Netflix's 'Elite' Falls Into Moralizing Progressive Tropes in Its Sixth Season

Now in its sixth season, the Netflix original series Elite follows the lives of the students attending Las Encinas, an elite prep school on the outskirts of Madrid. The central theme revolves around the conflicts between the well-to-do students and the ones who attend the school on a scholarship. The plethora of subplots are spiced up with murders, scintillating sex, and orgiastic nightclub scenes. It's no secret that for many viewers Elite is a classic type of guilty pleasure. Unlike those of most other Netflix original series, the show’s creators never felt the need to morally justify or politicize the libertine lifestyle choices of the characters…at least up until now.

For its first five seasons, the show has distinguished itself from the majority of other shows on Netflix and the broader mediascape which attempt to trivialize moral decadence within a bourgeois, neoliberal framework of self-expression and tolerance. Season six renders what was once an enjoyable and artistic display of pagan transgression against Nature’s boundaries into predictable moralisms and propagandistic virtue signaling.




The legally and morally compromising situations that working-class students find themselves in due to their dalliances with the wealthier ones (who can usually afford to “clean up” their messes with minimal consequences) serve as a metacommentary on the broader economic control and “ideological colonization” of the “back row” by those in the “front.” The becarios (scholarship holders) who “sell their souls out” to and get “sacrificed” by their classmates shed light on the proliferation of “benevolent” elites selling progressive ideologies to oppressed minorities, which ends up doing more damage to their communities than good.

This commentary was interesting in as much as it remained “meta”–it gave a view of the elitist agenda from above without explicitly pushing it. In this regard, the transition into season six called to mind Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis in which Maria, a proletarian girl sells herself out to a group of hidden elites, who use her as a puppet to sow chaos and disorder among the bewildered masses. It seems as if during this season the creators decided to shift from creating a plot similar to that of Metropolis to actually playing out the plot of Metropolis themselves.

The season picks up with the love triangle it left off between Patrick, who has slept with both Ivan Carvalho, and Ivan’s father, Cruz, who is a Portuguese soccer star about 18 years Patrick’s elder. Both Cruz and Ivan are indebted to Patrick for helping them to discover their homoerotic tendencies. But while the creators were content with allowing the father and son to remain fluid without having to choose an identity label, season six shows Cruz unable to continue denying his “true self.” After a video of him kissing Patrick leaks onto social media, he admits in a press conference that he is gay. The successive episodes fall quickly into the standard #pride tropes, with LGBT fans and their allies showing up to his tournament with gigantic rainbow flags, and bigoted homophobic “Neanderthals” spewing hate speech and stirring up violence in the stadium.

Cruz’s coming out is emblematic of the shift from a pagan to a bourgeois framework. His homosexuality was previously a matter of moral excess, as it was wrapped up with his indulgent sex drive (channeled toward men, women, and even teenagers), drug use, non-stop partying, and irresponsible parenting…all of which remained largely “underground.” His coming out into the public was rendered an act of moral heroism. The inevitable consequence of backlash from working-class fans (who were less concerned with his homosexual affairs than with the ubiquity of rainbow flags in the stadium…perhaps feeling themselves to be colonized by elitist ideology) was repackaged as a crime of intolerance. It is implied that we must condemn not only their violence, but also their backward beliefs.

The season’s first trans (F to M) character, Nico, similarly falls into such moralizing tropes. We are told that Nico used to attend Las Encinas as a girl, before his father (a doctor) performed a top surgery on him. Nico draws the attention of Ari (Patrick’s twin sister), who has a fetishistic attraction to him. While getting intimate with each other, Ari is surprised to find out that he has yet to get his bottom surgery, prompting her to say some things that Nico deems to be insensitive and transphobic.

Such accusations were hard to come by in the first five seasons; now, they’re legion. Nico demands that Ari accept him as a “real man,” while Ari fires back, accusing him of using her to fulfill his craving to feel “normal” and to deny the fact that he stands outside the norm. Nico then tells his father that he’s ready for his bottom surgery. His father objects, claiming that he feels uncomfortable both as his father and as a doctor to let him go through with such a permanent and risky surgery while he’s still a teenager. Nico then attempts to bypass his father’s parental authority and medical expertise, following the promptings of his internal sense of his true identity.

The show goes on to regurgitate other cultural scripts, from calling out toxic masculinity to promoting #MeToo, #BelieveTheVictims, and #MyBodyMyChoice type rhetoric. While condemning spousal abuse and rape are surely noble causes, the plot does so in a way that refuses to question the extent to which sexual libertinism and moral laxity are responsible for exacerbating these issues, and instead pins it all on ignorant oppressors and malevolent systems of oppression, absolving the innocent victims of any sense of responsibility.

Nevertheless, Elite was (and continues to be) a fascinating cultural specimen, giving viewers a view into the ultimate implications of the worldview that cultural shapers are passing down to the masses. Specifically, it enables us to understand the trajectory of postmodernism as it makes its way from the ivory towers of academia down to public universities, primary schools, and our social media feeds. The postmodern contention that all norms and facts are mere social constructs that ought to be deconstructed and subverted has proven itself unsustainable and, as Elite demonstrates, will morph into one of two worldviews, both of which reestablish some notion of order or objective moral norms.

On one hand, postmodernism can easily slip back into traditional paganism, which celebrates self-indulgent decadence in the name of transgressing against the order of the cosmos. This position’s exaltation of deviancy banks on the existence of a normative understanding of Nature…without which there would be nothing substantial to deviate from. Those who indulged in pagan orgies reveled in their lifestyle choices because they were abnormal. Figures like the Marquis De Sade knew that their choices came with consequences, whether in this life or the next, but preferred to live in the moment anyway, without justifying their behavior or demanding acceptance or protection from the rest of society.

The postmodern abolition of norms can also reroute to a bourgeois cult of authenticity and moral respectability. This route aims to normalize libertine impulses under the guise of affirming self-expression and being true to oneself, which is a sacred right that must be protected at all costs. The consequences of such lifestyle choices are never the fault of the individual’s use of free will, but instead are pinned on the intolerant public.

Seasons one through five as well as season six of Elite prove that our moralizing and hierarchical impulses will always rear their ugly heads, no matter how hard we try to eliminate them. We are naive to think we can enjoy fluid and unrestrained expression of desire without an objective point of reference, whether it be one that precedes us (a pagan acknowledgment of an ordered cosmos) or a new one of our own creation (the “right” to freedom of expression and enforcement of dogmatic speech codes).

“Top-down moralizing” has “recently become the norm” in television and films, according to cultural critic Anna Khachiyan. “If you watch movies from the 70s, 80s, 90s,” she comments in a podcast interview with Glenn Greenwald, “there is no such kind of overbearing morality.”

“Politicizing art or forcing it to adhere to orthodoxy is the most primitive thing you can do,” replied Greenwald. “The minute you hear characters on a show start to talk about privilege or race…you already know what’s coming. It’s the woke truck coming to run you over until your skull is splattered on the pavement.” He goes on to cite shows like The White Lotus that are refreshing precisely because they do not fall into such tropes.

Up until season six, I had thought I could include Elite in the same ranks. Before it fell into propagandistic posturing, Elite was emblematic of the decadent aestheticism of figures like Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire who advocated “art for art’s sake,” shielding it from cloying moralism and political allegiances. Art and literary critic Camille Paglia lauds such figures for reminding us that “the impulse or compulsion toward art making is often grounded in ruthless aggression and combat…ethical values and guidelines that should structure the social realm of business and politics,” she continues, “do not automatically transfer to art, which occupies the contemplative realm shared by philosophy and religion.”

Elite has now become a truly guilty pleasure for me–in the sense that I feel guilty for watching a show that has almost completely lost any sense of artistic integrity, and even fails to pleasure me on an instinctive level. Aside from pure curiosity, the only other reason worth continuing to watch is for the characters who remain the last vestiges of artistic, moral, and existential depth–namely, Patrick and Isadora.

Isa “La Emperatriz” (the Empress), after the charges against her rapists get dropped, decides to fight to get clean from drugs–both recreational ones and anti-anxiety pills. As much as her rich (largely absent) parents may think they can solve her problems with a mere swipe of a credit card or prescription of medication, Isa would rather feel the pain and share it with people who genuinely love her. She is an example of the redemptive potential of co-suffering, and the futility of distracting ourselves from suffering with substances or ideological delusions.

Patrick, who plays a gay Wildean playboy, oscillates between wanting to chase after pleasure in the moment, and questioning if he will ever find a lasting, substantial answer to his desire for meaning. He waxes existential, admitting to his boyfriend that he can’t trust when he has something good. “Instead of making the most of it, all I do is just dread the moment it's gonna disappear from my life. I’m anxious picturing the day you won’t be there.”

Before selling out, Elite raised genuinely interesting questions about moral and metaphysical truths, in a way that was integrated into the plot and devoid of political agendas. The creators, clearly understanding the dividing line between art and propaganda, left it open to the viewers to draw conclusions to the questions they raised, without presuming to tell us the “right” way to think. Might characters like Isa and Patrick redeem the series in the next season? I doubt it. But regardless of the direction it goes in, Elite will continue to give viewers a closer look at the inner workings of the tension between fluidity and structure in our ever-elusive postmodern moment.

Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in N.J. He also is the host of the "Cracks in Postmodernity" blog on Substack and podcast. Follow him on Twitter @stephengadubato.

 

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