Spinning Out
Image: Netflix/Christos Kalohoridis

Spinning Out: young-adult drama deals with heavy themes

Whilst Spinning Out looks on the surface to be a bit of a young-adult (YA) show (no hate, I’m all here for an easy-to-watch binge show), it is actually gritty and gripping. Maybe I shouldn’t be shocked – the protagonist is, of course, portrayed by Kaya Scodelario, who broke through as Effy in Skins, one of my all-time favourite shows. 

The show is set in Sun Valley, Idaho and follows Kat, a figure skater with the ‘it’ factor, desperate to make it to the Olympics. Unfortunately, having suffered a serious fall that cracked her skull at sectionals, she is left traumatised. She gives up on her Olympic dreams, instead trying to pass her senior, to become an ice-skating coach, but she fails. Kat reclines to waitressing, left to watch all the younger skaters as they fulfil her dreams, including her sister, Serena (Willow Shields). 

Kat’s fragile mental state is not helped by an abusive single mother, generational poverty and a bipolar diagnosis herself. For a sport based largely on appearances, she tries to keep her life off the ice an act too, only making her mental health worse.

Kat reclines to waitressing, left to watch all the younger skaters as they fulfil her dreams, including her sister, Serena

In a last-ditch attempt to be back on the ice, Kat agrees to partner skate with Justin (Evan Roderick) who’s rich father agrees to pay for her training if she does so. In reality, she’s being used to get Justin to the Olympics, but she doesn’t care.

What could easily be a cheesy YA show, is transformed by the intertwining of mental health, poverty, racism and the psychological and physical extremes athletes push themselves to for Olympic training.

Every character is complex and Spinning Out refuses to adhere to average character archetypes, keeping the story engaging, with generally strong acting. Roderick barely even needs a script; his facial expressions carry all of his emotions as Justin. I won’t spoil the show by going into all of the amazing matriarchs but I will say that on the surface there is a clear antagonist: Carol (January Jones). 

 Carol’s figure skating Olympic dreams were crushed when she fell pregnant with Kat, and she becomes a gruelling mother trying to live out her dreams vicariously through her children. Except she is not your typical ‘pushy parent’. Her psychosis, barely managed by medication, results in manic periods and unemployment, leaving the family in poverty trying to fund her children’s ice skating. Carol does despicable things, but her mental health hinders her longing to be a good mother. Her guilt, insecurity and unusual self-awareness prevents her from being villainised, with writer Samantha Stratton balancing the complexities of mental health and its effect on life’s hardships. The show doesn’t excuse her actions, but it doesn’t suggest that we should immediately despise Carol. Ultimately, she is also a victim of her disease.

Every character is complex and Spinning Out refuses to adhere to average character archetypes

Jones and Scodelario demonstrate the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship, where the two share mental health issues. Kat struggles to distinguish where her mother ends and the disease begins. As the series progresses, we see the similarities and differences between the two, and there are moments of motherly love shown by Carol – which her bipolar nature often makes it hard for her to express.

Furthermore, Serena, Carol’s other daughter, shows the challenges of growing up surrounded by two women with mental health problems, on top of the competition of ice skating. Although self-centred and bitchy, she’s obviously lonely and craves attention following a difficult upbringing. 

 There are aspects of the storyline that feel unreal or less focused on; the attempt to address racism falls slightly flat. However, potentially this is through an attempt to cover many huge issues. Despite elements of YA, there’s a gritty realness that prevails. What I thought would be a light watch, was actually incredibly heavy. 

Spinning Out also addresses the difficulties of working towards sporting achievement. With injury quick to destroy someone’s dreams, and a dedication to sport often resulting in a lack of education, there seems to be no Plan B. For the skaters, it’s ice skating or nothing. Their personal lives take huge hits in the fight to become Olympic gold medallists and it’s no surprise that even those with no diagnosed mental health issues act in ways that are symptomatic of deep-rooted mental health problems intrinsic to the sporting world. Especially in a sport that relies on the idea of perfection; mental health is not at the forefront of ice skating. 

What I thought would be a light watch, was actually incredibly heavy

Perhaps this is why Spinning Out was so addictive. It follows heavy themes, intertwined with a bit of albeit slightly cheesy romance. Aside from the odd moment where the show risked being a bit airy, it generally felt real and raw. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a new show. Besides, what more do you want during the gloomy winter months, than a new series to binge watch?

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