Revisiting Torchwood: Gwen Cooper

Feature Andrew Blair 22 Nov 2012 - 07:57

Andrew's weekly Torchwood look-back comes to Gwen Cooper, the Barack Obama of welsh sci-fi telly...

This feature contains spoilers.

Gwen Cooper is possibly the least sympathetic audience identification character television has seen in years. At times she makes Tyrion Lannister look like Princess Diana (aye, and savour that mental image). Is this a bad thing? Not at all. 

It’s fair to say that, after being introduced as the obvious heroine, Gwen is morally compromised on numerous occasions. Of all Russell T Davies’ characters (none of who seem to make it off-screen without some massive personality flaws), Gwen manages to be simultaneously the most down-to-earth and most ethically twisted. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking she was going to be another Rose Tyler, initially. She provides fresh moral impetus for an amoral alien entity,  and she’s all set up to be the headstrong foil whose humanity saves the day. Hooray! Then, something a bit depressing happens: while Gwen gives basic compassion to Torchwood, it leeches it from her. The organisation is a vampire, complete with its own undying white-toothed bodice ripper. Assuming, of course, that Ianto wears a bodice. 

The moral highground levelled, promise of salvation turned to compromise in the face of reality, thus the character of Gwen Cooper predicts Barack Obama. Maybe that’s what Miracle Day should’ve been about. 

Gwen's character arc in series one culminates in a wake for Captain Jack, and an attempt at atonement. It isn’t that she shouldn’t be apologising to him, it’s just that of all the people she’s screwed over, her fiancé Rhys probably deserves a bigger apology. Still, without Harkness, apologising to Rhys’ corpse would seem a bit last minute, ad hoc, and a tad too late to be entirely useful. Then again, that’s basically Torchwood’s M.O. 

Fans' appreciation oscillated wildly as Gwen veered between wide eyed innocent idealism and the pragmatic shagging of dickheads. Viewers' brains processed her saving the world, or the life of one innocent, and categorised her as likeable. Then they saw her cheat, and cheat again, and then once more for luck, and then finally use sci-fi date rape drugs on Rhys, and brains started to wilt under the ever-expanding Olympic-logo of Venn diagrams her behaviour merited. 

Motherhood sends her into full-on righteous Ripley/Mrs Weasley ‘Get Away From My Daughter (You Bitch)’ mode. But Gwen gets the same look in her eye when offering her friends' and colleagues' lives in exchange for others. Gwen was already unashamedly self-righteous, and having her family threatened exacerbates this, as does being Welsh in America. 

This stubbornness is put to great use in stories that set up Gwen opposing Captain Jack, culminating in some of the show’s best episodes. Adrift, in particular, leaves the viewer with no easy answers that leaves Gwen questioning herself. Eve Myles is, as ever, performing with gusto and vigour, and willing to explore the ambiguous and amoral aspects of the character. 

If the writing doesn't look like it's presenting Gwen in a good light, then bear in mind it isn't really supposed to. The morality of her story is, like Birmingham, a grey area. Unlike Birmingham, Gwen doesn't have being bombed the shite out of in World War Two as an excuse. As she's the character we follow from the start we know more about her, and we understand why she does unpleasant things sometimes. Owen, the most obviously obnoxious character, doesn't have an explanation for his behaviour until his second-to-last episode, and this is too late for some of the audience.

Gwen’s character works better with her linear character progression (Steve ‘Nickname’ Moffat’s version of Gwen would be hella infuriating, and necessitate extra bandwidth for the ‘STFU Moffat’ Tumblr). Without any clear motivation, the rest of the new characters seem to be gits purely because it’s narratively convenient. If anything, the other team member who gets the most characterisation in series one is the one who spends most of it dead, (this is clearly preposterous and was immediately rectified for series two). 

Suzy Costello, who Gwen replaces in Everything Changes, is a fairly good warning of what happens when Torchwood consumes you, providing Gwen with a possible vision of her own future. The point where she tries to kill Gwen is a dead giveaway that something’s gone wrong, although to be fair Gwen is probably a bit too preoccupied with dying to notice the National Lottery Finger of Narrative swooping down and saying ‘It could be you’. 

Fortunately, there is a steadfast and sure anchor keeping Gwen from going the same way: Rhys. 

There’s very little about her treatment of Rhys in series one that is pleasant. Polycuckolded, after Gwen breaks the news to him she gives him a memory altering drug so he won’t remember, and then cries herself to sleep. Then they get married and have a baby. Maybe they’d have done that even if Gwen hadn’t drugged him: When he does find out what his fiancée’s job entails, he’s fairly accepting of it once he calms down about the huge alien meat monster and the whole ‘being shot’ thing. 

Rhys was meant to die in series one, but this was changed (partly because they were impressed by Kai Owen’s performance) and the decision was made to ‘make him less of a sap’ according to Russell T. Davies. Comparatively though, Gwen is the more aggressive personality. The couple reverse usual gender tropes. Gwen cheats and is forgiven, whereas Rhys is nearer the stay-at-home, let’s settle down and have children figure. Far from this being portrayed as staid and dull, it’s Rhys’ everyday hopes and dreams that keep Gwen rooted in her pre-Torchwood worldset. 

Out of interest, though, once they go into hiding between series three and four, how do they afford it? Who pays Torchwood’s wages? Is it the Royal Family? Is Queen Victoria being kept alive, Pirate Planet-style, in a time dam near the point of death? I digress, but still; answers on a postcard please. 

Rhys is the heart of Torchwood, in the traditional sense of the phrase. Gwen gets a lot of the credit for it, but without Rhys, she'd be dragged down like Suzy. 

The heart is a romanticised bellows anyway. No-one could argue that it isn’t important, but it’s been oversold as a symbol. Most people’s love could be better represented by a duodenum. This unsung part of the small intestine breaks down foodstuffs into digestible sizes and, utilising bursts of bile, regulates the emptying of the stomach so it isn’t overwhelmed. 

And so – only slightly tangentially – we arrive back at the subject of Gwen Cooper: the world’s most kick-ass metaphor for the importance of gastric regulation.

Read Andrew's other Revisiting Torchwood features, here.

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Interesting perspective. I was always far more impressed with Myles' acting than Gwen's character. The way Gwen flirted around Jack was an insult to not just Rhys, but Ianto.

I have to disagree though with the comment that Rhys was the heart of Torchwood. No way. That was Ianto. Rhys was Gwen's missing morality and his role was vital in keeping the audience from despising Gwen.

Loved Eve Myles though. Her screaming over the murdered Rhys at the end of season one was the best grief driven performance I have ever seen.

I disagree about Ianto being the heart of Torchwood. He was completely disconnected for most of it, lying about his Cyber-girlfriend in the basement which was the sole reason he manipulated Jack into hiring him in the first place (the entirety of Ianto's story in 'Fragments' is somewhat a lie, because we don't see the actual story, only the con Ianto played on Jack by helping to trap the pterodyactyl he himself probably unleashed.). In series 3 we learn that Ianto lied about his father being a master tailor, so what else did he lie about? Ianto was someone who lived in the present; he had no past...or future.

If there's anyone that would count as Torchwood's 'heart' it would be Tosh, who loved her mother, loved Owen, and was always trapped in either the plans of terrorists or the plans of Torchwood, with nowhere else to go; she sacrifices herself for her loved ones. In 'Greeks Bearing Gifts' her empathy shines through as she literally receives the ability to read minds and she tries to help people and reaches out at another lost person because she's so alone. And with Tommy in 'To the Last Man' she again falls in love with a lost soul, out of time. She's driven by feeling, which is ironic considering her role was to be the brains of the bunch, the scientist.

Who pays for Torchwood? Oh please... Jack probably has bank accounts filled all over the world.

You are forgetting what Ianto did was out of love and loyalty to Torchwood as he knew it...not the "severed all ties" version of Torchwood that Jack created out of love of The Doctor but the one founded by Queen Victoria and whose base 1 (London) was the base Ianto knew, worked at, and saw fall.

There is a "Soldier's Creed" of "Leave not a fallen comrade behind" is at the basis of most armed intelligence services worldwide. This what was driving Ianto when he refused to leave Lisa behind, He even says so "I owe it to Lisa — we owe it to her to find a cure" he felt Lisa's service to Torchwood London meant they at least try to find a cure...yes there wasn't one. Ianto didn't know this as he was misguided and foolish but he was also driven by love and "The Soldier's Creed"

Also Ianto did not actually lie about his father; Let me explain why...Fracgments Jack runs a background check on Ianto 'because he knew what a Weavil was --Anybody familiar with even the most basic of background checks would have turned up who Ianto's father was and what he what was Ianto doing telling Jack in 'Something Borrowed' about his the scene Ianto and Jack were flirting/ some role-playing that involved measuring tapes...that as early as Adam we knew were just part of "their thing" something Borrowed their role-playing was stopped by Owen who then probably told Gwen...bottom line it wasn't a lie because Jack already knew since Fragments who Ianto was because Ianto knew what a Weavil was

It's said in Children of Earth that Torchwood's wages are paid by the crown.

"Gwen Cooper is possibly the least sympathetic audience identification character television has seen in years."

Well, that's bloody true. Gwen strikes me as an obnoxious, self-righteous Mary Sue who we're all supposed to like, but no one really does. Rhys was the only aspect to her character that humanized her in the slightest.

I agree about Ianto. He was steadfastly loyal and devoted, intelligent when others in Torchwood were brash, and even his "betrayal" in season one was done out of love. He was young and scared and you know what? Everyone forgave him. Torchwood was full of flawed but valuable, fascinating characters (except Gwen, who frankly bored the hell out of me.)

With his knowledge of the future he probably bought shares in all the big companies when they first started and made a few winning bets.

Gwen was the most irritating charactor in the first two series but because of the great ensemble playing you could kind of pass over it.It was mainly her long rants which generally played on one emotional level a bit like her screamming on Rhy's death which was to loud and forced to convey any ture depth of emotion.Compared to the nuanced perfomances and tightly scripted dialologue of Tosh and Owens death scene it bordered on melodramatic.Then suddenly in COE she morphed into kick ass heroine which falied to convinvce if only because the transformation was to sudden and to contrived. Sadly the poor srcipt and lack of restrained direction meant that in Miracle day her charactor became characature and for my part difficult to watch.But then even the lovable Rhys was turned into a buffoon and Cj was just lack lustre.

I'd buy this was the character they were trying to sell us all along on-screen if they hadn't been quite so insistent that they were selling us something else entirely off-screen. I agree she's supposed to be flawed, but I don't think she was supposed to come off anywhere near as unlikeable as she often came across to many. Ah well! Retcon. I guess it's not just for on-screen indiscretions.

She never helped me with my gastric regulation.
All I was thinking was "I hope I am not supposed to identify to her..." , especially after she retconned Rhys... But the more TW progressed the more it became obvious I was supposed to... And all I was thinking was "noooooooooo!!!!!!!!" . But I stayed for Jack, Ianto, Owen and Tosh.... Now that they are all dead (Jack is not dead but his character is) I am still running away.... Don't want to stay alone with this character, no way....

Gwen COULD have been a good character if they hadn't tried to make her Mother Theresa and the whore of Babylon in one person. Sorry but, to me she is THAT girl/woman in/at school/work that always get's her way even though she basically does nothing but playing everyone around them and wiggling her two best mates in front of the boss. But again, she could have been interesting, IF they had written her exactly like that. Maybe even with a little hint and a big twist at the end that makes the viewers realize that deep down there is a tiny little very black heart beating. Think Brian Kinney, a character who makes you want to strangle him at least three times each episode but who you also can't help but love.
But then Torchwoods producers and writers went and tried to brainwash me in thinking Gwen in my "rolemodel" (excuse me while I search for my bucket). She is not. She doesn't care about the people around her (having a good laugh on Tosh more then once, the famous "it made me feel important when the died" line), she tries to get cheating of her soul by telling her bf about it...and has already drugged him so he won't remember anyway. She almost kissed Jack, well she thinks it is Jack, on her very own wedding day. She marries Rhys because "no one else want her" (I wonder why.)
Shy, smart and passionate Tosh is a much better female identification character. Ianto, who fights so hard to save his love only to learn he can't save her at all, who risks the team and the world for her and still has the guts to make up to that by returning to Torchwood, THAT'S what I call a role model.
Eve Miles? Well, friends of mine saw her on stage and said she was very good, but to me her performance as Gwen is poor. Most of the time she just looks like a goldfish about to explode and or screams around. I like the performance of Naoko Mori, Gareth David-Lloyd and Burn Gorman a lot better. And to make it complete, John Barrowman/Jack was only entertaining as long as Jack could be Jack, when they turned him into a pale emo!Jack in CoE and esp. MD he lost all it's spark for me and in the end I even hoped the would use the chance to kill the character off.
I wish they would have kept Suzie instead of Gwen, I doubt she would have been a good identification character, but at least she was very entertaining in the two episodes she was in and the actress played her brilliantly.

Thinking of it, it was probably a lie he used to tell when he was a kid living on the estate, or maybe even when he first moved to London, and yeah, it could have been turned into one of Jack and Ianto' "games" later on. ITA Jack knew about Ianto's past, remember CoE Jack knew about Ianto's sister and the kids.

Also if you take it from the fans perspective go and google "Ianto shrine" Cardiff and a recent date. How long has it been, 3 years? Well that thing is still there and judging from the pictures even bigger then 2 or 3 years ago. I think a major part of the fandom just went and chose their own "heart of Torchwood" when they couldn't connect to Gwen.

It is said in one of the tie in novels, that he bought and sold and bought and sold estate in Cardiff again and again, so yeah I guess it is likely that he bought other stuff as well.

Why revisit Torchwood? It was terrible!

There were severail things you could count on in a episode. Gwen would have a rant, Gwen would have a selfish, look at me moment, Gwen would argue with Jack. Her character became stale very quickly. One moment she screaming for Jack to save Rhys next she fawning all over Jack's body. She left me cold. And don't get me started about her in MD, Gwen writ large stomping her way through every scene, please kill her already.

Agree when she was a background character, with the other characters she was bareable, on her own she became even more irritating.

I agree Ianto wasn't the heart of TW and I doubt very much he ever wanted to be despite him being very tied to it. I disagree about him being very disconnected from TW though. From the team, maybe, especially initially, but I think he was very connected to TW even before Lisa officially died, for better or worst. But I actually think of Jack as being the heart of TW largely because, for better or worst, it was his vision and his commitment and blood that drove the place and the team. Gwen's moments of compassion and influence ultimately seemed pretty marginal in the grand scheme of things and episodes like Adrift really highlight that. Granted that probably isn't what the show was getting at, but that's what I got from everything.

I would say that Gwen while compassionate to strangers , is actually cruel to people she knows, their feelings don't seem to count for her only what she wants from them and gets caught up in that. And your example of Adrift doesn't work as she barrels through to prove Jack wrong, why doesn't she get all the information about Jonah first, why doesn't she take Nikki to see Jonahs Doctors first instead we have the real horror of Jonah being played out in front of his Mum and we should feel for Gwen why ? If she just paid the slightest bit of attention so much heart ache could have been stopped but no she is right, Jack is wrong . It's very hard to care about a character who thinks the deaths of her co - workers is just an ego trip that proves to herself that's she special

I totally agree that "Rhys was Gwen's missing morality and his role was vital in keeping the audience from despising Gwen". But then why Gwen was needed at all? While the rest of Torchwood team had certain role to play and they rarely deviated from that path, they mostly stayed true to themselves, Gwen with all her morale superiority was the weakest link, exactly because her high morale ground wasn't her own. It was artificialy attached to her and forcebly held there.

And I think at this point it's almost audience' consensus that Gwen wasn't the heart of Torchwood.

For each of us there is different "heart", the most likable character. For me personally it's Jack and Ianto together, representing heart and soul in their constant beautiful co-existence, nesessary for the being they belong to to be alive. Take out each of them and Torchwood is not the same. Take out Tosh and Owen - and it's not the same either. Take out Gwen - and it's better, because the unnesessary ambiguity would be gone with her.

It's a pity (and serious mistake I think) that out of all Torchwood characters Gwen remains the last man standing and somehow represents Torchwood. Because she DOESN'T represent it.

Loved her best. So pleased that she's still kicking around. I would have never forgiven RTD for killing her off.

I'd watch Eve Myles hanging wallpaper. Love her face.

Having in real life been faced with my 32-year-old husband's sudden and unexpected death, I felt that Gwen's histrionics over Rhys's death deserved a large bucketful of ice cold water be thrown on her. Way, way, way too overdone IMO, but oh-so-typical for Gwen. That scene made me yawn with boredom and look at my watch. (Myles did scream and histrionicize well, though.)

I hate that Gwen does whatever she wants whenever she wants even if shes told no constantly by Jack, her boss. Others would have their memory's erased and they'd be fired but she walks away skip free.Every.Time.She tricks everyone,does wrong by everyone and is just like "sorry" and is instantly forgiven cause she's Gwen. She's just so annoying and manipulative.

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