Chuck convincing, then how can we be different?

I will keep watching as Gossip Girl approaches its occult and syndicated death. I hope this happens soon. Because there was still a touch of grace in Chuck’s moment: it was never about the Big Answer. The pedestrian explanation for this overinflated drama was apt. I’m fairly certain life isn’t an M. Night Shyamalan movie, where every incidental detail will be infused with metaphysical meaning. Diana’s almost forced parenthetical spoke to that; it was just a rough insertion to help us move on. The sigh-laugh recognized the simultaneous absurdity, necessity, and sorrow in this moment of inevitable closure.

And there are so many more Big Questions to answer! Will Blair find love in the most unlikely source? How will Dan come to terms with his status as outsider? Can Serena ever derive internal validation? Can Nate escape the shadow of his family? And, of course, who is Gossip Girl, after all?

You’re right, Diana, I know where to find you.


STEPHEN CARMODY B’12 hopes you don’t just say he watches Gossip Girl “ironically.”