Torchwood understands that our desire for sex, for connection, is wrapped up in our sense of mortality.
From the moment I started watching Torchwood, I thought about how this had to be one of the few shows out there that did not play sexuality as a gimmick. Yes, Jack Harkness will hit on all sorts of people and non-people, and we laugh because we’re not used to someone doing it so unapologetically, but at the show’s heart, sex is a vital part of how each character makes sense of their lives.
Gwen Cooper is searching. She wants to be understood, and she wants to feel good about doing something greater than herself. Because of that, she does not know if she is with Rhys because she is comfortable and believes in the greater “idea” of a long-term relationship, or if she does indeed love him deeply. And how does he fit in with her work? She wants her love life to feel as exciting as her work, and five years with the same person doesn’t automatically provide that.
Her kiss with “Carys” the alien (Ep. 2, “Day One”) while influenced by pheromones, gave her a taste of work and sex mixing right away. The alien seems to understand that about humans – that the energy she gleans from sex is “so good” because we feel at our most alive while doing it. The “high” is what we’re all after.
Gwen feels drawn to Jack for reasons she cannot fully articulate, even when she is frustrated or puzzled by him. I think she’s drawn to his chronic loneliness, and also that he seems to have a better sense of what they’re all working towards. She is the only one who actively questions Jack, rather than internalize the conflict like her co-workers do. All that he knows, she thinks she wants to know. Their love is not the marrying kind of love. It’s different, but because they don’t know what to do about it, they pretend it isn’t there. Because he cannot die, he becomes even more interesting to her.
Her brief affair with Owen Harper (Ep. 6, “Countrycide”) is a distraction. Honestly, I don’t think the writers adequately thought through their relationship, other than to push them that much closer to a psychological break. Owen knows that Gwen is searching, and because he enjoys the danger, he asks, “When was the last time you came so hard you forgot where you were?”
After Gwen has trouble processing the idea of “regular human” cannibals, she wants to feel good again. Rhys is angry with her for being away so often, and work is scary – she needs to have a moment where someone understands that and asks nothing from her. She wants to forget where she is.
Years on the job and having little outside life leave Owen with a touch of PTSD – he’s irritable, prone to reckless behavior, anxious, and has trouble forming any close relationships. Also forever in search of another high, each connection, each orgasm is going to make him temporarily forget how awful he feels.
In the first episode (“Everything Changes”), when he ends up going home with both a woman and her boyfriend, he says, “Well, if it’ll make things easier.” Gender doesn’t enter into it, in the face of wanting to feel alive with purpose. He enjoys being desired, and he likes that desire to come with an edge. He wants to stand in the face of death and say, “I beat you, and I feel fantastic.” (He doesn’t know yet what death has in store for him in Series 2.) Sleeping with Gwen is just one more way for him to flirt with and control that feeling, which is why (as far as we know, as his backstory is not established until Series 2) that until he meets Diane, he has not allowed himself to fall in love.
Diane, the pilot from the 1950s (Ep. 10, “Out of Time”), somewhat understands the sensitive and risky nature of his work. As a woman who loves her work, she is not meek, but having lost everything she’s ever known, Owen’s love isn’t enough. She cannot accept that she should give up and live in the twenty-first century, and she leaves him – leaves him in a more damaged state than ever. Loving her reminded him of some good left in the world, that perhaps there might be meaning to it all, yet sleeping with Owen reminded Diane of death. It could not be a successful romance.
And wrapped up in the bullshit he tells himself, Owen is oblivious to the love Tosh Sako has for him. Tosh is quiet, well-behaved, and therefore off his romantic radar. He doesn’t see how much it pained her to watch his brief relationship with Gwen, or that their referenced New Year’s kiss meant so much. Tosh is lonely too, and because she’s more in the habit of silently pining, she’s forgotten how to date and what it feels like to have another person thrill her instead of disappoint. And that’s why “Mary,” (Ep. 7 “Greeks Bearing Gifts”) is so intoxicating.
Mary puts on a good show; she’s all about her lust for Tosh. Through the necklace Mary gives her, Tosh is able to tap into the deepest desires and subconscious thoughts of those around her, and it startles her. She knows how much Ianto Jones still grieves over the loss of his girlfriend, Lisa (Ep. 4, “Cyberwoman”), and she knows how insecure Owen and Gwen can feel, despite their outward confidence. She can feel how much they all ache yet carry on, and realizing this truth about herself hurts. Mary preys on her weaknesses to get what she wants and because Tosh initially felt so happy and alive – for once –she didn’t realize what was happening. She let her professional instincts slide.
Jack is the only one whose thoughts she could not hear. The reasons for this are not fully explained, but I think it has something to do with his neither being alive nor dead, in the traditional sense. Sex is not his only drug of choice, but it is his mode of deflection. When we first meet him with The Doctor, when he is still a 51st century mortal, he is a relentless flirt. One would imagine that his 137 years upon Earth, carrying on when his loved ones do not, only amplified his behavior. Sex, for him, is not only about the pleasure and the connection, but also a way to imply, I am more enlightened than you Earth natives. I know more about what matters and what does not.
When he says, “You people and your quaint little categories,” he’s not only poking fun at the views of his co-workers, but rather at the conventions themselves. Gwen may have a boyfriend, but so, so much can happen to complicate that love. One day you’re as happy as can be, and in the next, you’re Ianto – wrapped up in “all that deception because he couldn’t bear to live without her,” Gwen says. She asks Jack, “Have you ever loved anyone that much?”
What he cannot bring himself to tell her, but his face reveals, is that she cannot imagine what it’s like to love so wholeheartedly again and again, knowing that he will continue to live on without them because he has no other choice. Sometimes, as in the case of Estelle (Ep. 5 “Small Worlds”), he has to make himself leave in order to protect his secrets. Not only that, but there is a certain kindness in his removing himself from their own sense of mortality. Even those enormously in love will have to confront their anger if one of them never ages. What am I but a blip on your timeline? Why does our love matter?
It does matter, Jack knows. The more love we experience, however fleeting, is what keeps us sane. I always get the impression that even if it is a one night stand, Jack Harkness loves, to some degree, every person he has sex with. He might brush some of it off as meaningless fun, but he needs it. Sex is not about the number of people or the gender of his partner – it is about recognizing that at this moment in time, two people wanted nothing but mutual pleasure. To put it crudely: unpleasantness can wait; let’s fuck.
As an aside, the show’s writers made a misstep in “Greeks Bearing Gifts” when they have Jack joke about a friend named Vince becoming Vanessa. “So I get a bit nervous when friends act distracted,” he says. Yes, Jack acts out in a lot of ways, many of them rude, but being “nervous” about a friend coming out as transgender doesn’t fit with his character. Someone whose sexuality is so fluid and unconcerned with “categories” wouldn’t likely act in this way, especially within a show that takes great effort to normalize bisexuality and non-heterosexual romance. It is moments like those that reveal the first series’ weaknesses.
In the case of the WWII soldier from whom he chose his name (Ep. 12 “Captain Jack Harkness”), love, lust and loneliness all come to the forefront. Jack knows that this other Captain will die the next day, so even though he is attracted to him, he says, “Go to your woman and lose yourself in her.” It’s almost as though he finds it painful being so close to him, knowing that his namesake is able to die. Living forever is its own curse, but honorable men dying too young carries its own heartache. Under Jack’s directive, to seize the evening as though it may be his last, the Captain decides against comforting some girl who “thinks she’s in love with me.” Instead, he allows himself a moment of honesty. Despite the onlookers, despite what might be “proper,” the two Captains dance. They kiss as though it’s the only thing that matters.
Brought back into present time (Ep. 13, “End of Days”), Jack now more acutely feels the loss of this man. He’s brusque with everyone, acting out and deflecting once more by pointing out the flaws of his co-workers, especially Owen. Gwen confronts him: “He brought you back! Would rather be stuck in World War II?”
Jack’s face implies, I could have saved him. We could have been something else.
Once again, the entire team faces someone taking advantage of their weaknesses, with Bilis feeding them visions of the people that they love, tempting them to open the rift completely. What sacrifice are you willing to make?
Though Gwen’s pain over almost losing Rhys is what makes her realize how completely she does love him, and her bearing witness to Jack’s temporary death is what solidifies that bond, it is Ianto’s reaction to Jack that is the most telling. In one simple gesture – smelling Jack’s coat – we feel the weight of their romance. It’s such a physical reaction – touching an object belonging to a loved one, wanting to absorb their scent, aching to hold on just a little while longer.
Little has been said outright so far about Jack and Ianto’s relationship, just hints of brewing romance sprinkled throughout the episodes. Apart from his love for Lisa, we know little about Ianto, but the final minutes in the first series hint at what is to come. When Jack revives, Ianto kisses him as wholeheartedly as Jack kissed the WWII Captain.
Underneath all the alien adventure, Torchwood asks: How and why do let ourselves fail and heal, again and again, when it always comes to an end? Is love, in whatever form it takes, the ultimate greater good?