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Vida Leaves a Worthwhile Legacy Behind

Photograph by Erica Parise/Starz

Vida, Starz’s masterful half(ish)-hour dramedy said its final goodbye Sunday night, and in doing so left a hole in my heart. Not because it was an incomplete ending by any means—mainly I’m sad because this lovely, funny, sad, little show gave life and space for stories (and pain) so rarely seen on television. Vida, which follows the reunion of semi-estranged, twenty-something sisters Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) after the death of their mother Vidalia (or Vida) leaves them with years worth of scattered puzzle pieces that they must locate and reassemble. The most glaring of which is that their mother recently married a woman (Ser Anzoategui’s Eddy) before her death. This wreaks particular havoc on eldest Emma, who was sent away by her mother to live with her aunt as a child for suspicion of not being straight. Oh, and she left them with a flailing-and-debt-ridden bar and apartment building! AND according to Vidalia’s will: Eddy is entitled to a third of the bar and building!

It’s a tall order to ask any series to juggle the above with nuance and space in the half-hour format. It would seem almost impossible to ask the show to also deal with issues of activism, gentrification, government, sexuality, and power on top of post-traumatic grieving. But that’s life, right? (And the show is called Vida, get it?!) Campy explanations aside, that is kind of the beautiful mystique and importance of Vida: that it takes lives and stories so often the butt of the joke (or pushed aside all together) and treats them with a sobering seriousness that not only shows, but embraces, the flaws of these lives.

Take for example Mari’s (Chelsea Rendon) storyline: she’s an activist fighting gentrification and ICE in the community, while working three jobs, balancing the medical needs of her father, and the dalliances of her brother Johnny (Lyn’s on-again-off-again married lover). Commonly this supporting character might end up as a punchline, or an obvious antagonist when she does things like deface the bar’s corporate mural wall (which Emma sold as trendy ad space), but Vida does not take a side in all of this. Business-savvy Emma is trying to make ends meet for a bar that was losing money and is saddled with a predatory mortgage on top of the first mortgage. Mari is trying to save her neighborhood from being taken over by developers and corporations; thereby raising rent and pushing out the Latinx community that built it. It’s a brilliant example of how the deck is stacked against most. Emma chooses to play by the (corrupt) rules available to her, and Mari chooses not to. This could have framed this as a turf war, and the plotline could have been played out for the entire series as their character-defining battle. However, Vida plays it for what it is: a fight for survival, whereby everyone still needs to go home and deal with their own problems at the end of the day.

So, yes, Mari is an activist, but on top of fighting for her community, and supporting her family, she lives her own life and has her own personal conflicts. A boy she likes films her giving him head and posts it online. This finds its way back to her father who kicks her out of the house due to his own views on women’s sexuality. This portrayal of an “activist” rings the truest because she is allowed to be human outside of her activism. Television so often plays off activists as a joke, the antagonist, or just shiny and good (See: Shameless, Insatiable, and at times The Politician).

Also allowed to be human are the character’s sexual desires. A recent AV Club article applauded Vida for having “some of the hottest sex scenes on TV,” which sure, these are conventionally attractive people doing things with their conventionally attractive genitals (it says a lot that it’s still shocking to see a penis on television) but this thinking also oversimplifies the point of sex scenes in Vida. The bulk of them are about power and control, and really subverting the “hottest sex scenes on TV” gaze.

Take for example a seemingly-vanilla sex scene of “Episode 20” where Lyn has missionary sex with councilman Rudy (Adrian Gonzalez) and then reaches behind to start fingering him, which he likes for a brief moment and then abruptly stops and says “don’t do that.” Lyn apologizes and asks if her nails are too long, but that isn’t quite it. She inquires with a: “I’m confused, though, because, well…” and we cut to a recently-used strap-on lying on the floor. In a lesser-show, we would stop the scene there and this would be a punchline or use pegging the defining characteristic of Rudy (I’m looking at you, Broad City). The moment is allowed to play out, though. Rudy is given the last line with: “that’s different, you’re not looking right at me,” and there is a nuance and seriousness not given to straight-male-penetration on television.

So, yes, the sex scenes are hot and graphic (and devoid of body size diversity, sigh) but they also pack a ton of commentary on power, control, and who is allowed to have the lion’s share (or who we think is allowed to have the lion’s share). This rounds out how the audience looks at Lyn: seemingly the embodiment of boho, often called a coconut for not being able to speak Spanish, and constantly on the quest to “realize things” about herself. She struggles to be taken seriously in a lot of spaces, and yet still holds power exceptionally well when she is given it. Vanity and narcissism in a character are typically used as a defining characteristic or not taken seriously. In the world of Vida, though, they become Lyn’s biggest downfall… and eventual strength! She uses these qualities to build self-awareness of her strengths. She’s great at networking! She can bring latinx culture to millennials! She can put on a kick-ass event and bring in money! This layered journey is a compliment to not only the writing of her arc but also the layers that Melissa Barrera has put into her portrayal. 

Lyn and Emma (Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada, respectively) stand on the street outside the bar in a still from the series finale of Starz's Vida.
Photo: Starz

Flip pages to Emma, who is our Elsa (if Lyn is our Anna). Emma, like Elsa, is sent away for possessing a great power that she is told to hide (her queerness). Of course, this story isn’t set in Arendelle, and her powers will never be truly embraced by everyone in the end, least of own her very-alive, religious-leader father. Emma uses her coming out in the final episode as a way to take away her father’s standing in his church (she comes out in front of his congregation). She also reveals that she has photo evidence that her father beat her mother and that she will take him to court if he continues to lay claim to their bar. Mic drop. The good guys won, right?

Not quite. Victor calls his congregation around Emma and a circle of pray-the-gay-away-prayer is formed around her, which leads Emma to retreat in tears. As terrifying as Emma appears when she is chewing someone out, she also is the most sensitive character on the show, which again is due to excellent writing, and Mishel Prada (praying that she lands in a good project that makes use of her talents unlike Riverdale) who can steal a scene with her dagger-eyes alone. The juxtaposition of tough-exterior, gooey-nougat-interior has been done often, but what rounds out Emma is that her scorch-the-earth-once-wronged policy is interrogated throughout the series, and is eventually revealed for the deeper self-destructive consequences that Emma craves. (Not unlike something I personally learned in therapy.) Eventually, Emma (and I) learned to let go of the things that hurt her without retaliation, and to focus more of that energy on helping those around her, instead of taking it out on those around her (mainly Eddy, poor Eddy).

Change and closure are journeys, though, so by no means am I saying this is an open-and-shut thing, and the framing of the individual endings in Vida are set up as such. Emma is better at processing conflict and asking for help than she originally was, but her initial reaction will still cause some shell damage, but she is better at being vulnerable.

Lyn has a larger amount of self-awareness that allows her to now see how she can help others. Ultimately she can now acknowledge the damage her narcissism causes, but that doesn’t mean she still won’t cause some drama on days when her blinders are still on.

Mari is able to see how her activist group is limiting her action and pursues other opportunities that ultimately fit her strengths better. She also gets to have a moment where she requests her name be added to the deed since her father only left the house to Johnny. Like Emma, her tough exterior usually does not get her where she hopes, and she is given room to grow into her vulnerability.

Eddy is able to admit that she still loves Vida and is not quite yet ready to move on (though it was great how flustered Eddy got when she was being hit on). She still harbors a slight bit of resentment for Vida over lying about her husband still being alive but Eddy is a pure soul, not a petty one. We could all learn the art of letting go from Eddy.

Even Emma’s on-again-off-again lover Nico (the great Roberta Colindrez) gets to have a little moment where she realizes she needs to get back to writing and “isn’t that why she moved to Brooklyn and then LA in the first place?” (I feel personally attacked) and move to her friend’s empty three-bedroom house to finish her book. It’s not a life-altering plot development but it’s nice she got something that was hers, because so often her plot really only existed to give Emma something to grapple over, which arguably was intentional because Emma secretly lives for self-destructive relationship drama because of her mommy issues. (Cue the great line in “Episode 9” where Emma has a blowout with her then love-interest in which Cruz retorts: “you are the classic cautionary tale of why mothers need to hug their children.”)

So, yes, the endings are not (all) simple and the doors are open on both our fave couples Emma & Nico, and Johnny & Lyn, which I appreciate because as much as this had many stories about love, this was not a show to spawn OTP-worthy you-are-my-soulmate montages, but rather a show to do things like bring up Gloria Anzaldúa’s feminist theory for its lovers to discuss, so the uncertainty our lovers face in this ending feels accurate and true to life because they are bigger than being defined by their counterparts. As cynical as I am, I wanted another moment of Nico making fun of Emma for doing something like putting Valentina on a taco, but their relationship kind of went through the wringer this season, so that would have felt a bit forced. How dare they play out relationship dynamics realistically?

Thankfully I am not longing for closure after watching the finale, but I am still longing for more moments with a family that taught me so much: that grieving is often non-linear, that queer latinx culture is rich and resilient, that activism is complex and only one part of a person, and that family can be chosen. I’m still longing for more time with them, but the lessons learned and themes explored ultimately made it worth it, and helped redefine representation on television. Cheers to a future with more content like this!

Derrick Gravener

Written by Derrick Gravener

Derrick Gravener is a graduate of the University of British Columbia Creative Writing Program and his work has been featured in PRISM International, The Garden Statuary, and The Real Vancouver Writers' Series. In his spare time, he makes ice cream and rewatches Weeds.

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