“When we’re happy, that’s when things go wrong,” said Syed to Christian, laying bare one of the eternal truths of soap. He was having an epiphany and realising what we all already knew: that scriptwriters find nothing so dull as a contented couple. In fact, an EastEnders actor must really dread their character being in a rosy relationship because it’s a sure way to be forgotten about or, even worse, handed a travelcard for the first Tube out of Walford East station.
For the best part of this year, Syed and Christian seemed to be being ignored by those in creative control of the show. Aside from Yasmin being entered into a beautiful baby competition, there was little screen time coming their way. Then came the news that Marc Elliott and John Partridge were leaving and suddenly we had a flurry of plotlines.
There was the financial mismanagement of the Argee Bhajee, the impending wedding, the return of Amira, the departure of Yasmin and – of course – a fissure in the pair’s relationship thanks to the introduction of love rival Danny (Gary Lucy). In a way, it felt as though threat and peril was being flung in their direction, solely to supply tonight’s exit with enough dramatic heft.
All of which is a shame because Syed and Christian did once hold pivotal positions in the EastEnders hierarchy. Their clandestine affair in 2009 set in motion many great events: Syed questioning his Muslim faith, the decision to marry Amira and, inevitably, his and Christian’s exposure.
It was at this time that we also got one of Christian’s most memorable moments as he confronted Masood matriarch Zainab. If you recall, Zainab angrily said to Christian that the thought of what he did made her feel sick. To which he replied, “Well, it didn’t make him feel sick. Yeah, that’s right, Zainab. Me and your perfect son have done it all. And he loved it.” It was a terrific scene and a perfect example of how emotionally truthful and mature EastEnders can be, even in its pre-watershed timeslot.
Since that period though, Christian and Syed have been stuck in something of a cycle. Usually, stories ran along the lines of: Syed messes up, Christian gets angry and upset, but ultimately forgives Syed. It didn’t help that Syed appeared to be friendless on Albert Square: the fact that he was continually defined by either his family or his sexuality meant that there was limited scope as to what could be done with him.
Christian, on the other hand, turned out to be the more successful creation. He had strong, well-portrayed friendships in Lucy and Roxy and nobly suffered in order to earn our sympathies. He was loyal and decent – even if those moral stands typically ended with his getting beaten up for his troubles.
In retrospect, maybe the writers should have allowed Christian to pursue other romantic relationships. After all, Syed could be deceptive and spineless, so was hardly deserving of Christian’s unswerving loyalty. But hey, don’t we all have such character flaws?
As for this evening’s sign off, well, it too had its fair share of flaws. After being deprived of Yasmin, didn’t it then seem nonsensical for Syed and Christian to be jetting off to America to spend months away from her? Sure, we had Christian mentioning that they could perhaps “get a flat” nearby upon their return, but after all the drama of the past week, it was a bit half-hearted.
Then there was the scene in the Argee Bhajee, which contained a tender moment where Syed repeated his wedding vows to a tearful Christian. Yet this speech was slightly undermined by Zainab peeking through the doors and mentioning to Lucy that, “nobody’s died yet”. A slip of the tongue, maybe, but you’d have thought she’d have remembered that, in March last year, Syed was left injured in that very same restaurant after a beam crashed down on top of him.
But none of this could really detract from the happy ending that Syed and Christian were given – even if it means that they now have to go and be at peace off-screen. Christian taking his leave of both Lucy and Roxy felt heartfelt and real, while Masood confessing to Syed that he felt pride in him offered a sense of resolution.
Naysayers may point out that, after having had so much anguish heaped upon them recently, Syed and Christian had earned a blast of Julia’s Theme (aka “the sad music” that gets played when long-standing residents depart), but Stand By Me felt appropriate in light of their commitment to each other. Let’s hope though that their new life together is less eventful than their harried and hurried final month in Walford.