The Sweetbitter Premiere Finally Gave Us Tess’ Juicy, Tragic Backstory

Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Sweetbitter is a show about creating a family wherever you find yourself — especially if you find yourself behind the scenes of a very drug-friendly, horny New York City restaurant circa 2006. This is an atmosphere wide-eyed heroine Tess (Ella Purnell) has relished since day 1. And she continues to in the second season, which debuted on July 14. As 2019 premiere “The Pork Special” proves, Tess isn’t going to blink when it comes to the toughest parts of the Big Apple’s culinary world and the people who inhabit it.
However, Tess’ obsession with New York life has left one gaping question in Sweetbitter: Where did she come from, and who is her actual, biological family? “Pork’s” followup episode, “Equifax & Experian” uncovers that mystery to heart-wrenching results.
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Tess’ family secrets come out due to a leather jacket. She wants to buy one, but it’s $500. Tess, a new New Yorker with a waitressing gig, doesn’t have that kind of cash lying around. Resident Sweetbitter party animal Ari (Eden Epstein) offers to buy the jacket for Tess with one of her three credit cards, but she doesn’t accept. Instead, Tess wants to open up her own credit card and take care of things herself. This is our first clue Tess comes from some type of proud background.
Unfortunately, Tess’ financial plan goes awry when she heads to a bank to apply for a card. The bureaucrat there explains a credit card was opened up in Tess' name in Nevada in 2002, maxed out, and has been in collections for years, leaving her credit score in critical condition (she would have been a mere 17 years old when this mess began). Tess says she doesn’t know anyone in Nevada. Technically that isn’t true. A Firefox search tells Tess her mom, Amy Gibbons, now lives in Laughlin, NV. Amy is 46 years old and has 51 Myspace friends. She is “living her life to the fullest,” according to her social media bio. This is the person who ruined Tess’ credit.
Tess sprinkles details of her family life throughout the episode as various coworkers ask about the stolen identity crisis. Amy didn’t raise Tess, and she doesn’t “really talk to her at all.” In fact, Tess hasn’t seen from her mom or spoken to her in 12 years. Still, Tess doesn’t want to get her mom arrested, as she tells Will (Evan Jonigkeit) and Heather (Jasmine Mathews).
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The bigger problem here is that Tess, who has been forced to be independent for as long as she can remember, is still suffering through unresolved abandonment issues. On top of that trauma, the person who abandoned her has also destroyed her financial future. Today, Tess can’t have a leather jacket. But what about when she wants a house or a plane ticket? How has someone who doesn’t even speak to her also wrecked that faraway possibility?
While the reemergence of Amy Gibbons is Sweetbitter’s most emotional look into Tess’ past, it’s not the only one that appeared on Sunday night. The season 2 premiere tells us Tess didn’t grow up on a farm, but did grow up surrounded by many. The show avoids explaining who raised her in that country setting, seemingly on purpose.
However, if you go back to the cold open of series premiere, “Salt,” you’ll find your answer. Tess ended up in New York after abruptly deciding to leave home. She set a single place setting on a dinner table, left a goodbye card at that place setting, and then hopped in her car without a spoken word. That was it. Sweetbitter proper begins when Tess reaches the city. There, she calls someone from a payphone to confirm she’s alive and apologize. It’s Tess' dad, who is also the recipient of her rushed goodbye letter. He tells his daughter something that makes her face fall — “Never call again” and “Don’t ask me for money” seem likely — and Tess says, “I won’t,” while fighting back tears.
We never hear about Tess' father again. But, if you ask Sweetbitter, it’s only the here, the now, and the New York that matter.
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