One Netflix Show Makes Turkey Take a Hard Look in the Mirror
Evan Pheiffer 19 January 2021

Shows that kick up a stir often do so for touching a sensitive social nerve: for depicting who we are, rather than who we pretend to be, whether as individuals or a society. With The Wire, it was its moral grey zone, Baltimore’s noblest a semi-homeless gay Black assassin. With Mad Men, it was the opposite: baby-boomer fantasies of guilt free pastel-colored day-drinking projected upon the ‘greatest generation,’ i.e. the screenwriters’ ne’er-do-well fathers who never showed up for little league.

The show that’s taken all of Turkey by storm since mid-November is Bir Başkadır, rendered in English as Ethos. Widely hailed as the best Turkish series in years, it’s hard to think of a more socially compelling Netflix original. Say what you will, but Stranger Things doesn’t go in for class, gender, religion, homosexuality, mental health, urban sprawl, and the Kurdish question with quite the same vigor.

For some in Turkey, this is the root of Ethos’ problem: it bites off more than it can chew. As some have complained, what does writer and director Berkun Oya, a talented playwright whose credits include the acclaimed 2017 miniseries Masum, know about Kurds? Stick to your guns, they say, writing poignant art-house plays about Istanbul’s middle-class intelligentsia.

But accusations of overreach also seem unfair: after all, these are themes rarely addressed in mainstream Turkish television—at least with such eye-watering cinematography—themes made all the rarer for their remarkable acting and pitch-perfect dialogue.

 

The plot

At the center of the story is Meryem (Öykü Karayel), a whip-smart young conservative woman who lives on the outskirts of Istanbul and suffers from fainting spells. Advised by a doctor to consult a psychologist, this charming country bumpkin (whose every utterance ends with some variation of ‘May God’s will be done’) starts seeing Dr. Peri Aksoy (Defne Kayalar), a beautiful, frustrated standard-bearer of the wealthy and secular ‘white Turk’ establishment.

Though deeply put off by Meryem’s headscarf and rustic religiosity, Peri continues treating her. To her detriment, it appears, for the better Meryem gets, Peri worsens. Seeing an analyst of her own, Gülbin (Tülin Özen), whose intricacies we also get to know, Peri confesses what many secular Turks (presumably) think each day but dare not utter: “What are we going to do [with these people]?” Shocked and dismayed that Meryem runs every little question in life by her hodja, or imam, the camera back pans to Meryem, now in the sticks, rushing off to mosque.

Thus begins a meandering six-hour journey into the lives of some of Istanbul’s most disparate residents: Meryem and her impoverished family, whose older brother Yasim (Fatih Artman), a rough-edged former commando, moonlights as a bouncer while struggling to care for his troubled wife and their two small children; Peri and her limited circle, which includes a gorgeous soap opera star whom she befriends at yoga; and Gülbin, whose sometimes lover, Sinan, a wealthy if lackluster dandy, employs Meryem as a housekeeper and whose unrequited love, we soon learn, is the source of the latter’s fainting spells.

Though a pinch stretched at times, each of these characters’ lives are inextricably bound by a curious and often cruel web of fate. Little does Yasim know, for example, that one of the young and rambunctious women he aggressively chucks from the nightclub one evening will turn out to be the hodja’s daughter, a fact that doesn’t prevent the pseudo-pious buck from falling for her. For eight moving episodes, the etch-a-sketch of fate continues in this fashion, ending on a surprisingly hopeful note for nearly every tortured character.

 

Collective catharsis

Whereas Turkish cinema too often veers between the slow and morosely beautiful (Nuri Bilgi Ceylan, Yılmaz Güney, Ömer Kavur) and the slapstick (Recep İvedik)—either hate-embracing life in all its misery or dousing it in melocomedic mayonnaise—Ethos aims for a braver middle ground. With handsome results, too: Oya has crafted a masterpiece of warmth, humor, insight, and compassion.

Mostly eschewing the two most beloved themes in Turkish entertainment, love and betrayal, Ethos strikes out for something a bit less Turkish: the no man’s land between catharsis and redemption. That it only gets there via the background musings of Carl Jung—whose praises are repeatedly sung by both Peri and the younger hodja—is precisely what makes it so very Turkish indeed: no country on earth has as much respect for hundred-year-old Central European theory as the one created by Mustafa Kemal.

All, we learn, for good reason. For while not every character in Ethos suffers from the violence of repressed emotions, most do. Bound on all sides by unremitting cultural, economic, social, and psychological pressures, rare is Oya’s Istanbulite not on the verge of a breakdown. Though both of the show’s neighborhood hodjas are wise and jovial types, their ethical prescriptions are mostly seasonal window-dressing. The real release, Oya suggests, only comes when we let a little Jung into our lives.

 

Contemporary guidebook

With masterful editing and endlessly beautiful aerial shots of Istanbul, Ethos has been accused of manipulating its audience. Its title alone in Turkish (“Bir Başkadır”) plays at people’s heartstrings, pulled as it was from Ayten Alpman’s 1978 classic, “Bir Başkadır Benim Memleketim” (“There’s no place like home”), a song that makes anyone over 40 weep like a babe. And there’s no shortage of tears in this masterful not-quite-melodrama: the wounds are too fresh, the tribulations too real.

More cutting are the deeper criticisms, namely that Ethos reinforces Turkey’s rigid if ever changing gender roles; sugarcoats its state-sanctioned religious authority, the Diyanet; and paints an ill-conceived snapshot of the country’s 15-million Kurdish community. If valid, these strike the author as immaterial: no writer’s empathy and knowledge can extend to all seven seas.

Should several scenes have been pulled? To be sure. The hodja’s closeted lesbian daughter’s secret penchant for jamming out to undisclosed ‘foreign’ music, for example, reeked a bit too much of Reading Hillary Clinton in Tehran. And the vicious family feuds between Gülbin, who we later learn is Kurdish, and her firebrand conservative sister, a feisty Allahu-akbaring guilt-tripper (q: “Don’t you fear God?”; a: “You already fear God enough for everyone!”), also rung somewhat hollow.

Still, there is an argument that flawed exposure is better than none. Research in 2016, for example, showed that 300,000 children in Istanbul had never seen the Bosphorus or the sea. Given that Istanbul has more than 500km of coastline, this is heartbreaking. If it takes Ethos to show an undiscerning audience the extent to which Turkey’s myriad social, cultural, and religious fissures go right through the familial hearth, then so be it. Sometimes Occam’s razor is the sharpest.

For a certain sophisticated Turkish audience, there is a suspicion that Ethos appeals more to foreigners and simpletons. Guilty, perhaps, as charged. As with Roots (1977), Les Ch’tis (2008), or Peep Show (2003), there’s a gut feeling that Ethos reveals more about the basic outlines of Turkish society than any top-secret syllabus Michael Flynn could cook up. In this age of shallow literacy, you have to start somewhere.

Another writer’s chief critique was more Freudian. His final analysis? “Everyone in that show needs a good lay.” Talking to a professional is healthy, Jung would agree, but therapy only goes so far.

 


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