What I learnt from watching 489 episodes of the series 'Seis Hermanas'


                                                        Diana and Salvador

Seis Hermanas or Six Sisters is an RTVE series which ran from 2015 to 2017, made up of 489 episodes or chapters, of about 50-55 minutes duration. They are in fact 490 if one includes chapter 0, the prologue. It is about six sisters belonging to the upper class and living in Madrid, in the years before and during the First World War. They are beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, refined, friendly, and well-educated.  A terrible event shakes their lives and changes them forever. The Silvas will have to face different problems and defy social conventions, at a time when women totally depended on men. The series also portrays the relationship between the upper and working classes.

I began watching the series out of curiosity, having stumbled on it while I was in Italy, where it's currently showing in a (badly) dubbed version, every day except weekends.  I could not wait for the next episode so I looked for the original Spanish, with no subtitles, and after watching a few more capitulos I was hooked. I spent the whole summer with it, every time I had to wait for something, out came my phone and AirPods, I connected to a VPN to have a Spanish IP and immersed myself in the Madrid of the early twentieth century, in the home of the six Silva sisters.

I am not usually too keen on long TV series. Poldark, Downton Abbey, Outlander not to mention the regular soaps such as East Enders have more or less passed me by, I lost interest in them after a while. Yet this series totally absorbed me, perhaps because I too come from a large family, with lots of medio hermanas (half-sisters) and a history of fights and "betrayals" in connection with inheritance.  But, of course, the similarities end there. The six sisters' adventures encompass betrayals, murders, infidelity, espionage, lottery wins, cancer, venereal diseases, more betrayals, more murders, mental illness... My own and my family's realities are much less exciting; also as sisters, we never achieved the unity exemplified by the seis.

Watching 489 episodes over a period of three months - I began in June and ended last weekend - has been an interesting experience. I have learnt a lot about a number of things.

Francisca and Luis

First and foremost  (and this alone was worth it) my Spanish has improved by leaps and bounds to the point I often find myself using Spanish expressions, whilst thinking aloud. Vaya, Madre mia, estamos, tengo prisa, no se falta are now part of my everyday vocabulary. It seems that watching TV programmes in the original language helps with language acquisition. Many people around the world learn/improve their English by watching English language movies in the original - this is why I deeply dislike dubbing, it makes you totally mono-lingual!

Seis Hermanas  has also given me an insight into how to build up tension in a narrative. I noticed how the characters began to become more nuanced and real as the narrative unfolded. I also appreciated the feminist underpinnings. The makers of the series have said that it was their intention to focus on issues concerning the discrimination of women in the society of the time. Women's rights, that is, working, running businesses, voting, and their sexual behaviour are all scrutinised and presented as major themes. The treatment of homosexuality is done with an emphasis on acceptance of diversity, although it is surrounded by pessimistic views. One of the sisters is lesbian; you can imagine how abhorrent that might have seemed back then and indeed the horror of her time at a hospital, receiving electroshock therapy is well represented. Yet she comes out a winner, even though she loses the love of her life, Aurora, to cholera.  Her second girlfriend, Cata,  is too terrified of being found out, and she opts for marriage to a man she does not love. Celia, however, continues to be herself and eventually achieves success as a writer.

Male homosexuality is also well represented through the character of police inspector Vasco, who has to go through a sham marriage in order to distance himself from damaging rumours concerning his sexuality but eventually finds love with a poet.

You really have to ask yourself why period drama can be so appealing. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there, as LP Hartley said.  Octavio Paz asked us that we should understand the past, not judge it. A well-made, well-conceived period drama allows us to do so. Add to it the aesthetic pleasure of beautiful, well-tailored costumes, add intrigue to the plot and there you have it, it's a recipe for success. It is escapism and yet it is also an attempt to come to terms with our own prejudices by projecting them onto a different canvas, that of the past. Love, betrayal, redemption, innocence, justice, sacrifice and transformation are also universal themes; they are ultimately what binds us to view such series. 

The best moments of the series

Over the past three months I lived with the hermanas, suffered with them, smiled and laughed when things turned out well, cried with them; at times I wanted to slap unpleasant characters - for example, I never liked Ursula, as a character she had tremendous faults and Luis tested my patience several times. I also enjoyed the way the series was structured, with comic elements side by side more tragic ones and appreciated the self-mocking humour of the scriptwriters. Celia becomes the author of a feuilleton; the series itself could be likened to a feuilleton of sorts, even though it aspires to be more.

I am now looking for a new long series to watch. Who knows, I might try Outlander once more.