Imagine that you’re at a birthday party, all of your family and friends are there, there’s a cake, there are presents and you even get to blow out the candles and make a wish. Are you there with me? Now, imagine that the party, the cake, the candles, none of it is actually for you.
That’s the reality for Puleng Khumalo (Ama Qamata), a 16-year-old girl living in South Africa with her parents and brother. Puleng’s older sister, Phumele—Phume for short—was kidnapped at birth and her parents have been unable to move on, despite having two more children (Puleng and her younger brother Siya). When we join their story, Puleng has finally reached a breaking point. She’s tired of feeling unloved by her parents in their obsessive need to celebrate Phume, and she sets off to live her own life, sneaking out to meet her friend Zama for a party.
Ironically, the party they attend is another birthday celebration. Fikile Behle (Khosi Ngema) has turned 17 and her life is charmed. Fikile—or Fiks—has wealthy parents, she’s up for Head Girl at school, a swimming champion with Olympic dreams and beautiful to boot.
When Puleng runs into the party’s photographer, Wade Daniels (Dillon Windvogel-Bhai’s Cafe, Arendsvlei, danZ!), a casual comment about similar facial features sparks a bit of curiosity in Puleng. The curiosity only increases the next day and Puleng is so distracted that she winds up costing her school’s cricket team the game, a fact which starts a fight in the locker room and this is where the story truly begins.
After Puleng’s disciplinary hearing wraps up with her father’s arrest for human trafficking (connected to the kidnapping of her sister), Puleng uses the unfolding drama as an opportunity to leave behind her old school and make her way over to Parkland High School, the school Wade and Fiks attend, in order to confirm her growing suspicions about Fikile being her missing sister.
It doesn’t take much for Puleng to ingratiate herself into Fik’s social group and as she does so a thread of secrets, each more damaging than the last, begins to unravel itself. There’s a student/teacher affair, a love triangle (that’s pretty one sided), a named pansexual character, openly in a relationship with both a male and female character, doctored videos and more. Finally, just when the drama in Puleng’’s life is finally starting to cool down, everything comes to a boiling point when Fiks (whose life has imploded since our first introduction) discovers the journal of evidence that Puleng has been keeping, suggesting that they’re sisters.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Blood & Water. It’s your typical coming-of-age teen drama, but it’s set in South Africa and the majority of the characters are Black people, not just Black, but darker Black people at that. Moreover, the show embraces the richness of the culture it presents.
It was very exciting for me to watch a scene where Wendy Dlamini (portrayed by Natasha Thahane-keep an eye on her, she’s a troublemaker that one) pushes back against the idea that they learn about the Holocaust and instead suggests they learn about King Leopold and the Dutch colonialism that played such a big part in shaping South Africa’s past and present. There are moments where the characters flow seamlessly between languages (English, Sotho, isiZulu and Xhosa are all spoken at some point).
In just six episodes, the Nosipho Dumisa-directed project manages to hit just the right blend of comedy, drama, and real life concerns that make teen dramas so invigorating to watch. It’s not a perfect show, to be sure. Sometimes the acting leaves a tad bit to be desired. I don’t really love their definition of pansexual (“Someone who thinks with their heart and not their dick”), and there are moments where the action can be a bit jumpy.
Nevertheless, it’s so refreshing to see Black teenagers allowed to live messy, rich, gossipy, dramatic lives in much the same way that the teens of Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl and more were able to.
Netflix’s Blood & Water streaming now, so be sure to check it out!