This is one of those episodes that I didn’t really enjoy much watching it, but afterwards it stayed with me and made me think. It starts out with two separate stories (the triangle of doom that is Carmen-Josh-Brooke and Harrison’s search for meaning in his life), and the sort of necessary ridiculous sub-plot of all the girls (except Carmen, notably) developing a crush on the new vice principal, Calvin Krupps – and then manages to connect all those stories.
I’m not a huge fan of the idea that Brooke is still secretly in love with Josh, and it’s odd that all the writers seem to have a different idea of Brooke’s feelings for him; but I think the episode actually does a really good job at portraying her conflicting feelings. I think part of her attraction to Josh comes from the fact that he has changed. Josh, as he is now, happily with Carmen, isn’t the same guy she broke up with. He’s changed, or more precisely, he is in the process of changing (and it’s important to keep in mind that his parents have just split up, so his life has changed considerably in a relatively short period of time, even though it’s not actually portrayed on screen). I think Brooke likes this new version of Josh much more than she did the old version of Josh, the one she was actually with, and she also sees that the relationship Carmen and Josh have is more healthy and balanced than her own relationship with him ever was (disregarding the fact that the relationship is also flawed because Carmen feels so insecure about it). On the other hand, she has always genuinely tried to be friends with Carmen (Carmen is still the ONLY character that knows about her eating disorder). There is a surprisingly genuine connection between the two. She is torn between trying to get Josh back (by lying to Carmen about getting a tattoo designed by Josh before her – “I’ve got the scars to prove it”) and admitting that both Carmen and Josh seem really happy.
She makes Carmen even more insecure about her relationship with Josh (and Carmen voices her concerns to him – he realizes that Brooke seems to be still into him, but doesn’t understand because he has moved on), and eventually decides to trick Krupps into going out with her, to Harrison’s concert. What, which concert…
And then there’s Harrison. The theme of the episode is (underneath all the Tai Chi-have dream conversation with a wise sensei thing) not just the search for identity, this trying to figure out who you are above the hellmouth of high school, but also how this search for identity impacts the friendships and relationships you have. Krupps asks Harrison what he is passionate about, and he simply doesn’t know. Underneath his resentment of Krupps (a reaction to seeing almost all the girls in his life fawn over him), he recognizes that he is the one guy that doesn’t have his future mapped out. He’s Sam’s cameraman. He’s sometimes Lily’s junior activist recruit, but he has no idea what his own passion is. Naturally (and I thought this was realistic: picking up a guitar, being able to play a chord within the first ten minutes after consulting a chart, thinking you’re going to be a rock star and buying a fancy electric guitar that eventually just gathers dust sounds very familiar to me) he clings to the first thing that comes his way: Emory tells him he found some random old report card in which his teacher pointed out the musical talent of a student who shares his initials.
So Harrison decides to become a songwriter, but the problem is that he isn’t confident enough to write about his own issues, so he borrows those of his friends, and, most importantly, he borrows Carmen’s, who confided in him. He writes a song about a girl who is deeply insecure about her relationship (“How long before thing ends”) and performs it in front of said girl, her boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend, and it’s like seeing a trainwreck in slow motion. Carmen sees all her own concerns voiced loudly (and badly) on stage and feels betrayed, and even more insecure since Josh cares all too much about the fact that Brooke is there too, with Calvin Krupps in tow. Lily and Sam are outraged because Harrison is feeding off someone else’s drama and being a horrible friend.
And this is where Popular suddenly and surprisingly really hit very close to home. I recently watched the last few episodes of Dawson’s Creek because I’d never really bothered to keep up with the show after the kids graduated from school, and the show does this really weird but also genius meta thing where Dawson writes a teen series that is entirely too based on his own experiences (some of the stuff in the show is essentially a shot-by-shot remake of Dawson’s Creek). The implied irony of this is that Dawson’s Creek itself is probably based on the experience of its creator, which makes the last season of the show a box in a box in a box. This applies especially to show about teenagers: of course the writers are going to contribute their own experiences. Of course, someone who writes very personal songs is going to draw from real life - but there is also an invisible line that only becomes obvious when it's been crossed, between creating something authentic and exploiting someone else's experiences and stories. Now, calling Harrison an “artist” at this point is probably a stretch, since he clearly isn’t a musician, but of course he writes about what he knows, and of course, this means using his friends – which, arguably, most storytellers do, to a certain extent. Harrison’s problem is that he doesn’t even take into account that he might be causing damage, and betraying someone by sharing confidential information, by forcing somebody else into the spotlight (and being too cowardly to make himself vulnerable to the audience).
Harrison: Lily, forget about Carmen for a second… what did you think about the song?
Lily: WHO ARE YOU?
Of course, Lily is furious, but I think she is even more furious that Harrison doesn’t realize he did something wrong, that he has no insight into why Carmen is angry. I actually love the role that Sam plays in the whole discussion, because she is so far removed from the episode, but she doesn’t care if Harrison is a good musician – she only cares that the song was about Carmen, and that Harrison had no right using something Carmen confided in him, trusting him with it, like this.
Harrison finally comes around, after realizing that he was never meant to be a musician (the report card Emory dug up was from 1972, and definitely not about him), and after breaking Carmen’s guitar in a fight with Josh.
And I also really like how the episodes deals with Josh’s side, because Josh isn’t the main character in all of this, Harrison and Carmen (and maybe Brooke) are. Josh watches what is unfolding, he is protective of Carmen, but he also realizes – due to Krupps’ attempts to make the students realize that they need to find the thing that drives them, that gives them meaning – that he needs to break up with Carmen. He doesn’t break up with Carmen because he doesn’t like her, or because he wants to be with Brooke, he breaks up with her because he realizes that he no idea who he is, and can’t be with someone else as long as he doesn’t know.
Josh: Carmen, I think we need to cool off for a while.
Josh: This should… I think I’m unfocused, you know, I love being with you Carmen, but I just don’t feel like I’m completely with you.
Carmen: If this is about this stupid song I did no say any…
Josh: It’s got nothing to do with that. I’m all over the place, and I’m nowhere. I just feel like I’m not honest with myself. I can’t figure out what I really want.
Carmen: What, or whom?
This is one of those grand moments the show grants Josh Ford. The moment is heartbreaking because it basically denies all of Carmen’s insecurities: they have nothing to do with why Josh decides to break up with her. Brooke comes in, and Josh tells her that he doesn’t want to be with her either. “I don’t know. It’s just a hunch, I… Look, I got all these things banging around in my head, and I need to sort it out. And Carmen, you deserve to be with someone who’s clear and centred, you both do. And I’m sorry that person is just not me, I’m sorry.”
I love this entire scene, also because all of this also sort of applies to Brooke, but she doesn’t realize it yet.
Harrison brings Carmen a new guitar eventually.
Harrison: I don’t know what to so, I’ve done some pretty asinine things in my life, but this one deserves an award. Can you forgive me? I guess I borrowed your drama because I was scared to deal with my own, at least that’s what Calvin Krupps things, I’m like one of those cheap chocolate Easter bunnies. Tasteless on the outside, hole on the inside.
Carmen: Josh broke up with me.
Harrison: What? When did this happen?
Carmen: Like, three weeks later than I thought it would.
Harrison: Oh man, Carmen I’m really sorry.
Carmen: Don’t be. Maybe now I can get a decent night sleep. Living in constant fear of being dumped can make a person really tired.
Harrison: If it’s any consolation, you don’t need him. You have the centre that Mr Krupps is making the rest of us look for.
Carmen: Oh, whoopie. That can be the subject of your next song.
Harrison: Only if you write it with me.
Carmen: No thank you.
Harrison: Come on. You can write the music, and the lyrics.
Carmen: What are you gonna do?
Harrison: Watch. My music stinks.
Carmen: Yeah, it really does.
Popular returns to this again and again: characters doing fairly horrible things and then realizing that their friendships are the most valuable thing, more valuable than anything they might gain by betrayal.
Principal Hall, meanwhile, is attending a sensitivity seminar at a prison, as you do.
Bobbi: Why aren’t you under the table?
Nicole: Because if I wanted to play dust-mob, I’d worn your clothes.
“You do know that when the earth cracks open young lovers are swallowed up first?”
The lunch lady is Calvin’s aunt and she’s feeding him information about the drama going on in the halls of Kennedy High. I thought this was really intriguing, since I always wondered how much of the stuff going on between the people in my class was actually perceived and discussed by the teachers.
Sam now works in a record store and “is afraid she’ll sort the soundtrack of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the Salsa section”. She is also remarkably absent from most of the episode.
Krupps: You know Brooke, you might wanna try honesty, it’s a lot lighter to carry around in your karma backpack.
Krupps makes Josh and Harrison read Siddharta by Hermann Hesse.
Harrison: Is there going to be a test?
Krupps: Every day, Mr John. For the rest of your life.
Obligatory movie reference:
Lord of the Flies, obviously.