Writer and director Berkun Oya has caused much ado in Turkish intellectual circles, and beyond, with his latest offering, an eight-part series called Ethos, which takes place in Istanbul with a rich cast of characters.
There has been much talk about Netflix’s newest Turkish show, ‘Ethos.’ The Turkish title, ‘Bir Baskadir’ means ‘Is Something Else’ and may suit the show better than the English title. The drama deals with multiple characters living in Istanbul whose paths somehow cross and are all connected to each other, coming within a couple of degrees of separation, if not closer.
Please note that reading this article may spoil the eight episode series for you, so if you haven’t watched it, you may want to save it for later.
Written and directed by Berkun Oya, a 43 year old director and screenwriter with a theatrical background, the series is expertly handled, and is shot and scored perfectly. But, of course, there are flaws, too.
It introduces us to Meryem (Oyku Karayel), the main character, a hijabi woman of modest means who has just fainted at the house she goes to clean. The story then flashes back to a year ago, when Meryem meets a psychiatrist because the doctor she has seen for her fainting fits found nothing physically wrong with her.
Oya makes sure that the viewer doesn’t miss the significance of Meryem’s name, having her explain to her psychiatrist Peri (Defne Kayalar) that it means “Mary, the mother of the prophet Jesus”. Meryem’s path is set, she is the virginal ‘good’ character at the centre of events who never makes a misstep.
Peri discovers why Meryem faints in the first episode too: anything that has to do with a wedding seems to act as a trigger – a wedding she attends, a wedding show on daytime TV. But the significance of this finding is not revealed until later.
Peri is a typical ‘white Turk’, educated in the finest schools, has studied abroad, and has come back to Turkey to practice psychiatry. She is also deeply unhappy as is revealed in her therapy sessions with Gulbin (Tulin Ozen), a friend and also her psychiatrist, which will complicate matters in coming episodes.
Meryem lives with her brother Yasin (Fatih Artman), his wife Ruhiye (Funda Eryigit) and their two children, Esma and Ismail. Ruhiye is in a deep depression, while Ismail, about 3-4 years old, does not speak. Ruhiye attempts to take her life, but the doctors at the hospital are able to save her. Later episodes reveal she’s a rape victim, and has confessed this ‘shameful’ fact to Yasin before their marriage. He however went ahead anyway, telling her “All that matters is that your heart is pure.”
Sinan (Alican Yucesoy), the man whose house Meryem goes to clean and on whom she has developed a crush, is a wannabe Lothario sleeping with Gulbin the psychiatrist as well as Melisa (Nesrin Cavadzade), the Turkish actress who has just befriended Peri at the yoga class.
There is the Hodja (Settar Tanriogen) that Meryem needs to get a blessing from for her therapy sessions, and his daughter Hayrunnisa (Bige Onal), who is very loving towards her parents, but listens to ‘foreign music’ which is looked upon with suspicion by her peers.
When Hodja’s wife Mesude dies on a caravan trip to the village, Hayrunnisa tells him she is going back to university in Konya, which was decided before her mother died. The Hodja is upset he wasn’t included in the decision making process, but goes along with his daughter’s plan. It must be noted that Hayrunnisa is one of two queer characters in the show, standing in for LGBTQI representation. She also removes her hijab towards the end, telling her father who is confused, “I am ready to leave the house [like this]”. He accepts her nevertheless.
One of the problems with the series is that every character seems to be representational, a chess piece on a directorial board ready to do Oya’s bidding, with all of them suffering from some reason.
There’s Peri, the psychologist, who represents the well-educated class steering clear of marriage but is all the while deeply unhappy and lonely. Her psychiatrist Gulbin, whose brother is disabled, is so at odds with her hijabi older sister (Derya Karadas), that they fight by tearing each other’s hair out while their parents are away. The fact that they’re a Kurdish family is not explored much and are little more than two-dimensional figures themselves.
Sinan, the wannabe playboy, is also deeply unhappy, and after Gulbin ends their relationship when she finds out about Melisa, overhears her at the gym gossiping about him to her girlfriends. What he hears is not pleasant, of course.
Sinan’s relationship with her mother is troubled, with the latter reminiscing about the good old days when his father was alive. His mother is closer emotionally to the neighbour boy than she is to her son, and Sinan, upset about that, has an argument with her. He does later apologise.
What rings false about the Sinan character is his seeking refuge in Meryem’s headscarf in a drawer in his bathroom. When he is unhappy, or in tears, he holds it to his nose, no doubt smelling its pure soapy scent that emanates from ‘the virgin Mary’, a maternal figure.
Peri’s parents are ‘old money’ Turks who live in a yali, a seaside mansion, but they are also crude sketches who argue about “Facebook forwards” and the name of the new maid. When Peri’s mother asks Hazal to make her Turkish coffee, Peri corrects her to say that the woman’s name is Reside and that Hazal was the previous one. Her mother shrugs.
Peri makes a similar mistake when she is trying to catch Meryem before she leaves the clinic. She taps a young hijabi woman on the phone on her shoulder, ‘Meryem!’, only for her to turn around and reveal that it is not her.
These kinds of didactic and omniscient comments by Oya spoil the series a bit. Oya also bends the characters to his will and comes up with positive outcomes which may not be entirely realistic, such as Yasin’s acceptance of marrying a woman who was raped, or Meryem’s eventual warming up to the imam who has a crush on her and cannot stop talking in her presence.
Yet his observations of Meryem straightening the tinfoil of the chocolate-covered marshmallow she just ate, something Turkish children of a certain era all did, for example, or the scene where the camera is on the ground, focusing on feet filling shoes and stepping out after Mesude’s memorial at the Hodja’s house, are brilliant strokes – as is the soundtrack, which harks back to the 1980s in a nostalgic trip. Video clips of Ferdi Ozbegen, an openly gay arabesque singer, ends a few episodes, while a musical interlude from the 1975 Eurovision makes an appearance as well.
If we were to look at ‘Ethos’ from a Netflix rating standpoint, it surely earns a thumbs up with ease. But the reality is more complex, and while the series should be lauded for attempting to juggle so many characters in just eight episodes, it also falls short sometimes.
One must still congratulate Oya for starting a conversation among Turks and perhaps even the larger diaspora and beyond - these differences, these social strata, these archetypes that he uses have not always been discussed openly in society, and now we have a reason to do so.
There is hope he continues filming work that challenges and confronts. After all, it is easier to criticise than to do, so, as the Turkish saying goes, “let’s prick our skin with the needle and others’ with the awl,” meaning, let’s criticise ourselves first before we turn on others. The mirror Oya holds to society may not always be smooth, complex, and all-encompassing, but it’s a start nevertheless.