Given Emmerdale’s history, I shouldn’t be surprised by how close they’re pushing Aaron Dingle to the brink but Monday night’s special episode took things to a new low. One that, despite its acting and merits of raising awareness, is hard to fully defend or understand.
To say Aaron’s always been a troubled character is something of an understatement. After all, this is the same lad that tried to commit suicide when he couldn’t cope with his sexuality, only for his very first romantic experience to culminate in his boyfriend being hit by a train and become paraplegic.
That wasn’t anywhere near the end of it and after years of hard-hitting plots, Aaron left for France and had a two year break from his miserable life. On his return in 2014 Emmerdale seemed to have struck a better balance between the extreme angst we’re used to in Aaron’s stories, and character development. He was much more sure of himself as a person, experienced lust, love and had escaped the shackles of his succession of torture storylines to find happiness.
There’s no denying that Aaron being put through the emotional wringer is down to Danny Miller’s exceptional performances which resonate so deeply with the audience and make Aaron a beloved character. But there comes a point where enough is enough, before this becomes too heavy to burden one character with and before you exhaust an audience into the worst possible outcome: apathy.
The prison storyline began as a heartbreaking split of two newlyweds and the freshness of Aaron’s short-lived happiness served to make this tragedy TV gold. Tearing apart your much-loved couple moments after they wed? It’s a classic story and one that gets the tear ducts going in the right way. Aaron’s happiness (and particularly with new husband Robert) is something viewers are hugely invested in and have waited for after – yes – even more years of character torture.
What followed was a tough and claustrophobic display of the impact of homophobia in prison. A worthy and well-acted story and one which hasn’t been done before. It was especially poignant in light of how far Aaron has come in accepting his sexuality. The emotional impact of this alone would have served as an effective story, particularly combined with showing the effect on his loved ones in the outside world.
Unfortunately this is where the storyline began to spiral into a needlessly cruel territory, as prison top dog Jason discovered Aaron was the son and victim of paedophile Gordon and the sickeningly extreme torment drove Aaron to take the drug Spice. Why deal effectively with one topical prison issue when you can do three at once, eh?
There is a defence that argues it’s good that Emmerdale is highlighting these very real and very brutal realities in the prison system and while this might be true – the biggest question I have is why?
Not even a year ago, Aaron battled for justice against his father and reopened old wounds as he revealed he had been repeatedly raped as a child by him. On the whole the story was handled sensitively and despite dealing with horrifying issues, gave the audience a sense of hope for Aaron’s future. All along we saw Aaron’s support network come together, the arrival of his sister and a fresh start with Robert were huge beacons of light in a dark time. The storyline didn’t feel exploitative, particularly when it offered believable insight into Aaron’s lifelong struggles with identity and self-harm. But with this storyline came the opportunity to explore new directions with Aaron. Aaron was on a path of justice and recovery, with the audience optimistic that he would survive this fresh trauma, not as a new person, but a healthier and happier one.
And he was getting there (even without much-needed therapy), whilst still being a damaged man with multiple issues that continued to impact upon his relationships and mental health. As you’d expect for a character who had been abused as a child, he struggled with trust, insecurity and expressing emotion. But these were all believable facets to his character, all part of his character’s development – ones Emmerdale could use for conflict and drama when needed.
In a soap, where there is no end point in sight for a character unless an actor chooses to leave or the axe falls, characters need to develop, to grow. The best characters are ones that experience a diverse range of storylines and emotions. We all expect unhappiness, torment and conflict – it’s a soap after all – but in Aaron’s latest plot, it’s starting to feel that any progress and development made has been set back years as the torment mounts in prison.
Once more, Aaron has become Emmerdale’s tortured voodoo doll in a relentless and cruel way that veers between leaving many uncomfortable and some completely desensitised.
It doesn’t just feel like Aaron’s character progression is being undone (when he had merely begun to recover from his traumatic past and not even a year since Gordon’s trial) but that the good work of the abuse storyline has been tarnished by effectively punishing and destroying the fragile psyche of a childhood rape survivor.
To me, it’s irresponsible and insensitive.
What makes matters worse is that is this only the beginning. Even when Aaron leaves prison, the ramifications of this story will last for many months. Believable? Yes. Watchable? Debatable.
Last night saw Aaron begin drug use and if you’re aware of spoilers you’ll know that Robert’s breakdown on the outside leads him to make a pass at Rebecca, a nightmare situation which would destroy an already broken Aaron. When part of Aaron’s only strength comes from his marriage, just how far are they going to push Aaron? And to what end? There comes a point where enough is enough, where unfortunately it begins to become a parody and lose all resonance.
It might be true to life, but TV is not just about the important tragedies of life, but entertainment, an escape. With Aaron’s light and happiness so rare and so fleeting, the balance is tipped and this stops being entertainment.
Aaron Dingle (and Danny Miller’s performances) are worth more than just a factory line of issue-based misery plots and I just hope Emmerdale haven’t fallen into a trap of exhausting and breaking the character beyond hope.