It's a Sin (Part III)
Concerning love and friendship and AIDS
“Don’t you ever think you should…”
“What?” he asks.
“Stop for a bit.”
He smiles. “Stop what?”
She is young, and so is he. They are in London, around a table with friends. In the distance, there are rumblings of a virus with no name. Whatever it is, he can’t be bothered about it. But she is bothered for him. Very bothered.
He’s not appreciative. The “thought police” have got to her, he perceives. “Jill, don’t listen to that shit.”
“Do you know, I’ll listen to whatever I want. Because the problem with you is, you’re too clever.”
“It has been said.”
“No, I mean it. You’re too clever by half. Like, in your mind, you can think your way out of anything. But think about this, head boy. If there was an illness, and say you had it and you slept with him…” Here she begins to point around the table. “And then you slept with him, and then you slept with five hundred people, like all of you do, every weekend, then tell me, Ritchie, if you’re so clever, what’s going to stop it spreading? What’s gonna save you? Your A Levels?”
This exchange takes place in Episode 2 of HBO’s mini-series It’s a Sin, from Queer as Folk creator Russell Davies. The series follows a small crew of young gay men as they descend on London at the dawn of the 80s, only to be caught in the meat grinder of the AIDS epidemic. Their friend Jill, herself straight, plays the mortality drama’s archetypal loyal maternal role as the scythe takes them out, one by one. But, as this scene depicts, her loyalty isn’t wholly unmixed with tough love. It’s one of several surprisingly frank moments that elevate the drama above where it settles in the main. (Which is to say, over-sexed and overbearing, though admittedly clever, and admittedly quite hip to its target audience. For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing that they will like.)
Jill is based on a real-life figure and friend of Davies, Jill Nalder, who played a similar role for gay men in her circle at the time. In this Newsweek profile, she recalls the emotional toll of visiting them in their final days, one friend in particular who “never got another visitor” after her. As she searched for any information she could find on the nebulous virus and the bewildering array of infections in its wake, she jokes that she “became like a dictionary.” To this day, she’s haunted by the memory of walking down hospital corridors, looking in the rooms, and in every other one seeing men her own age, all speckled with sarcoma, all doomed. The show recreates this memory, to chilling effect. “Has anyone come to see him?” Jill asks of one especially young patient. “No,” she’s told. “No one.”
Reportage and art around the epidemic has always stirred complicated emotions for me. On one hand I feel, and resist, the constant pressure to see gay men taken by this illness no differently from how I would see someone to whom an auto-immune disorder had truly “just happened.” There is an asymmetry that cannot be waved away. To do so is to treat promiscuous gay sex as an innocuous, ordinary human act on par with walking in tick-y woods, or being born with the wrong genes, or getting the wrong vaccine.
On the other hand, I don’t rate dying alone too highly, cause of death N/A. I am generally not a fan. In the manner of Siskel & Ebert, I give it two thumbs way down.
In early days, when little was known about the virus, infected men were strictly quarantined to avoid possible spread by simple non-sexual contact. The show’s depiction of this is all the more jolting in a post-COVID landscape, where numerous families have been cruelly separated and their stricken loved ones left in total isolation, even in their last moments. Like many like-minded friends and culture-watchers, including friends in the priesthood, I have lodged vocal protest against this travesty as it has played out in hospitals and nursing homes around the US and around the world. Where individual priests have defied higher-ups to render ministration and last rites, I have always thought “More power to them,” and will continue to think so, regardless of whatever new variant is allegedly now coming down the pike to paralyze us all into inaction once again.
Last rites are naturally thornier for patients who aren’t in a state of grace to receive the sacrament. But putting this certainly important consideration to one side for the moment, basic ministration to the sick is a work of mercy, and as such, an absolute good. This is why, studying the epidemic in a UK context, I’ve found myself unbothered about Princess Di’s wave-making 1987 visit to the island’s first HIV/AIDS unit at Middlesex. To be sure, she was a political figure, and to be sure, it was inevitable that her gesture would be interpreted and remembered within a political frame. It became a chip in that broader moral leveling game which I still reject. At the same time, one can’t but be moved by snapshots of the young princess shaking hands, chatting, or sitting quietly with the no doubt star-struck patients. The images require no further commentary. They are iconic, as Di herself is iconic. They record acts of simple human connection, gracefully extended to the sick and the dying at their time of most acute loneliness.
But in the mind of Russell Davies, the worst fate he can conceive is not the fate of dying alone. The very worst, he saves for last. After years of successfully holding the illness at bay, young Ritchie is finally outed in every way to his parents, all in a single agonizing moment. The scene is brutally choreographed, as the actress playing Ritchie’s mother runs the gamut of emotions from disbelief to panic to cold fury. In that moment, she resolves that Ritchie will not die alone. Ritchie will be taken home. Ritchie will be looked after—by no one but herself.
What follows is a kind of horror film unto itself, as Ritchie slowly declines, his distraught henpecked father sometimes reading aloud from Watership Down, his mother cooing and putting on a record she remembers Ritchie liking when he was small. All the while, Jill and the rest of the crew attempt to make contact, to no avail. As Ritchie draws near death, he gives his mother a faint smile and delivers his final speech, a wistful ode to youth and love and dreams. And the boys he had. So many boys. All the lovely, lovely boys. How fun it was, he sighs. He would do it again. He would do it all again.
After he dies, his mother and Jill have a closing confrontation. Ruthlessly, Jill explains to her why he died, why they all died. “Because of you. They all died, because of you.”
With that, Jill turns and walks away. In the show’s final moments, we see her going back to the hospital, choosing a room and walking in, her bitterness gone, glowing like a visiting angel. The man in the bed stares at her mouth agape, tries weakly to sit up as she takes his hand and smiles. End scene. Roll credits.
After finishing the show, I thought about what I would say to someone who’d been re-watching along with me, curious to know my thoughts—someone I’d never met in person but had come to think of as a friend, in a virtual sense. The show had stirred memories for him. He saw himself in Ritchie, he said, though he liked to think on the whole he’d been less of a jerk. Anyway, he was a better person now. At least he hoped so. But he wanted my opinion, because in his very shy way, he liked me. He trusted me.
I thought back to Ritchie on his deathbed, stars in his eyes, remembering all the boys, forgetting what in a moment of raw honesty he had remembered earlier—how he kept on, even after he knew, long after he knew. I thought of the bitterness dripping from Jill’s voice as she visited his death and theirs upon the mother, without remorse, without apology. And then I thought of my friend, waiting for what I would say.
And very carefully and gently, I told him what I thought. I told him how sad the show had made me. I told him how well I thought it had shown what Jill saw as she walked down the hospital hall. I told him how much I wanted, like her, for the boy not to die alone.
But I also told him how I felt about the last scene. I explained to him what it said to people like me, the message the writer wanted to send: that I could not love. I could only hate. I could only kill. And I tried to explain how sad this also made me. But not in the same way.
He was surprised. Was that what it meant? Was that what it was saying? He had never thought of that.
I physically couldn’t hug him in that moment. But I would have if I could. And as I did, I would have said, “I know. I know you didn’t. Because you’re better than that. You’re better than that.”
Hi Esther. Thank you for these thoughtful essays! It seems to me that the 'sin' you are describing is not in the sexual act per se, but in the culture of promiscuity surrounding it. Would you agree with that characterization? I would say that the attitudes towards sex that you described in the previous essay for example, while they might be especially prevalent among gay men, certainly have their straight counterparts (the narcissistic approach to sex you find in Updike for example doesn't seem so different from the memoirs you quote). On the other hand, there are gay men in committed monogamous relationships, to whom the tendencies you describe do not seem to apply. So I'm left wondering: would you say there is a fundamental difference still?