Back in the day Serena used to like her absinthe old-style, with the sugar cube and the whole thing, and she liked to do this while listening to the song about supermanning the ho. Somewhat less comfy, this mix of old world and new, but I do approve. Damien back then was dorky. Not like now, with his effortless coolness: Dorky. Doing her Spanish homework and worrying that she shouldn't improve suddenly but become smart over time, like Charley Gordon. "Iwannanayplus" she garbles, supermanning hos left and right with her arms in the air, and getting hilariously drunk-girl affectionate all over his face: "My tutor!" Very Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, this version of our girl. I wish there was like a webisode series of Serena being a trainwreck in boarding school. I would watch the shit out of that.
Juliet's mom is pretty -- of course, considering she has the two hottest children I've ever seen -- but, despite their huge gorgeous house, she is clearly a Poor Person. Beaten down by poverty, which in Connecticut is a motherfucker, and also by the perversions of her son. About which she cannot wait to tell strangers. She literally goes, "You went to Knightley? Oh, so I assume you know our Ben. He was a damn good teacher, no matter what they say." I love it when bit parts beg the question like that, it's always such a gorgeous, atmospheric mistake. She's like the MILF version of the servants in Wuthering Heights: "Aye mun cletter the dishes, but aforeshaft, did ye not ken th' perilous tale of our poor mad bairn Cathy? Ruint by love, she were. Be she haunt th' moors nae, wi' nary but a kindle to loit her wye."
They figure out that Ben's last name isn't Sharp, because like poor people often do, Mama Sharp has many a babydaddy: Twere a Ben Donovan what got nicked for samplin' the delights of Miss van der Woodsen, long ago. As Damien explains, Blair lets everybody off the hook for not knowing that: "If I taught at Knightley, I wouldn't bring my Mystic Pizza townie family to school events either." Mama Sharp comes back with the tea -- Earl Grey, and not a scone or crumpet to be seen, because she is poooor -- but they have to bounce and I guess think about this elsewhere. So they leave Mama Sharp to wait for her insane daughter and slurp down that Earl Grey until she is just frenzied, I suppose. Cleaning like a demon, telling all her knickknacks the story of poor mad Ben what got sent up.
Talking cure: Serena was her usual beastly self, all dances and kissing and illicitly modified school uniforms, until one damned soul caught her eye: Mr. Donovan, lover of English and boundary-setting, who was if possible even hotter at this time. She brought him his coffee just the way he liked it, because she'd been watching him in the dining hall. She brought him her mind and her thoughts and her interests, which started out his interests and soon were hers. (Blair points this out later, but aren't we sort of retroactively reframing the entire Dan/Serena relationship in terms of Ben Donovan now? And isn't that brilliant?) Just to show you she's on the up-and-up and totally not just sleeping with teachers for grades like she always/never does, she fully says aloud, "I actually have some questions about arbor imagery in the poems of Sylvia Plath."
Which is actually a really smart reference gift-wrapped in jaw-dropping incongruity, because Sylvia Plath's arbor imagery is always negative, and specifically always a gilded-cage Serena story, where half the time she's not even talking about an actual garden but just describing the wallpaper or the stained-glass of a door in terms of an arbor: She is trapped without being trapped, inside something beautiful that doesn't appear to be a cage to anyone outside it. Which is the ultimate Rhodes Woman problem, but also in turn makes her feel more alone: "It felt good to have someone who paid attention to me for a positive reason," Serena explains, "And we began to spend more and more time together."
Damien disapproved -- and possibly there are still things we don't know about his involvement in what happened later -- because it was weird. "There wasn't a keg cracked within ten miles that Serena didn't know about, and then suddenly she started staying home, reading in her room." Dan acknowledges that "the generous conclusion to draw" is that Serena was pulling her shit together, which is mostly true, but of course everybody thought she was boning Ben Donovan. And not even Damien knows the truth about that one. Or why this episode is all about random towns in this one tiny area of upstate NY.
Damien was having dinner with his aunt at the Millbrook Inn in Poughkeepsie, despite being the rootless son of an ambassador he has an aunt in Poughkeepsie because everybody has an aunt in Poughkeepsie eventually, when he saw Serena standing near the desk with their teacher. Now, what was really going on was actually less conceivable than the less-than-generous conclusion, but thinking that way never works out with Serena and her general life, because the right answer is always the most bizarre answer:
"We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story."
Not that Serena can hear you when you say that, no matter how many times you say that. Ben took it so far as to drive to Poughkeepsie, to the Mary McCarthy collection at Vassar, to get it through her head. Nope. She'd left her intense fascistic bluestocking at home, to gorge on pies and puke them up again: No time for drama, even lady drama. All she could think about was the smell of tweed and English Leather -- so inviting, so intoxicating -- and certainly not the real-life parallels to be mined from the relationship between McCarthy and Arendt, or the feud with Hellman that eventually involved Dick Cavett and Norman Mailer. If she had, perhaps Season One would not have been such a bloodbath. In any case: Flat tire. Right outside a bed and breakfast!
Ben told her to go dry off and get something to eat, he'd use his poor-person hands to make a new tire from the salt of the earth and his humble beginnings, but finding herself at the check-in desk of the Millbrook Inn sent everything crashing in the cupboards of her mind. She tells him to get a room, perhaps the tire will fix itself while they are fucking and they can drive home in the morning when the wolves are all asleep, and Ben Donovan resists, resists, resists. Serena pouts and he makes up epigrams to distract her. "The ability to have thoughts and not act on them, it's what separates man from beast." Translation: I want you, but not enough to get fired for it.
Serena goes with the full-court press -- "I know what the stakes are for you. For me, too. But this is real on both sides, and if you deny it you're lying!" -- but the nanny-nanny-boo-boo defense is something he's been trained against: "I'm not lying. I do want to fuck you. But I am not going to fuck you, because I think that you are awesome. So I am going to fix this tire and take you back to school, so that you can sleep in your own bed and hopefully develop a sense of shame about yourself." Looking back, Serena tells the headshrinka that in all of history Ben Donovan is still the only man who has ever said no to her, and then says something even more insightful: "I was in love with him. Well, as in love as I had ever been at that point." Because now Serena's attachments are so authentic and long-lasting. But it was weird, got