EastEnders made history with Lola's death story

EastEnders spoilers follow.

It's not easy to make the EastEnders history books these days, but after Lola's exit tonight, her devastating story is certainly in there.

Show bosses had already confirmed that Lola's final scenes would air on Wednesday, May 31, with this week's episodes setting the scene for her ultimately passing away at home.

Lola was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year and was later told that her illness was terminal. More recently, specialists at the hospital confirmed that all treatment options had been exhausted, and she'd die within a matter of weeks.

lola pearce, eastenders

Since then, we've seen Lola's health rapidly deteriorate in some of the most harrowingly realistic scenes rarely seen in a soap. If you have found Lola's final days difficult to watch, you won't be alone.

It's a sad but inevitable fact of life that everyone will have been touched by cancer in some way, and despite a soapy tendency to show us otherwise, the very final stages of it seldom involve seasides, sunsets and heartfelt speeches.

Given the work EastEnders has put in to ensure Lola's story was always rooted in realism, we did have faith in them avoiding this cliché route (although paparazzi pictures showing Danielle [Harold] and Jamie [Borthwick] filming in Margate did briefly suggest otherwise).

What we expected was perhaps something in between: Lola looking weak but alert in bed and still able to say some profound farewells — the fictional death consensus. It's what soaps have been telling us death from illness is like since they began. (There have been a few exceptions. Sinead's demise in Corrie also tore up the rulebook, while Ashley's death in Emmerdale was very moving.)

But in real life, death simply doesn't work like that. It isn't always neat and pretty and perfect, and yet we are often left with a depiction that it can be.

EastEnders, however, opted out of allowing Lola's death to have this type of artistic license, choosing to see the acutely distressing elements all the way through to the finish line instead.

lola pearce brown and jay brown in eastenders
Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron - BBC

This week began with Lola's death edging closer, and with the exception of a touching final message to Billy, she had been unconscious for almost two full episodes in the lead-up to her exit.

While many fans may have hoped she might wake up for one final goodbye with Billy or Jay before she went, EastEnders stuck to its guns and did not do this, instead portraying how the grim and authentic realities were present all the way to the end — even if it meant Lola dying when Jay was out of the room.

It's not easy to show a character passing away like this within the restraints of the watershed. It often meant that small but significant details were there to help fill in blanks for us: Lola's cracked lips, her dry hands, her bruised arms, the hospital bed, the medical paraphernalia, the seizures we saw and the ones we didn't.

It was all in there, no matter how uncomfortable it felt.

kathy beale, phil mitchell, lola pearce, eastenders

Having Lola's loved ones say their goodbyes without her being able to respond packed an emotional punch in the same way, if not more so, than if she'd been awake. It felt true to the cruel nature of her illness and true to life. Ben not getting back in time also highlighted how life doesn't always tie up neatly.

Reminding us of what show we were all watching, EastEnders was still able to stick to its genre with some soapy inserts too: the darker opening sequence indicating that this episode would be a tough watch, the pub lock-in, the eerie atmosphere that changed only to symbolise Lola's passing and some slightly dubious animal analogy, which led to an unconventional but touching moment before the closing credits.

lola pearce, jay mitchell, eastenders

Moving away from tonight's scenes alone, this entire week of episodes has proved to us what EastEnders can really do when it's on top of its game. The show has arguably had a tough couple of years due to some questionable decisions, a distinct lack of character development and story direction, and just very little to be excited about in general.

But Lola's story was a game-changer. It kicked off a new era for the show. It drew the audience back in but without all the bells and whistles and audacious stunts that can be a tempting way to combat plummeting ratings.

While raw and viscerally sad, Lola's final chapter has also had plenty of sprinkles of light and warmth, highlighting that, despite the circumstances, there will always be moments of laughter and compassion.

EastEnders has intelligently explored the different reactions to grief: Ben, who needed to find a cure even when there wasn't one; Phil, who was unable to say goodbye; Billy, who often channelled his emotions through anger; Honey, who was subtly cooking and cleaning as a mechanism to keep busy; and Kim and Denise, who were in palpable distress at seeing Lola so unwell but were determined to put on a brave face regardless.

lola pearce, eastenders

Lola might have been front and centre of this story — and actress Danielle Harold has undoubtedly put in the performance of her career — but it's very much been a collective effort, bringing some of the show's finest actors out of the shadows.

Perry Fenwick has shown us just what he can do when given the material, while Emma Barton has given us the version of Honey we need to see more of, having spent the past few years in a better-not-spoken-about relationship with Jay ("Jay and I were just plain wrong", she said tonight) and, more recently, making bizarre, out-of-character demands on the market.

Lola's story has shown us real, nuanced characters and connections who are human and fallible — so much so that it's hard to believe that Billy & Honey and Jay & Lola weren't in their couples this time last year.

Of course, there have been some bumpy moments along the way. Despite the earnest pace of the plot, some strands could have been improved.

Reuniting Lola and Jay sooner could have made some of their more recent scenes all the more poignant, while Patsy Kensit's stint as Lola's mum Emma didn't always hit the right notes, though it did give us the first tangible insight into Lola's life.

lola pearce and emma in eastenders

"Chris [Clenshaw, show producer] really did let me play out all of Lola's life as well, in the space of a very short time," Danielle said at a recent EastEnders press event.

"Obviously, I've been on the show for so many years, but we'd never really dug into Lola at all over the years. To be able to find out her whole life in the space of this storyline has been pretty amazing."

Lola's tear-jerking exit has also understandably left many fans with mixed feelings, especially when her departure was first announced. While the storyline has allowed Danielle to show just how talented she is, it also highlights just what EastEnders is sadly losing, and raises frustrations over why she wasn't used more before now.

lola pearce, eastenders

"It wasn't a decision that we took lightly," Chris said when discussing Lola's exit.

"We discussed it for many months, and we wanted to make sure that it was the right decision. The charities that we've worked with have been overwhelmed by the awareness that the story has raised and Danielle has been speaking to people directly.

"None of us want to say goodbye to the character, and none of us want to say goodbye to Danielle, but I think that's the character Danielle has created. She is so well-loved, and you can only really tell a story like this with a character that is so well-loved."

lola pearce, eastenders

Chris also previously explained that it was so important to tell the brain tumour storyline with a well-loved character.

Danielle added: "When Chris told me that, I said: 'I don't think Lola is!' For me, it's been so overwhelming. I never felt like that character Chris was describing. It was a Catch-22 — Chris saw that in me and it was amazing."

Moving forward, it's clear that life for Lola's loved ones will never be the same again. But the real testament to the show's new era will be if it can give Lola's death a fitting aftermath — something EastEnders has struggled to do properly in the past.

For now, the early indications are looking promising.

lexi mitchell, jay mitchell, eastenders

"I don't think any of them will be the same again — Billy, Jay, Lexi, Honey," Chris said. "It'll obviously have devastating consequences for the family.

"Lola has been in this position where she's become aware of what's ahead, so she's given certain requests to the family. She's asked Jay to make sure that he always talks to Lexi about her, and she's put things in place for the immediate future. But that may not last forever. It'll be a difficult process."

Away from Lola's grieving family, we have the introduction of the Knight family, Lisa's return and Ian's intriguing return with Cindy. We can also expect to see the characters in 'The Six' gain a more prominent focus as the year progresses, and there's that Christmas death too. There's a lot to be excited about.

Regardless of all that, Lola's story will always be the very moment that helped bring EastEnders back to life in the first place.

This time last year, she wouldn't have necessarily stood out as a character who'd become so deeply rooted in EastEnders' history. But tonight's episode has ensured that's where she'll always remain.

EastEnders airs on Mondays-Thursdays at 7.30pm on BBC One. The show also streams on BBC iPlayer.

Read more EastEnders spoilers on our dedicated homepage

Organisations including Brain Tumour Research, Macmillan Cancer Support and Stand Up to Cancer can provide help and support to those living with brain cancer and their loved ones.

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