A new series by Netflix has taken Turkey by storm. It seems like everyone in the country has been transformed into a film critic overnight. Soon after Bir Başkadır (known in English as Ethos) was released on Nov. 12, there came a massive outpouring of praise. This was followed by critiques and denunciations by people claiming that the series was overrated. Then came a third wave of people denouncing the denouncers. And so continues the debate. A week after the series came out, it shows no sign of abating.
Whatever one thinks of Ethos, it is clear that it has struck a chord with viewers. It is rare that a piece of art like a series, film, or song elicits such strong reactions among so many people that it becomes an object of widespread debate. What is this show about and why has it become such a hot button issue?
Ethos is the latest of Netflix’s original Turkish productions. So far the streaming giant has released an Ottoman-style superhero show, a teen drama, and a romantic comedy. Yet Ethos is something different. It was written and directed by Berkun Oya, a respected playwright also known as a screenwriter for the acclaimed 2017 series Masum on BluTV. The eight-episode series Ethos is more cinematic and challenging than the kind of work Netflix Turkey has released to date. The plot moves slowly and the cinematography is reminiscent of an art house film. Most importantly, the series is political. More accurately, it has something profound to say about Turkey today but what exactly that ‘something’ is remains vague—hence the vitriolic debate.
The only thing everyone seems to be able to agree on is the strength of Öykü Karayel’s acting. She plays the lead role of Meryem: a young woman equal parts spunky and shy. The series opens with Meryem in her psychiatrist’s office. She has been suffering from fainting spells, but when her test results all come back clean her doctors decide the problem must be psychological. Meryem is an elementary school graduate from a conservative family living on the rural outskirts of Istanbul. Her psychiatrist Peri (Defne Kayalar) is from the opposite pole of Turkish society: wealthy, educated abroad, and secular. We quickly learn that Peri is prejudiced against pious people in general and headscarved women like Meryem in particular.
So begins the first thematic axis of Ethos: the divide between the pious and the secular, conservatives and Kemalists. This is a theme as cliché as it is real. Too often, the pious/secular divide is used in foreign descriptions of Turkey as if it is a clue to understanding everything one needs to know about the country. Ethos takes up this famous divide but cleverly shows how it functions in everyday life. In Peri’s therapy sessions with her supervisor Gülbin (Tülin Özel), she admits that she can’t rid herself of prejudice against covered women. She knows it’s wrong from both the professional and personal angle, but she is full of resentment.
Referring subtlety to the AKP government and growing conservatism in Turkey since the 1980s, Peri complains to her therapist that “the power is in their hands.” It’s not a new sentiment, but one we don’t often see portrayed on TV. Peri’s character strikes a chord because all of us have met a Peri at some point in our lives. Yet despite Peri’s illusions of superiority, Meryem is able to run circles around her in their therapy sessions. Meryem’s Anatolian-inflected, witty, and subtle manner of speaking Turkish cuts through the nonsense in Peri’s stilted and professional language.
If Ethos was only about conservatives and Kemalists, it wouldn’t be offering anything new. But our heroine Meryem is a connecting point for many different groups in Turkey today: a rich but depressed playboy, a middle-class Kurdish family split by political beliefs, a soap opera actress, a rape survivor, an ex-soldier who works as a bouncer at a club, a hodja and his closeted gay daughter. The interconnected stories that make up Ethos resemble films like Drive and Amores Perros. It offers a panorama of an entire society. Yet it does this without being didactic or falling into propaganda. Rather than presenting these different characters as social types, it treats them humanely by showing everyday aspects of their lives. Though Meryem is at the center of all these narratives, the show’s kaleidoscopic structure doesn’t let the viewer identify with just one of them.
Perhaps it is the humaneness and palpable empathy with which Ethos treats its various characters that has made the series such a phenomenon. At a time of intense social polarization and mutual distrust along many different axes of society, the series imagines a different mode of existing together. It’s as if Ethos has put us all in the therapist’s office and asked us, as Meryem is asked, to speak.
This is perhaps the thematic center of the series: what happens when we speak and when we remain silent. We see this theme again and again with the characters. Meryem is initially suspicious of therapy and asks Peri “what are we going talk about?” With time it becomes clear that her fainting spells are related to sexual desires she doesn’t know how to express. Similarly, the wife of Meryem’s older brother is a survivor of rape who deals with her trauma by refusing to speak. Over and over, characters avoid difficult conversations by falling silent or muttering things under their breath. Yet the series pushes us to question the psychic and societal toll of pushing things down. The more we remain silent, the more things fester.
As a political message, perhaps this is a bit too vague. Yet viewers who have critiqued Ethos for failing to offer a fully coherent sociological analysis of Turkey in the twenty-first century are barking up the wrong tree. As much as the series deals with real issues, it is not a documentary. In fact, some of Ethos’ most powerful moments don’t have much to do with politics at all: a sheet hung up to dry and blowing in the wind. A long-shot of the Istanbul skyline filled with cranes and the glimmering sun setting on the sea. These images can reveal more about the supposed “truth of modern Turkey” than many pounds of sociological analysis, for they point to everyday realities for which we don’t necessarily have the language. Yet they must be spoken of nonetheless. It is only when politics is recognized as something both ambient and intensely personal that we can begin thinking of transforming it.