My So-Called Life: 1x08 Strangers in the House.
When I started the reviews for Popular and MSCL, I expected that there would be endless opportunities to talk about Skins (which, in case you’re only here for either of those shows, is currently my main interest which determines my schedule). So far, there really weren’t. This week is special, because, as those things go, this episode of MSCL beautifully coincides with an episode of Popular that is all about broken friendships, the kind of things that end friendships and the other things that mend them. Also, this is the first time that something specific about an episode reminded me of Skins!
In the beginning of the episode, a phone call changes everything, as they sometimes do. Patty and Graham are the ones who are being called, and they drive to school. We see Sharon being sent out, and Angela watching, curiously, from a distance, realizing, along with the audience, that something serious must have happened, because HER father is the one talking to Sharon outside. She can’t hear what is being said, but she knows immediately that something is wrong.
It’s such a brilliant choice that we stay with Angela during this because it leaves the viewer in this strange stage of not knowing what is going on and assuming a hundred horrible things, like Angela is – and, at the same time, it captures this feeling so well, of seeing something unfold and not really being part of it, being slightly on the outside, being the spectator. I’ve always wondered why Joss Whedon, in Buffy’s The Body, stopped following his main characters around for that one scene when Buffy went to school to tell Dawn that Joyce had died – we stay with Dawn’s classmates, watching her break down through a glass pane, the sounds of the conversation and her sobbing are muffled, and it’s such a powerful moment. You’re sort of left imagining how you would react, and relieved that it isn’t you, and helpless because you can’t intervene, and stunned – as horrible as it sounds – that something real is happening, and it’s not on the news or on the radio.
Angela finds out that Sharon’s dad has a heart attack, and she immediately has trouble figuring out how she is supposed to react. Sharon was a friend. She is sent to Sharon’s house and examines her old room, remembering how close they used to be (“Sharon’s room was like, our world”) – but they aren’t anymore. The theme of the episode is Angela, not finding the right words and remaining painfully distant (Kyle, Sharon’s boyfriend, reacts the same way, but we don’t really see his perspective, just his inability to cope with the situation), while the least likely people start to take care of Sharon.
Angela: I wanted to hug Sharon, and tell her things, like how awful I felt, but, it was like I didn't have the right because we weren't friends anymore.
Brian is the one stumbling (yes, literally – he is Brian, after all) into the position of primary emotional support system, and, also in true Brian-manner, he manages to be actually good at it, yet convinces himself that Sharon might have deeper feelings for him (Rickie, his new and very supportive friend, has a theory: “Kyle was probably her popular jock phase, now she’s moving into her awkward sensitive guy phase, you know?” / “So you’re saying I’m like someone’s phase?” / “I wish I was.”). Angela knows this isn’t the case. The viewer does too – Sharon, surrounded by people who have no clue how to handle this situation, just clings to the one person that apparently does. It’s a difficult situation for Angela, but now not only the ghost of her previous friendship with Sharon haunts her, but Brian is suddenly hanging out in her room (awkwardly glaring at a discarded bra). It’s not only complicated because she can’t really sever all ties to Sharon, since they are both in high school (if they had already graduated and were now realizing they had nothing more in common, they’d just quietly stop answering each others call until all that remained, if this took place in 2011, was a mutual facebook friendship). On another level, Angela also grows strangely jealous of both – of Brian, because he manages to connect to Sharon which she can’t seem to be able to, and of Sharon, because Angela has grown used to the idea that Brian is the guy who is running after her, even though she mostly sees him as a nuisance. I think the episode handles the situation incredibly well, especially because it only takes a couple of shots of their shared awkwardness, instead of a detailed analysis by Angela in the voice-over.
I love how the episode portrays all the failed connections, the painful inability to express ones emotions or to find the strength to support someone. Angela KNOWS that she is doing something horrible, but she can’t stop herself. And then she goes to where she knows she will find Jordan, and tells him that she feels like a horrible person (“So you crying or something”, he says, like the charmer he is). She tells him because she can’t express this to Rayanne or to Rickie – in a way, Jordan is enough of a stranger to share this with him – but at the same time, it’s also a little bit selfish because she uses it to get closer to him. “My friend’s father is in the hospital and he could die”. She gets her hug, but it’s only a temporary moment of closeness, because as always, the moment one of Jordan’s friends is close enough to see, Jordan retreats quickly from the crying girl.
Finally, some of the frustration explodes, and Angela and Sharon have that fight that isn’t just about Angela’s shortcomings in that particular situation, but about everything that has happened since Angela became friends with Rayanne and Rickie and couldn’t fit Sharon into her life anymore.
Angela: You, you just made a date with Kyle?
Sharon: Yeah, not that it's any of your business.
Angela: I don't believe you! What about Brian?
Sharon: Angela, Kyle is my boyfriend.
Angela: Well, Brian Krakow happens to be waiting in my living room and I don't know what you're doing with him!
Sharon: Nothing! Nothing! We're just, we're just friends.
Angela: Yeah, when Kyle's not around, you've been like using him.
Sharon: You are lecturing me about using Brian Krakow when he is like so obviously in love with you and you like totally use him?
Angela: Brian Krakow is not in love with me!
Sharon: That's what Rayanne Graff says.
Angela: You know what? Just don't even speak to me okay?
Sharon: I can't believe you can't even be nice to me at a time like this.
Angela: Why do you even need me to be nice to you since everybody else in the world is?
I’ve been wondering about whether Angela realizes that Brian is in love with her, because it seems so blatantly obvious, and I’d expected her to be conscious of it, but finding it just more convenient to never really acknowledge it. Apparently, she really hasn’t put the pieces together so far (or put much thought into why she even cares that Sharon is using him). The brilliant thing is that Sharon and Angela are having their first loud and heated argument and it is, of all things, about Brian Krakow – not about how Angela ended their friendship, or Angela’s inability to comfort Sharon. They fight about Brian because they still can’t openly discuss the other, way more painful thing. It takes more time, and Sharon’s dad being okay, for that conversation to finally take place.
Angela: Your mom let me in, I, came to drop off your bag. What are you listening to?
Sharon: A group you probably hate.
Angela: Oh, okay, I'll go. I'm glad your dad's going to be okay.
Sharon: My father almost died. And you were the only person who didn't even seem to care, people I barely knew, were coming up to me all like concerned, and you, you acted like you barely even knew me.
Angela: I know, I know I acted like that. I just didn't know what else to do. I knew I was the last person on earth you wanted to deal with.
Sharon: You were the only person I wanted to deal with.
Angela: I wanted to talk to you too, it just seemed like you wanted help from everyone but me!
Sharon: I was really scared.
Angela: I was too.
Sharon: I know, I know we have different friends now, but sometimes I miss you so much!
Angela: Me too.
Sharon: It really hurt.
The episode ends with Sharon and Angela returning to the ritual they shared when they were kids, making each other understanding how much they hurt, to prove how much they care about each other. I’ve read a review of the episode that pointed out how kitschy the scene is – but I disagree. Angela and Sharon are meant to be teenagers, not 20somethings painfully conscious of how cliché such a gesture might seem, and they’ve shared all those little rituals in their childhood (I remember plenty from my own) and going back to one of those moments is the only way they can still connect, because, as Sharon acknowledges, they don’t have anything in common now (the “A band you probably hate” line is so perfect, because this is exactly how it goes, at that point in your youth when you start to make up your mind what bands and films you like, and when those little things seem so endlessly important to your identity). There’s this scene in the second season of Skins between Tony and Sid, in which they try to mend their friendship by going back to an old handshake that used to help them get over fights when they were younger – and they realize that all the magic is gone, that it doesn’t work anymore because they aren’t fighting over toys or other small things anymore (but over girlfriends, and not being able to be there for each other when it’s most important). Teenagers have more potential of betrayal than children do. The point is: the little ritual between Sharon and Angela didn’t mend their friendship. I don’t think it was meant to by either of them, but like nostalgia does, it reminded them of how much they used to mean to each other, and that was enough for that moment. The episode leaves them in their own circle of friends, but at least the horrible awkwardness, the elephant in the room, if you will, is gone.
Finally, Angela meets Brian outside his house, fixing his high-maintenance bike. She tells him that Sharon’s dad is going to be okay (“Your friend Rickie told me”, responds Brian, which is perfect because Brian doesn’t even realize that Rickie is his friend too). He explains to her that he isn’t really Sharon’s friend, that he knows she just turned to him because he “Just happened to be there, it could have been anyone” – and Angela tells him that Sharon needed him specifically, “cause of certain ways that you are”. Even though Brian jokes “Did you give this thought or something” – that’s exactly what she did. Even though she still feels that “unspoken connection” with the boy who leans beautifully, she’s also realizes that Brian is a much kinder and likeable person than she previously gave him credit for.
There's so many different ways to be connected to people. There are the people you feel this unspoken connection to even though there's not even a word for it. There's the people who you've known forever, who know you in this way that other people can't, because they've seen you change, they've let you change.
Strangers in the House is such a perfect title for the episode. It also reminds me of Claire Denis L’Intrus – where the dangerous sickness of the heart is the titular intruder, which was probably not the thought process behind the title (it clearly refers to Angela in Sharon’s room / Sharon in Angela’s house / Brian), but I can’t help but think about that other meaning, especially with Graham, looking at himself in the mirror, wondering if it couldn’t happen to him as well.
In the subplot this episode (and I am sorry to once again putting the parents into the notes, but maybe I’m still a couple of years and experiences short of really understanding their perspective), Graham starts to realize his own mortality since Sharon’s dad was never sick before, and is about his age (“they all are”, says Angela). At the same time, he struggles with the fact that he hates his job, and can’t bring himself to shape himself the way he has to be in order to win accounts. Patty watches him struggle, and in a painful moment, Camille tells her that she thinks that Patty doesn’t NEED Graham the way she needs her husband – and then she fires Graham, and gives him all the space he needs to finally figure out what he wants to be, because she does love him deeply and his happiness is more important to her.
“It just hasn’t hit me yet.”
Surprisingly, the most touching reaction to the whole thing comes from Danielle, forever in the background of the show, but with the surprising insightfulness that comes with being overlooked:
Danielle: If dad dies…
Danielle: Mom says it's nothing. She talks to me like I'm five.
Angela: Mom talks to everyone like that.
Danielle: If dad did die, who'd give me away?
Danielle: Who'd give me away at my wedding?
Angela: You're so weird!
Angela: Cause who's gonna to marry you?
Also cute: Rayanne’s reaction to finding out that Sharon is staying with Angela, because there is always this hint of jealousy whenever she sees Sharon and Angela getting along again (and what a perfect call-back to the episode when she admired Graham’s cooking)
Rayanne: So you are staying at Angela's house?
Sharon: Yeah, what do you care?
Rayanne: I don't. So what, is her dad like cooking you up all kinds of good food or something?
Rayanne also, even though not at all selflessly, finds a way to help Sharon: she tells her to take advantage of the situation and visit her dad in hospital instead of going to school. “People are feeling sorry for you, right? Use it! Take advantage!”
Oh, and just cause I’ve never mentioned it before: ever-present deus ex machina Tino with his magical car is of course never actually seen.
Angela name-drops Pittsburgh, which I think is the first time that the show reveals its location?
There’s a tiny fight between Rayanne and Angela too, after she’s the last one to find out that Sharon’s dad is okay, which Rickie quickly and efficiently resolves:
Rickie: Look! We all know what's going on around here okay? Which is that you are jealous, and you, you are totally flipped because Rayanne finally did something nice for once in her life, which she did, by taking Sharon to go visit her dad. And now both of you just want to be sure that you both still are friends, which you are, so shut up.
Rickie Vasquez, best friend in the history of television.