Saturday 28 May 2011

My So-Called Life - They look at you different, like, trying to figure out who you really are.

My So-Called Life: 1x03 Guns and Gossip.
“Instead of changing the world people sit in class and write notes about other people.”
Important events help us remember things about our own lives. They don’t give us meaning, especially not when they only peripherally affect us and when we only witness them through the media, through stories other people tell, but they provide a kind of orientation point that helps to put together the chronology of personal events. Two things occur at the same time in the beginning of this episode: Angela finds out that there are false rumours about Jordan and her circulating, and Brian witnesses an event that shakes up the entire school – a gun shot, fired in the hallway. He doesn’t see the entire thing unfolding, but it’s enough for him to know that Rickie is somehow involved. 
These two separate events set a couple of other things in motion. The outrage and chaos that follows the gun shot transforms the school, but while everybody panics, while outraged parents attend conferences about violence prevention and the whole story gets blown completely out of proportion as more people add juicy details to it, Angela tries to deal with her feelings for Jordan. Even though the contents of the rumours floating around in school aren’t true, there is a bit of truth in it too (she hasn’t slept with Jordan, but maybe she wants to). And while Angela (and Rayanne) are dealing with the Jordan situation, Brian suddenly finds himself connected to someone he probably hasn’t even talked to, ever, before, and makes the choice not to tell the police or the school officials that he saw Rickie on the hallway before and after the shot was fired. 
There are parallels between what is happening to Rickie and what is happening to Angela: Rickie brought the gun to school because he felt unsafe, in order to give the appearance of being more dangerous (“If I was… say I was threatened, and
I'm not saying that I am, I'd be packing in no time. No time at all.”). Angela, meanwhile, gets a first-hand experience of being perceived as different too: the rumours lead to her being noticed (and not in the good way) by loads of teenage boys. Brian gets his fair share of changed perception too, because suddenly people ask him about the things he witnessed, and almost beg him to exaggerate so the story becomes more interesting (and he complies – “I was gonna check out the situation”, he tells Sharon’s very intrigued friend). 

Rumours spread. Rayanne’s mum accidentally tells Patty about Jordan, and Patty realizes that Angela might have “some sort of secret life completely apart from” them, and doesn’t know how to react (I really like how the show puts an effort into portraying how Patty is always wondering if her immediate reactions to things are the right thing to do for a mum – like she has to make the conscious decision to act like a mother and these decisions are sometimes in conflict with what she actually does believe she should do. I imagine, obviously without any first-hand experience in being a mother, that this is probably a common experience, but I’ve never seen it portrayed so well). Angela finds herself forced to tell her mother that she isn’t sleeping with Jordan, but that just puts the major question back into her head: what exactly does she want from this boy she doesn’t even really know? Angela barely thinks about the shooting, she is preoccupied, she doesn’t even realize Rickie’s involvement until the end of the episode. The shooting defines her surroundings, but she uses aspects of the event – the way it was blown out of proportion, and how what actually happened is slowly turned into stories that aren’t even remotely close to the truth – as a way to make sense of what is happening to her, personally. 

Angela: I just don't see the point in talking about it.
Ms. Krzyzanowski (the school counsellor): Sometimes talking itself makes people feel better.
Angela: And sometimes talking gets people into trouble… You know people say things about people, and it doesn't always mean it's true.
Ms Krzyzanowski: You mean about who might be carrying a gun?
Angela: About anything.
Ms Krzyzanowski: Any weapon?
Angela: No. Just about anything anybody says about people. It's not always true. I just think people wanna believe things about people so they decide certain things are true and they don't even ask. And it's not fair. Cause you have to live with it anyway.
Ms. Krzyzanowski: But if it's not true then the person could always say that couldn't they. I think if something is false, people aren't going to keep on believing it. Usually people latch on to things when there is a kernel of truth. That's when they get into trouble.
The “kernel of truth” is exactly what’s troubling Angela. Finally, she manages to have a conversation with Jordan, but it doesn’t go the way she wants it to go –or maybe it does – because he suggests that they might as well have sex if everybody is already assuming it. This is Angela’s “something important is happening” moment, and like Brian, noticing small details in the first scene, her perception suddenly becomes very clear – “It's amazing the things you notice.  Like the corner of his collar that was coming undone. Like he was from a poor family and couldn't afford new shirts. That's all I could see.  The whole world was that unravelled piece of fabric.”, but then she flees. “It’s such a lie that you should do what’s in your heart. If we all did what was in our hearts, the world would grind to a halt.” Jordan later apologizes for what he said (framing it as “some girls wouldn’t have minded but I’ve now realized that you aren’t that kind of girl”, which I found entertaining), and Angela tries to tell him that maybe she didn’t actually mind that much, but he promises that if asked, he will tell everybody that he doesn’t have “any real interest” in you, “that I barely even know you, which is, of course, true, and that basically, you and I mean nothing to each other.” Cue the heartbreak, because not having anything to do with Jordan and not meaning anything to him is definitely not Angela’s preferred outcome. 

Angela is the narrator and we mostly follow her, so her personal issues in this episode overshadow Rickie’s. His story mostly takes place in the background – looks between him and Brian, a fake excuse, an almost admission in classroom – but we do see very clearly the effects it has on Brian, who, after an initial phase of stardom, is now facing the authorities. The principal assumes that Brian knows more about what happened than he is willing to admit and starts to put pressure on him (“Right now you are standing between me and my ability to keep this good school and I don't like that, son.”) and finally even threatens him with expulsion if he fails to deliver a name – at this point, the investigation is more of a witch hunt so the angry parents can be appeased. The two threads are finally connected in a confrontation between Angela and Brian, after Angela realizes that Rickie had something to do with the shooting. 
Angela: Did Rickie have the gun?
Brian: Give me a break. God, Angela.
Angela: Look, cause you don't know the whole situation. I just don't want to see him hurt.
Brian: Him hurt? What about me? This is the police now. Am I supposed to get kicked out of school for protecting someone I don't even know?
Angela: Don't ask me?
Brian: And you know this has nothing to do with the truth. Nobody is interested in the truth. All they care about is what they want to believe.
Angela: If you're so incredible concerned with the truth why did you lie about me?
Brian: Your name didn't even come up.
Angela: Not the gun thing. With Sharon. What you said to her about me and Jordan Catalano.
Brian: What are you talking about?
Angela: I heard her, Brian. You told her terrible things.  False things. You lied to her.
Brian: I didn't lie to her, I just… What difference does it make? I can imagine what she did with it. But it's just that you lied too. When you said you didn't know anything about Jordan coming over that night. Because I thought about it for like fifty hours. You knew it didn't you. You used me.
Angela: It's not the same.
Brian: Maybe it is because you just did what you wanted. And you didn't care about what damage it did to anybody else.
Angela: What damage did it do you?
We know what damage it did to him, but Angela doesn’t realize that Brian has a crush on her and how it must have felt to see her with Jordan and to feel used. 

My favourite scene of the episode is the conversation between Angela and Rickie, because sometimes Angela can seem so self-involved, and it was particularly hard to witness her pre-occupation with Jordan in this episode while Rickie was actually going through the worst days of his life, unnoticed by most. But Angela deeply cares about her friends. 
Rickie: Yeah. What do you need to hide from. Your life is perfect. I'm serious. I would give anything to have your life.
Angela: My life is so pathetic.
Rickie: You have this great house. Parents that are like there. No one bothers you at school.
Angela: Rickie, I need to talk to you about the gun.
Rickie: Don't.
Angela: You can't carry a gun, Rickie.
Rickie: I don't.
Angela: Cause it would be really bad. Tragically bad.
Rickie: Angela, I don't carry a gun. I wouldn't even know how to shoot one.
Angela: But didn't Brian see you? Isn't that what he's going to tell them? This is really serious. People are going to think you are a dangerous person.
Rickie: I know. That's what I want.
Rickie: You know it's weird. I… I always think of you as Rayanne's friend. I mean like, you just think of me as someone who's just, you know, around.
Angela (voice-over): It's weird how something has to happen sometimes to see how you actually feel about something.
The thing is: everybody has to face their individual challenges. Rickie’s issues might objectively seem more severe than Angela’s, but this isn’t actually how it works. The important part is that they are friends, and that they empathize with each other. Angela realizes at the end of their conversation how much she cares about him. Rickie explains the simple story behind the gun: his cousin brought it to school and it went of accidentally. And Brian, possibly to make up for spreading the rumours about Angela and Jordan, or because he sympathizes with Rickie, or just because out of principle and because the school is handling this situation terribly, threatens the school with a lawsuit if the principal continues to threaten him. “If you try to expel me in order to solve your public relations problems, then I will reveal to anyone who will listen, just who is destroying the spirit of this school.” The next day, they all find themselves walking to school together and share a quiet moment of unlikely connection… but then they see the newly installed metal detector.

Random notes: 

Angela: Who would write a note like that?
Rayanne: Everybody writes notes like that. We write notes like that.
Angela: Yeah, but we write notes that are true. 

Rayanne: Did he at least think you were a good kisser?
Angela: I don't know.
Rickie: Well, did you like the way he kissed?
Angela: They weren't the kind of kisses you could actually evaluate. They were introductory kisses.
Rayanne: You should have just had sex with him.

I looked into the New York Times’ archive for 1994 and it seems like the episode was inspired by the general climate of fear after an outbreak of violence in schools (and I think that this was actually the first time that metal detectors were installed in schools?)

Patty: This is our daughter we're talking about.
Graham: I know. Listen, I don't know why the world's gone so crazy, and I don't know what to do about it. I wish we could keep them in some kind of bubble to protect them but I know we can't.
Patty: I'm not asking for a bubble. How about just a place where they could live, and walk to school, and become grownups without having to worry about guns and AIDS and serial murderers. That didn't use to be exotic. That wasn't the province of the rich. We all had that. Why can't they have that?
Graham: I don't know.

I just love the little scene between Patty and Rayanne’s mum after the PTA conference, because Amber is basically a bigger version of Rayanne – not more grown-up, not more adult at all, and Patty ends up kind of admiring her for the exact same reasons Angela loves Rayanne – because she’s fearless and forceful. 

Patty: Hey, you know, I really liked what you said in there.
Amber: Oh God.
Patty: I wish I could be that…
Amber: What? Loud? Obnoxious?
Patty: Forceful. I'm Patty Chase.
Amber: Hi.
Patty: Angela's mom?
Amber: Ah, wow. Angela. Oh, Rayanne talks about her all the time. She's in love with her. She wants to be Angela. 
Patty: Really. Gosh, they… they seem so different.
Amber: Oh, you know kids. They find one person and they just can't get enough of them. Like being in love only they’re not allowed to have sex.
Patty: Right.
Amber: No, don't you remember there would be like this one person who had like perfect hair, or perfect breasts, or they were just so funny, and… and you just wanted to eat them up. Just-just live in their bed. Just be them. Like everybody else was in black and white and that person was in color.  Well, Rayanne thinks Angela is in color. Major color.

I think it’s fantastic that this piece of insight comes from Angela’s mum, because I don’t think that Angela and Rayanne really consciously think about why they are friends. Angela describes it as an overwhelming feeling of needing to hang out with Rayanne (she’d “die” otherwise), and I think that this is an accurate depiction of how friendships between teenagers work, most of the time. We don’t really know Rayanne well enough at this point to judge whether Amber’s perception is accurate – but what a beautiful way of describing it though. This is almost exposition, or as close as MSCL gets to exposition, but it completely fits in with Amber because like her daughter, she just says what’s on her mind.  

I also really really love the talk between Angela and Patty (the one after Angela’s introductory “When I was twelve, my mother gave me my sex talk. I'm not sure either of us has fully recovered.”), because it shows that Patty is a good mother: she admits that she doesn’t think Angela is ready to have sex  (and Angela tells her that she’s “Really. I'm not even close. To an embarrassing degree.”, Claire Danes’ delivery in this scene is brilliant), but if she chooses to have sex, she should use protection. It’s incredibly sad and terrible that we’ve now come to a point where a conversation like that in an American TV show about teenagers can’t be taken for granted. 

It’s actually kind of weird that two of my favourite current shows (Doctor Who and Parks and Recreation) do now feature a comparable amount of flannel shirts. Are the Nineties REALLY BACK? IS IT TRUE?


Anonymous said...

I love the opening scene in this episode. There's so much tension as the note is being passed around. And I love Angela's line where she laments how her parents' generation all remember JFK's assassination as their "Where were you?" moment, while her own generation has nothing even close. In America, at least, I guess 9/11 has become that symbolic event.

flame gun for the cute ones said...

Yes! The opening scene is perfect - the way both of these things happen simultaneously, the note passing around and Brian kind of witnessing the incident. And that's exactly the thought I had: Angela doesn't understand the obsession with the JFK assassination, but I'm pretty sure that almost everybody (and believe me, it's not just Americans) knows exactly where they were when 9/11 happened.
By the way, I think it will probably take a couple of episodes until I really feel like I understand the characters, I sincerely hope that my analyses of the episodes are going to be more in-depth once I get a better hold on the characters and the story.