Popular: 2x14 The News of My Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated.
Important things first: isn’t it great when shows subtly work towards the tension-filled resolution of a storyline that’s been building up since the beginning of the season? Isn’t it incredibly gratifying to see something finally come to fruition after a long build-up? It finally happens in The News of My Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated, the elephant in the room is addressed at last: Josh’s tragic hair turns out to part of the long game played by the writers. But let’s talk about the minor storylines first before discussing mullet-gate.
There is something particularly tragic about people who are always only on the periphery dying, because inevitably, and especially in a high school environment, their death immediately becomes about everybody else. April Tuna’s tragic death in a car accident and the days before the memorial takes place are about regrets – regrets all the characters have about how they treated her when she was alive. Sam literally says they should “organize a memorial as penance” – so this is literally about everybody but April Tuna, even though some among them have more honourable reasons than getting Friday off. The episode isn’t about who April Tuna was, or how April Tuna felt (Mary Charity is probably as close as we’ll ever get to that), it’s about how all the other characters react in the face of seeing someone they know die. It’s an episode about regrets – regrets about never having a chance to meet your mother (Nicole – “More than anything in the world I just wanted to meet her, see my face in another person’s”), regrets about how complicated friendships can get once love gets involved (Harrison and Sam), regrets about letting your hair grow out and suddenly ending up marginalized (and isn’t it nice to think that the one thing that would lead to the marginalization of a white, straight male characters would be a mullet?).
Needless to say, my favourite story among them is Nicole’s. She has laid eyes on the lunch lady and decided, for some reason, that she recognizes something about herself in her and that she therefore must be her mother. The plot thickens when Nicole finds her wearing a broche similar to the one she was found with as a baby. Amazingly, the first person she talks to about this isn’t Brooke, who was so supportive in the past, but Sam McPherson, the enemy. I sincerely wish the show had spent more time on them, because think about it: Nicole and Brooke used to be friends, until Sam came along. Harrison would be dead if it weren’t for Nicole’s donation. These two have such an amazingly complicated relationship – and then Nicole asks Sam to do the research to figure out if the cafeteria lady is indeed her birthmother (because of what Sam did for Brooke), and Sam complies, even though she thinks she’s “just perpetuating a stage of grief you haven’t moved through.”
At roughly the same time, three very awkward mails Harrison wrote in the hospital when he thought he was dying finally arrive, because the internet totally works like the postal service, and in 2001, “the internet, am I right?” still worked as an explanation for narrative twists. One is addressed to Sam, and a heartfelt exclamation of love, one is addressed to Nicole, and a heartfelt exclamation of pure hatred (it predates the donation).
I regret never telling you in the moment how I felt. But I didn’t have the nerve. I was afraid you wouldn’t love me back. That killed me. But I’m gonna die anyway, right? And I don’t wanna go to my grave without telling you how I feel. I love you, Sam. I know this much is true. Harrison.
Nicole’s reaction to reading both these mails (and isn’t it peculiar that Nicole would be the first to know about Harrison’s feelings, before Lily and Carmen?) – is pretty interesting as well.
Nicole: How does it feel to never lose, Spam? To always come out on top?
Sam: Get one thing straight, Nicole I am not happy about what he said about me. I am freaked about it. I’m gonna talk to him today…
It doesn’t really matter what Nicole does, the mere fact that she will never bother to be nice just to be nice, that she will always be brutally honest, means that she is doomed to always be regarded this way. She has saved a life, Harrison’s life, and still, this is all she’ll ever be. She saved a life and is struggling with the loss of all the hope she’s put into finding her mother, and still, this one fundamental thing about how she is perceived will never change. I am endlessly more interested in that story than I am in Harrison’s feelings for Sam.
Because here’s the thing about Harrison: I think I understand his dilemma pretty well. And I think Sam does, too, but the thing that he does in this episode is argue that Sam means too much to him than to just be friends, but if I were in Sam’s position, I’d be incredibly disappointed in Harrison for being almost nonchalant about sacrificing the friendship in the process?
Sam: Do you…
Harrison: Still think that I love? Honestly? Yes.
Sam: Harrison, I’m with George.
Harrison: I’ve known you longer.
Sam: I’m dating George.
Harrison: I know you better.
Sam: I’m so angry with you right now, Harrison.
Sam: You’ve just ruined a wonderful friendship.
What Sam is saying in response isn’t even “no”. It’s “not now”, at least between the lines, and the one thing Harrison has no right to do in this scenario is not allow Sam the time to come to terms with this, because he had all the time he needed to figure it out. This is who Harrison sometimes is, at his worst: careless. He’s careless with Nicole’s feelings because (at least a couple of months ago), he wouldn’t have considered her able to have feelings that could be hurt. He’s careless with Sam’s feelings, because once the big secret is out, all that matters is him (and that’s, in a way, what the episode is about – making things that aren’t really yours to take about you, and you alone). Harrison can be pretty wonderful too, and there is an undeniable bravery in what he is doing here, and on some level, I completely understand why he would argue that friendship isn’t possible when one of the people involved is struggling with more profound feelings than the other. On the other hand, isn’t losing a friend, a best friend, a life-long friend, way worse than not getting what you want, in the long run, and especially on a show that is at its core about friendship?
Popular is about all the fucked up things that can happen to people when they are still young and completely unprepared, and how the one thing that can save them and get them through the day is the people around them. So there’s Harrison, telling Sam he can’t be around her – but there’s also Nicole with all the anger and resentment she’s been harbouring all her life because she was adopted by a woman who seems to be incapable of love, and none of this is her fault, so what she wanted to do was make April Tuna’s memorial all about herself, to take the stage and reveal Harrison for what he was (even though that was just a temporary slip, really, and all we can hope for is never to be judged for our worst moments).
Nicole: What they wrote, and I can’t deny this, it’s true. I have to accept that I don’t really have a connection with my family, so I strike out at all of you to get attention. I have to accept that I will never find my birthmother. The turning moment for me was when I saw April Tuna’s shrine, but I realized staring at it that if I died, still so angry, that nobody would even care. And I don’t want that. I want…
And that’s the moment April Tuna rushes into her own memorial, because quite literally, none of this was ever truly about her, she was just the catalyst for something else. Most of the times, we never quite get what we want, and sometimes we do, but sometimes the greatest things that happen are the ones we didn’t even know we ever wanted. Harrison makes an offering of friendship to Nicole Julian, because they are inevitable forever connected, literally through their bone marrow but also spiritually through what she sacrificed and he gained in the process. Matching jewellery, imbued with the super power of friendship, the thing Nicole never even knew she wanted, and then, a conversation with her birth mother (which she knew she wanted, but it’s not quite clear where this will lead yet, if it will be a good thing or a bad thing). Lily gets Josh without his mullet because sometimes love is about compromise, even if it’s over ridiculously small things that shouldn’t actually matter. April Tuna realizes her dream of becoming a choreographer for the Glamazons. But we can’t always get what we want, sometimes things are more complicated than that.
Harrison: When I almost died, I realized that love is all that matters. Sam… choose. I’m dying here.
Sam: Okay. Okay. If it’s gonna be that cut and dry. Then I have to choose George. Harrison, don’t do this. Okay, look this is horrible, but we can fix this, we can go on, we can still be best friends.
Harrison: Maybe you can, but I can’t. You made your decision. Now I have to make mine. And… I can’t see you every day with him. I can’t talk to you about stupid superficial things when what I really wanna say is why couldn’t you at least have tried with me.
Sam: So what are you saying? That’s it? We are over completely; you regretfully never wanna speak to me again.
Harrison: Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. Goodbye.
And never before have I wanted to slap Harrison John in the face as much as I do now.
The scene of the beginning with all the girls minus Nic in the car was lovely! I think it was more about the chemistry of the actresses than where the characters would realistically be in terms of friendship and banter, but still, pretty great. I wish we’d gotten more group scenes (friendly ones) from the show.
Structurally, this episode was a mess, but it’s definitely one of the better Ryan Murphy ones.
On the other hand, it’s an episode structured according to the five stages of grief (cleverly realized visually), so mess is probably not the right word.
Sam: Come on, don’t break our insult streak, I look forward to it.
This episode is pretty good because at this point, I was like, yeah, Sam and Nicole could totally have been a thing if this show had gotten another season, right? (it’s hard to figure out who the Rachel and Quinn and Santana are in Popular, by the way).
Harrison: You’re hurt, you’re angry, I get it.
Nicole: No, you don’t. You’re just seeing the tip of my acid iceberg and my anger is zeroed in on you.
George Austin’s absence is once again extremely convenient because I guess it would be harder to root for Harrison if he’d been around this episode? If this was the thought process behind it, I deeply resent it.
Josh: I think people in a position of power have an obligation to protect people who society mistreats, like Emory and April.
Man, if someone had told me that on a re-watch, I would end up criticizing Harrison so much but finding myself agreeing with Josh as often as I have now…
Once again, it's a pleasure to read your reviews :)
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