EastEnders aired another of their occasional bold, format-busting departures in an episode told from the point of view of Ben Mitchell (Max Bowden) on Monday 1st June, putting the audience in the shoes of the troubled bad boy as he battled with hearing loss while trying to prove himself to daddy Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden) on a dangerous job.
Audiences have become accustomed to stylistic tricks, such as muffled audio and high-pitched untuned transistor-style sounds, to connote Ben’s struggle to hear since February’s boat accident further reduced his sensory abilities, already damaged by childhood meningitis.
With his hearing rapidly deteriorating, the special episode went all out with a range of extra effects that showed the world as Ben experiences it, such as on-screen captions that reveal just how little he actually hears of conversations, as well as distorted camera angles and lenses showing how disorienting the loss of hearing has become.
Similar wonky camerawork, sound and jump cut methods were used in another experimental point of view outing back in December, portraying Linda Carter’s boozy bender at the height of her alcoholism.
These devices all did a good job of getting viewers inside Ben’s mind, but the additional moody lighting, pumping incidental music (very rare on EastEnders) and the attempt at a heightened, visceral Gangs of London-style action set piece once the action moved away from the Square to the scene of the crime was slightly overdone, as is often the case when ‘Enders goes full gangster. At times it threatened to distract from the emotional drama.
Keeping it anchored was a bravura performance from the swaggering, bruised Bowden, the fourth actor to take over the much-recast role over the last decade and arguably the one who has made the biggest impression.
His vulnerability and frustration remained at the heart of the story, even when things got a little far-fetched as him and Phil roared off with a car full of stolen cash. And the symbolism of Ben being deaf, when he’s figuratively always struggled to be heard by the father he craves approval from, was not lost – but remained crucially rooted in character.
It’s also worth noting the brilliant but perennially underused Danielle Harold was given some meaty moments, the scenes between Lola Pearce and baby daddy Ben as they rowed were spectacular and reminded us how good Harold is when Lo has something more substantial to do than walk daughter Lexi to school. Here’s hoping she becomes a bigger part of Ben’s story as it goes on.
Talking of the future, the episode did provide something of a game-changing moment as Ben is seemingly now completely deaf, following bad boy Danny Hardcastle shooting a pistol near his ear to take advantage of his perceived ‘weakness’.
If Ben’s loss of hearing is complete and permanent, this would be a refreshing step forward in terms of representation of the deaf community in continuing drama.
But of course, macho Ben is too ashamed to admit to Phil the truth about himself for fear of letting his dad down and not being considered a “proper” Mitchell. Just like he always has been…