“Heart in throat” is a silly phrase. It evokes a peculiar sensation, but it’s used more like an estimate. It’s like “fees may apply”. Who knows if they will or not, but the phrase covers all bases in case it turns out that way. We smack “heart in throat” on overwhelming action movies or horror films. So why is it a coming-of-age series like “In My Skin” is the thing that reminds me what that phrase feels like at its core?
The Welsh series features the kind of complex and commanding protagonist that British TV wants you to think they all have, but often only nod to. Bethan Gwyndaf is a broke student who lies about almost everything. She lies to cover up that her mother’s in and out of a psychiatric ward. She lies to cover up that her alcoholic father is abusive. She lies to cover up being queer. She lies to cover up that she’s broke. She lies to get people care, to keep them safe, to protect them from abuse. She lies so that others are impressed by her, and she lies so others don’t have to worry about her. She lies out of fear and care and love and desperation and panic and because she’s so exceptionally good at it.
Coming-of-age series sometimes ask their leads to act like the most mature person in the show. It defeats the entire “coming-of-age” concept where the whole idea is watching someone grow into themselves. The writing on these fails when it bestows this upon a protagonist without their having earned it.
With “In My Skin”, it’s a necessity. It’s earned. It’s the difference between survival and sinking. It’s probably kept other people alive. Many of Bethan’s lies center on holding her reality together while others tear at it. To create a character who so deftly lies, yet who’s so deeply responsible and invested in caring at the same time, is phenomenal.
“In My Skin” feels like it happens in a real world with shitty consequences and abysmal people while kids try their fucking best to fix everything and care for everybody and are just barely, somehow, magically keeping their heads above water. It is everything every other coming-of-age series completely misses about the sheer effort of growing up, being asked to fix a world that’s entirely broken, having no resources to do it with, and being called lazy as you exhaust yourself putting everyone back together over and over again while you fall apart.
“In My Skin” features beautiful storytelling that hinges on two extraordinary performances and a layered mother-daughter relationship. Jo Hartley gives a tremendous performance as Katrina, Bethan’s mother. Katrina has type one bipolar disorder. It’s a devastating portrayal, and not one that’s cleaned up or made cinematic. They don’t go for heartwrenching or sentimental. They go for just showing it. It feels honest and exceptionally studied. Katrina’s not there as a gimmick. She’s there as a good person who needs a lot of help her circumstances don’t offer. The show’s writer and showrunner, Kayleigh Llewellyn, has spoken about her experience with her own mother’s severe bipolar disorder. This is a portrayal of mental illness that’s done extremely well, and responsibly.
Gabrielle Creevy’s performance as Bethan is the stuff that makes British TV legend when middle-aged men do it with Shakespeare or politics. This is a monumental 5-episode series. It’s tension is the definition of one step forward, two steps back, and it pulses with alternating moments of terrifying alarm and determined resolve.
They don’t make coming-of-age series like this because it doesn’t do a single thing in a way that’s safe or easily fulfilling for an audience. When a series is made that looks like this, its grit is often presented as titillating and the poverty is peered at as if it’s tourism. “In My Skin” shucks these right off. It is a risky and masterful character study of a 16 year-old girl doing her utter best in an unstable world that’s constantly dismantled around her. Creevy nails it. She completely delivers.
It helps that every layer of what’s presenting these characters is done so well. Director Lucy Forbes helms every episode, and the visuals themselves have a rhythmic way of centering and un-centering Bethan within both the frame and the spaces of her town. Just as there’s an emotional push and pull, just as Katrina comes in and out of better days and worse ones, just as Bethan solves problems and slams into new ones, how she’s presented shifts her from center to edges and center again as she’s displaced and finds her way in her own story. It’s done subtly, and unpredictably. All these rhythms meet up, converge at times, disagree at others.
The editing keys into this, as Bethan regularly imagines the way a situation could go, and makes decisions about her lies and actions that help to navigate or mitigate the disasters she anticipates. Meaningless but relaxing hours spent with friends are sometimes edited into montages that slyly subvert your expectations or interrupt themselves. Time can stand still at length, or zip by incredibly quickly in those few moments when things are at a calm.
There’s an incredible cleverness to this – Bethan’s experience is one that’s unanchored. Her mother can have a good day, or suffer hypomania in the middle of the night. Her father might be unresponsive on the sofa for a day, or partying so late she can’t even sleep inside her own home. Her best friend veers between engaged and protective, or wasted and helpless. There are several nights where it’s suggested Bethan might not have even slept at all, because she’s displaced or caring for someone else. She can’t rely on a schedule or people around her being predictable in the way a child should. When she makes a decision for herself, for something she wants, someone often suffers because she wasn’t there to protect them.
The liar as a protagonist isn’t anything new. The liar who has to do so in order to protect people, in order to deflect abuse on others’ behalf…that’s more unique. It’s so incredibly difficult to write, act, and present in a way that gives you so much empathy for a character. That Bethan’s story is presented with all these merging and discordant rhythms that remove so many anchors from her life – that they aren’t confusing but rather serve to clue us into all the pressures that inform each lie – that’s a storytelling feat. That is special and remarkable.
Don’t get me wrong. There are places where “In My Skin” stumbles. Bethan’s P.E. teacher feels transported from some other, much broader comedy or sketch series. While coming-of-age series often make the adults seem silly or like they’re trying too hard, it doesn’t fit with that more realistic and mature world that Bethan has to navigate. It’s the most egregious element here and the only real complaint I have, but these scenes are very momentary and are easily brushed aside for greater stakes.
It’s almost unthinkable that a show can tell this much story and deliver this much character – and this complex a character and performance – in only five half-hour episodes. Kids are supposed to make mistakes and learn in safe environments just like in most other, idealized coming-of-age series. My heart was in my throat constantly as I watched “In My Skin” because of how superbly and beautifully they realized one character, her world, and a tenuous and increasingly one-sided relationship with her mother. Most of all, though, I admired how intensely hard she tries just to keep things from falling apart. Some of Bethan’s lying is ego and appearance, sure, but at that age those are also forms of defense. Bethan has so little protection herself and she exerts herself every way she can to protect those around her, and to correct it when she can’t.
In that way, this might be a far more honest representation about the experience of the next generation coming of age. They’re entering adulthood in an unstable world where everything is being dismantled, where they have so little and yet they have to do the work of protecting everybody. I don’t know that Bethan is intended as a metaphor so much as this is the story of a child doing her best with a mother who’s deteriorating and little other support.
“In My Skin” so quickly becomes even more than that, though. There’s something that feels universal in this moment about Bethan holding pieces of reality together, refusing to let them be dislodged in her life even as an older generation loses track of them, as those around her threaten abuse and punishment for holding onto them. There’s something universal in her determination and steadfastness. Those stakes have my heart in my throat every day. To see a piece of art that reflects that in such complexity, with such anger, that speaks in that language and has that understanding – it feels connecting.
“In My Skin” can be watched on Hulu.
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