The definition of Family

In S4 E5 Joan is angry at Martin and yells at him after leaving the Wenn household that he doesn’t have his priorities right: “We’re family, Martin, that must mean something, even to you.” He answers that her behavior does not fit his definition of family, and she responds, “Your definition of family isn’t even in the dictionary, Martin!”

I was surprised, to say the least, that Joan would say something like that to Martin after Martin (in S2 E6) sold his apartment in London and used the money to pay off his father so that Joan wouldn’t lose the farm. When Martin tells his father his plan, he says he doesn’t want Joan to be grateful to him because “she doesn’t have to, she’s my family.” Joan finds out and thanks Martin, but here we are not so long after that, no more than 2 years perhaps, and Joan is accusing Martin of not being dedicated enough to family. By the last episode of series 6, Martin’s mother tries to guilt Martin into giving her money, and this after telling him she never wanted him, treating him terribly throughout his life, and returning to disrupt his life again. She pulls the “family” card and tells him they are the only ones left of their family, but he isn’t so easily persuaded and says that his family consists of his wife, his son, and Ruth. A pretty strong slap in the face for her even though it doesn’t deter her from her original reason for coming. The larger question, however, is how to define family both in general and in this show.

The definition of family is not easy to determine. In fact, there are many definitions listed in dictionaries, and the definition has changed over time. There are all sorts of ways to define family: conjugal, nuclear, extended, stem, domestic group with its phases. Some cultures privilege the mother’s role, others privilege the father’s role. There are viewpoints based on biological relationships versus kinship, or the social interactions that are important in our lives. What we can generally agree upon is that family is made up of people who are related to one another by blood or marriage and who should have a special loyalty to one another. We would probably all agree that the family unit grows to include long term relationships with adopted children, caregivers, friends, and even animals. For example, Mr. Cook is sad due to the loss of his green finch Freddie; Malcolm thinks of his pigeons as family; Stewart is attached to his invisible squirrel Antony; and the Flints have their stuffed animals as well as their German Shepherd.

The theme of series 2 could be called “Family Matters.” Episode 1 is about Danny’s return to Portwenn from London to check on his mother. Families are now more likely to be living apart and distance plays a role in how they function. Episode 2 concerns Mrs. Cronk’s hands being burned, leaving Peter without adult supervision at home. Neither Louisa nor Martin really wants to care for Peter, but he can’t stay alone. Peter wants to stay with Martin and that puts Martin in the position of needing to manage a twelve year old. This episode, therefore, is about the problems single parents encounter when they have no family members nearby. It is also about the rules governing childcare when people who are not the child’s parents take on those responsibilities. E3 is mostly about family and siblings. E4 is about the breakup of Caroline and Tom over what he considers a dramatic change in her behavior. It’s a misunderstanding due to her undiagnosed diabetes, but he moves out and she’s angry and distraught. E5 takes on the problem of alienation of affection, this time homosexual. Phil cares about his wife Helen but has fallen in love with a man and causes her a lot of anguish over his infidelity. E6 is huge because of the appearance of Martin’s parents after a seven year period of no communication, and because Martin’s father is Joan’s brother and their relationship is strained to say the least. Then, of course, there’s the extremely devastating comments Martin’s mother makes to him and the ridicule his father uses against him. E7 is really more about friendship, but the notion of family through marriage is involved in that Julie and Mark are engaged, yet she is less concerned about his welfare than Pauline and Louisa are about Al and Martin respectively. Julie is an opportunist and sees Mark as her ticket to evading capture, but there are plenty of cases of people being duped into marrying and having to deal with the consequences thereafter. E8 takes on the matter of parenthood with Julie being pregnant with a baby fathered by some stray man and making an effort to identify Mark as the father. It raises the question of what happens to those children born to totally reckless women who would be likely to make horrible mothers. It also refers to Julie’s mother who is looking for her because she’s dying. Perhaps her mother just wants to know where she is since she’s had such an unstable life so far. Who knows what kind of family Julie came from? E9 has Louisa’s Dad Terry returning to Portwenn after a long absence. He has a bad reputation in town because most people are convinced he stole money from the charity for the Lifeboat. Louisa’s been defending him, but it turns out he’s been lying to her and he finally admits he stole the money. Louisa has some good memories of her childhood with her Dad and also memories of false promises. Apparently he took care of her after her mother left and that, no doubt, means a lot to her. The jig is up when Louisa asks him if Joan is lying too. Terry rationalizes that he had gambling debts, but it’s the fact that he allowed Louisa to look like a fool to the whole village that bothers her the most. She tells him to leave at that point. When Joan tells Martin about the incident, she comments: “It’s a funny thing about families…loyalty is but a step away from delusion.” Not a very good endorsement of loyalty. Family members reflect on the whole family and that can cause all sorts of difficulties. We want to defend our family members and believe in them, but they can be major disappointments at times. He also has another man with him who acts like a surrogate son and who similarly makes him look pretty foolish.

Episode 3 is the one that has the most to do with family. There aren’t many families in this series that have siblings, but this episode includes a few, and also takes up the question of biology v. kinship in regard to Bert’s paternity. Al talks to Joan about his concerns related to his mother. She tells him that Bert’s been his father and that’s all that matters. At first that doesn’t clear things up for Al and Al keeps asking Bert for his birth certificate because he wonders about an affair his mother had and whether Bert is actually his biological father. Bert admits that he and Al’s mother had troubles for a while and he left. But when he gets the nerve to look at the birth certificate, it records Bert as the father, which satisfies Bert but not Al entirely. Back at Joan’s, Al once again talks to Joan about his questions concerning Bert’s paternity. He asks Joan, “What if I’ve been calling a stranger Dad for 25 years?” She tells him, “Let’s just suppose that he’s not [your biological father]. What are you going to do? Are you going to walk away from him? Or, are you going to ignore him? Or you might perhaps think about how he’s been feeling all these years, not knowing, and the fact that he’s kept loving you.” By posing these alternatives, Joan brings up the complicated enigma of the definition of family. How important is it that you are a blood relative? Bert is a much better father to Al, even though he might have some lingering doubts about his biological connection, than Martin’s father has been to him, despite no paternity fears. Towards the end of the episode Al finds Bert fishing and they remember a time when they went fishing when Al was ten years old. Al jumped in the water to get the fish and Bert dove in after him even though Al could swim better than Bert. Bert has always been there for Al. Isn’t a person who is devoted to you and nurtures you someone you should consider family, no matter what the biological reality is?

In the same episode, Mark Mylow’s sister Sandra comes to town and sets up her herbalist business in Mark’s house. It’s obvious that Mark is not happy to have his sister living with him. She’s intrusive and rude and at one point Mark comments to the doc, “I know you can’t choose your family, but there’s a line.., people shouldn’t cross it, that’s all I’m saying.” At that moment Sandra comes down the stairs demanding that he help her move a piece of furniture. She also takes Mark’s radio, probably because she doesn’t like when he plays the radio. It’s great that Mark notes the oft repeated observation that we can’t choose our family. We have to deal with the family we are born into, or become attached to by all sorts of ways (adoption, fostering, happenstance, etc.). Also, our blood relatives can be difficult to deal with, and DM certainly brings that point out. Ultimately, Mark stands up to Sandra and throws her out of his house, much like Martin will do to his father in S2 E6, and Louisa will do too. They’ve crossed the line.

Another part of this same episode involves the story of the Flint family. Wallace and Paddy Flint are sick, probably with salmonella, and Martin decides to visit their home because it seems to be the only way to find out the source of their illness. It’s clear there’s something very strange about their household, in particular the father Victor. Sometime later in the day Martin bumps into their father walking through town and Victor accosts him. Once he calms down, he tells Martin that if Martin had a wife and children he’d understand. Victor can get violent at home at times too and the boys appear scared of him. It turns out Victor Flint has been masquerading as his wife Doreen ever since she abandoned all of them 8 years earlier. The sons have been covering for him because they know he’s been doing it for their benefit. Once Martin finds out that Victor sometimes turns into Doreen, Wallace tells Martin that “he was just trying to look after [his father], after all of us.” His Dad first started the charade when his wife left because he thought the boys might be taken from him. Wallace continues, “he just wanted to make us like a normal family, like everyone else.” So what’s a “normal” family? It’s funny to think of this family as normal in any way, but beyond the humor is a serious subtext. As a single parent, a father may not be considered capable of taking care of his children. Moreover, Victor doesn’t think his boys will be fine without a mother. Obviously he makes things worse by trying to be both. It’s the obverse of Bert’s situation with Al. When Al’s mother died, Bert took over with no hesitation and took on the role of both mother and father competently; when Doreen left, Victor sank into a psychotic state and turned their home into a place of unpredictability. He’s taken away their sense that their home is a sanctuary.

Series 3 contains a fair amount of family related episodes, including the odd family that moves in next door to Louisa and uses relatively little discipline with their son. Not surprisingly, the boy becomes a menace in town. Then there are the Saul sisters whose family history includes a love triangle and some apparent underlying anger issues. Sister Janet is abusive under the guise of providing care. There are several others, e.g. the Colonel and his philandering wife start things off, Elaine’s father’s decision to marry someone she doesn’t like, the McLynns, the Dibbs, Penhale’s brother’s visit. All bring up many common things families must address – extramarital affairs, covering for one’s spouse, being letdown by a once envied sibling.

But it’s series 5 that finds Martin and Louisa setting up a household together and bringing home a baby. Martin seems to experience the love for his child that Roger Fenn had earlier told him about. There’s also Joan’s death followed by Ruth’s arrival, Penhale’s wife Maggie appearing out of the blue and reviving dormant feelings, and Bert and Al continuing to have tension between them due to Bert’s inability to handle money well. Al bails him out but jeopardizes his own integrity. Then Louisa’s mother surprises them when she arrives unannounced. She’s never been very reliable and that hasn’t changed. She’s the best of the four parents, but that isn’t saying much.

Families are a trial, a joy, a disruption, and a comfort. They are a social unit that has been around as long as humans have been around. They can see us through difficult times, although there are other times when they may make our lives miserable. DM shows us all the ins and outs, ups and downs, rewards and perils of having a family. In doing so, it once again engages us in thinking about these matters, something I find provocative and important.

Originally posted 2013-11-22 03:17:44.

8 thoughts on “The definition of Family

  1. Theresa

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog on Family just as I do everything you write. You are really good. I hope to get some time soon to comment further but until then thanks for all you do.

  2. Post author

    Thank you for reading what I write and for the compliments! Please comment whenever you find the time. I love to read everyone’s thoughts.

  3. KR

    Another great post!

    How ever one defines family, it seems that family is the most important theme that underlies all of Martin’s issues. His early family life was abusive — and failed to provide him with the proper foundation of security. Although he has Joan during summers as a child, this too is robbed from him, by his abusive parents in his early tween years. As a result, we see that Martin is unable to form attachments and relationships with other people as friends — and, most sadly, to those that try to love him (like Louisa). Ruth hit the nail on the head when she described the hemophobia as stemming from childhood trauma — and the issue of Martin not feeling deserving of love is also related to his abusive parents.

    Louisa, on the other hand, has had a different kind of early family trauma. Although, left by her mother, and having to deal w/ a dishonest father, the village adopted and loved Louisa. Bert especially has a special tie to her. It always moves me to tears when I see Bert’s welcome home wave in S4E2. Certainly, Louisa has some residual issues due to her mother and father. But, overall, I’d say Louisa has coped much better with her early family trials than did Martin. She accepts the village’s love, and tried to find connections with friends and colleagues that perhaps her family could not provide. The village has become her family.

    As a result of childhood traumas Louisa CHERISHES the world — while Martin REJECTS it.

    I hope the theme of family continues to a happier conclusion in S7. Will Martin be able to forge ahead within his new family? Will he open himself to love from others, including reaching out and making friends who can act as family? Time will tell – and who knows if the folks at BP will have an interest in this arc of the story line. In any case, can’t wait for S7!

  4. Post author

    You are so right about how family matters impact Martin and Louisa differently, mostly due to Louisa being embraced by the village (especially Bert). One thing that seems to have become a family trait (or family reaction) for Louisa is the inclination to leave. Her mother clearly chooses to leave throughout Louisa’s life and we see Louisa using that same response several times. As I’ve said somewhere before, I’d like to see Louisa admit that confronting the problem rather than running from it is a better way to deal with it. It wouldn’t be so terrible if she told Martin that she was wrong – wrong to expect too much of him so fast, wrong to think he doesn’t love her because he’s struggling with some demons, maybe even wrong to think his mother should stay with them when he was pretty obviously against it. She could even say that she’s not going to be like her mother and leave whenever there’s a difficult situation. At least she takes James with her instead of abandoning him like her mother abandoned her.

  5. KR

    so true — Louisa is definitely going to have to confront her desire to run away from relationship problems. Martin had admitted his mistakes — it’s time for Louisa to follow suit.

  6. Amy

    Look at that—I hadn’t ever read this post!

    Fascinating look back at how family issues were raised in earlier seasons. I still think the issue of families struggling to balance conflicts between home and work run through the episodes in S8 in a similar way. E1’s big focus besides Joe’s wedding is L’s concern about not spending enough time with JH and missing his first word. E2 focuses on looking for child care and Louisa thinking about a career change. E3 has Martin picking up James late and Louisa not telling Martin she’s applied to go back to school. In E4 we have Morwenna’s absent parents and the boy with psychological problems when he leaves home. And Mrs T is in mourning after losing Clive, regretting not spending more time with him. E5 is the one with Toby, the boy whose parents don’t pay enough attention to him and a teething James. E6—Louisa is worried about why JH is biting, an issue throughout that episode. She is worried that it reflects his upbringing and so is Martin. E7 has Louisa struggling about her resignation. E8 is perhaps the most explicitly about balancing career and family. Martin wants to keep his career, but he also wants to make Louisa happy and stay in Portwenn where his family is happy.

    Even after reading your post here, I still am not persuaded that the issues were addressed in more depth in those earlier series. They also used some unrelated storylines about various characters to raise the issues of family (or happiness or change) and did not hit us over the head with long dialogues or explicit statements like some American tv shows have (mostly sitcoms with their feel-good endings tying up all the loose ends).

    Sorry this ended up here instead of where we started our debate on this. I am sure you still disagree, but we can agree to disagree! I still agree that S8 was not as good as most of the earlier series though I enjoyed it a lot more than S6 and found Louisa and Martin both truer to their characters than they were in S7.

  7. Post author

    Ok, I’ll concede that you’ve made a case for their use of parenting issues throughout S8. I cannot go so far as to consider this as a deliberate theme because as a TV show it would be unlikely that they would have kept it so under the radar. A comment here or there that never becomes a major plot point is unusual for any TV show, American or British.

    (I am particularly sensitive about praising one over the other for many reasons. The most important of these is the many examples of the sharing of TV shows and actors between these two countries. The so-called standards that are supposed to apply there and not here are pure nonsense to me. Not only that, but when I am in UK, I see all sorts of American TV programs on their schedule and many of our staple shows being mimicked.)

    Anyway, at least we agree that S8 wasn’t as good as previous series and that S6 was hard to watch.

  8. Amy

    I wasn’t really meaning to insult American tv versus English, but I haven’t seen on the British comedies the same tendency that so many American sitcoms have of tying up an episode with some treacly summary of the lessons learned. My daughters refer to it as the Danny Tanner effect from the 80s sitcom Full House where Danny, the dad, always had a lesson for his daughters at the end of an episode. (They also like to tease their own father when he gets sentimental, calling him Danny Tanner.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *