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.