Is EastEnders becoming too ambitious with its 'awareness' storylines?

The soap has committed to a vast range of topical issues

EastEnders' Whitney Dean and Zack Hudson are facing a tough time. (BBC)
EastEnders' Whitney Dean and Zack Hudson are facing a tough time. (BBC)

The latest instalment of EastEnders featured moving scenes in which Zack Hudson (James Farrar) confided in Sam Mitchell (Kim Medcalf) about his HIV diagnosis.

While Zack revealed his fears surrounding the condition, pregnant Whitney Dean (Shona McGarty), the mother of his unborn child, learned that her scan had flagged up a condition called omphalocele — and viewers know that the baby will later be diagnosed with Edwards’ syndrome.

EastEnders is working with charities including Terrence Higgins Trust and SOFT UK to ensure accurate representation. Sharon Watts (Letitia Dean) pointed out that the late Mark Fowler (Todd Carty) may have survived had he been diagnosed 10 years later; so it’s important and progressive that the show is tackling subjects like HIV again.

Read more: EastEnders spoilers: Zack’s health suffers

But with so many plots taking place at the same time, is the soap becoming too ambitious, making it difficult to be as thorough as necessary?

EastEnders,31-01-2023,6638,Lily Slater (LILLIA TURNER);Lola Pearce (DANIELLE HAROLD),***EMBARGED TILL TUESDAY 24TH JANUARY 2023***, BBC, Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron
Lola Pearce-Brown had to tell daughter Lexi that she's dying. (BBC)

Some may argue this is not the case. Raising awareness is vital and serial drama is a great way to do so.

Yet alongside Zack and Whitney’s diagnoses, EastEnders has quite the list of commitments; highlighting underage pregnancy with Lily Slater (Lillia Turner), Amy Mitchell’s (Ellie Dadd) self-harming and a terminal brain tumour for Lola Pearce-Brown (Danielle Harold).

EastEnders,30-01-2023,6637,Lily Slater (LILLIA TURNER),***EMBARGOED TILL TUESDAY 24TH JANUARY 2023***, BBC, Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron
Lily Slater is pregnant at the young age of 12. (BBC)

These relevant, vital storylines have been well-written and beautifully performed. Young stars Turner and Dadd have showcased their talent brilliantly with hard-hitting scenes, while Harold’s heartbreaking portrayal of a young mother coming to terms with her impending death continues to reduce fans to tears.

It’s been a refreshing change of pace to see Farrar’s Zack given serious material, with the actor’s range impressing viewers.

Meanwhile, McGarty is well-known for her work on the toughest of narratives and will no doubt shine on-screen in the coming weeks. Still, might all these characters find their screen-time compromised?

EastEnders,09-06-2022,6501,Ben Mitchell (MAX BOWDEN);Kathy Beale (GILLIAN TAYLFORTH),****EMBARGOED TILL TUESDAY 31ST MAY 2022***, BBC, Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron
Ben Mitchell endured endless trauma last year. (BBC)

Whitney’s latest turmoil also raises the question: how much misery should one character endure? Over the years, poor Whit has been groomed and abused, cheated on, stalked and suffered more than enough loss.

Read more: EastEnders’ Ryan Malloy to return for pregnant 12-year-old storyline

This could have been her time to be happy; but of course this is Soapland and no one remains content for long. And if EastEnders must throw more devastation Whitney’s way, it might as well take the opportunity to address a situation other parents-to-be face.

But there are others who don’t even get the aftermath they deserve. When it came to Ben Mitchell’s (Max Bowden) post-traumatic stress disorder and rape trauma, his struggle following a homophobic attack was soon shelved for the next shocking ordeal.

Gray Atkins (TOBY-ALEXANDER SMITH), Whitney Dean (SHONA MCGARTY) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Kieron McCarron/Jack Barnes
Whitney has had more than enough heartache. (BBC)

Both strands were sensitively handled and powerfully performed by Bowden, but the original story was dismissed and now, Ben's long-term recovery has seemingly been dropped.

Stuart Highway (Ricky Champ) battled breast cancer last year highlighting the stigma of men feeling they have been diagnosed with a 'women's illness'. Then, after a surrogacy journey with wife Rainie (Tanya Franks) Stuart showed signs of male postnatal depression.

Read more: EastEnders ignored Jay and Lola for years, but now they are breaking our hearts

Champ blew audiences away with his compelling performances, and Stuart’s eventual happy ever after was the perfect pay-off.

It was simply a shame that we never got to see his recovery progress after he started treatment for depression — something that arguably, we might have been able to witness had the screen time not been split between both medical conditions.

EastEnders,22-08-2022,6542,Stuart Highway (RICKY CHAMP),***EMBARGOED TILL TUESDAY 16TH AUGUST 2022***,BBC, Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron
Stuart Highway battled breast cancer and male postnatal depression. (BBC)

Back in the present, let’s hope that Whitney and Zack’s stories, which are destined to overlap, can find the right balance. Lola’s illness also coincides with a reunion with her mum Emma Harding (Patsy Kensit) and the reveal of a mysterious family secret; while Lily and Amy’s journeys remain ongoing.

Perhaps EastEnders is indeed overly ambitious; but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s all about whether the soap can dedicate enough time to each topic, commit to more aftermath where appropriate and provide hope along the way.

Readers can find help and support for all the topics mentioned above via BBC Action Line or the EastEnders website.

Watch the latest EastEnders spoilers