What Should We Do With “Last Tango in Halifax”?

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The past year-and-change has been so full of heartbreaking queer deaths on television that even seasoned fans and critics have sometimes felt a stunned disbelief. (It would be science fiction, it would be farce, if it weren’t both real and tragic.) To compare these deaths to each other, to develop some kind of points system for bereavement, seems like a macabre sort of exercise, but for my money here’s the truth: Kate’s death on Last Tango in Halifax was the worst of them all.

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I mean, the death on The 100 was the most important in sparking an outrage loud enough that showrunners can at least no longer claim ignorance to the trope. The death on Wentworth was the most viscerally devastating (ironically, because it was the best-told story). The pile of queer bodies on Pretty Little Liars feels like that show setting our friendship bracelet on fire in front of us. But nevertheless, that off-screen car crash in the quaint British drama was the pound-for-pound worst.

To recap, Kate died:

-The day after marrying her wife

-While pregnant with a baby who was pulled out of her dying body

-By a car that somehow wound up on the sidewalk

-Killing the only significant character of color on the show

-Who was one-half of the only queer couple

-For no other reason than to give Caroline and Celia a reason to reconcile at the funeral. (Even that wasn’t done well, since Celia’s homophobia was why they had quarreled, and Kate’s death didn’t solve that; it just meant Celia no longer had to deal with it.)

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As opposed to our postapocalyptic teen drama or those gritty series set in prisons, Kate’s death took place on a show where no other characters had EVER died. (Which, given the advanced ages of its protagonists, is Pretty Fucking Rich.)

Of all the deaths I personally have ever written about, it was the most egregious in illustrating everything we complain about when we complain about queer deaths. The only other one that comes close was Tara on True Blood, but that took place on a show that was an insistently hot mess with a high body count. What really stung about Last Tango was that it had earned our trust over so many seasons; it had made us feel safe and appreciated and understood.

We were hurt and betrayed and angry. And we dumped a lot of those feelings on showrunner Sally Wainwright, whose initially clueless and tone deaf reaction to her audience’s hurt feelings felt like salt in the wound. But the whole thing was a little like a queer media madlib—fill in the blank with a different show title and showrunner and it’s the same dance we do all the time.

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But recently, a new twist in the story has appeared from Sally Wainwright: she agrees. She made a mistake. In interviews to prepare for the fourth and final season of Last Tango (still no release date, sorry) Wainwright says that she was hurt and blindsided by the anger of queer fans, but has since come to realize that the trope and our grievances are real. (Unbelievably, the person taking her to task for these errors in judgment is former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies, which is a bit like Donald Trump suggesting you tone down your rhetoric.)

The whole article, from Pink News, is really worth a read (particularly the part where Davies claims he “knows the gays quite well”), but the most revealing moment is another Davies quote:

“It’s really unfortunate that you walked slightly into the world of those lesbian deaths, that extraordinary numbers of lesbian characters end up being killed off.”

And Wainwright agrees that “I do think I made a mistake. I wished I had found a better story.”

It’s not an apology, per se, but it is a public acknowledgment that she heard our criticisms, and while they stung, she let them sink in rather than just shrugging them off. She got educated about our issues and learned what we were talking about. She did, in short, the things we ask every showrunner to do when they make a mistake.

So where does that leave us? Where do we go from here?

It’s a question with three distinct parts, I think. What you as a viewer decide to donate your precious time and energy and eyeballs to is, of course, your decision. Choosing not to return to this show is not only valid, it’s probably the choice I would make if I didn’t write about it.

AfterEllen’s choice to cover the show at all is a different sort of decision. Two years ago, powerful geek girl website The MarySue elected to stop all Game of Thrones coverage in light of that show’s producers’ continual refusal to seriously reckon with the sexual violence its female fans found so problematic. It was a powerful choice and, I think, the right one for that situation.

But this situation is different because it seems that our criticism has not fallen upon deaf ears. Might that mean that we have a responsibility to keep talking, in the hope that some of what we say might actually hope to make the changes we want?

Finally, there’s the decision I have to make as a writer, whether I want to keep spending my time and creativity on a show that has shattered my trust the way this one has. And that, for all that it’s public, is quite personal.

In the year-and-a-half since Kate’s death, I have thought about Last Tango many times, usually to think of even more cutting criticisms I wish I had written. But then, a couple of weeks ago I had one of those nights when I could only be comforted by watching a familiar storyline, so I returned (shocking even myself) to the Caroline and Kate of season one. And I fell in love with them all over again—with their struggles, and their triumphs and with the incredible heat between the two of them. I wasn’t duped into loving Last Tango in Halifax; it really was an incredible show.

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My trust in that show is broken now, broken in a way I can’t imagine rebuilding. It’s less like a longtime partner cheating on you and more like a longtime partner doing bath salts and biting off your ear. There’s just no coming back from it.

But even knowing I’ll never love Last Tango like I used to, I am inclined to return as a recapper for this last season. If for no other reason, I want to know what Sally Wainwright owning her mistake looks like. I want to see what, if any, amends will be made. Kate can’t come back to life (sorry, guys, this just isn’t that show) but Caroline could be left in a state other than abject misery. Celia could finally stop being such a shit about her daughter’s gayness. John coul–well, John could die.

I fully expect to get some pushback if and when we do cover this show again. It’s an understandable impulse to turn our backs on the shows that fail us, and not gift them with our coverage. But we ask showrunners to learn, change, listen, and apologize all the time. It’s an exhaustingly familiar process. I can’t help but be curious to see what happens when they listen.

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