Saturday 17 September 2011

My So-Called Life - Did you ever try to protect someone so much that it hurt?

My So-Called Life: 1x10 Other People’s Mothers. 

Over the past few episodes is has become increasingly obvious that Rayanne, despite being the loudest of the group of friends, mostly remains a mystery to both Angela and the viewers. Rickie sometimes, in throwaway comments, mentions something about her past (that Angela wasn’t part of), but we don’t really know her yet. “I'd been friends with Rayanne Graff for half a year but I'd never been to her house”, Angela muses, after Rayanne got them into trouble by taking a beer from the Chase’s fridge (Rickie got caught with it and blamed), and once she enters Amber’s hippie dreamland, she describes it as resembling “entering another country”. I’ve always felt like staying at friends’ houses gave an endlessly interesting insight into how differently families function – from the more obvious things, like the kind of accommodations and how many people lived in the household, to the minor things that just seemed slightly strange, but not completely. Patty and Amber clearly are on opposite ends of the spectrum though, and Angela is currently trying to figure out who she is and how to live her life, so she is open to everything that differs from her parents’ (and specifically, Patty’s) way of doing things. Patty is usually reserved, while Amber enthusiastically embraces Angela once setting eyes on her (“oh my god, is that her? Angela, come to mama!”). They immediately bond and Amber gives Angela a tarot reading. 
Amber: You don't have to explain. See this card? That's the world. This is the daughter who hides her feelings behind like the mask.
Rayanne: That's her, big time.
Angela: But… I'm the daughter.
Amber: Yeah, but so is she.
Angela: See, my mom was adopted, so she has like these abandonment issues...
She returns with a set of tarot cards and a book on how to read them, while her mother desperately tries to get her to help with a party for her own parents that she doesn’t even want to throw. 
Patty isn’t happy when she finds out that Angela told Amber about the adoption, especially since Amber is the kind of person (oh, how I know those kind of people!) who assumes that being adopted must be such a traumatic event in someone’s life that every little issue eventually leads back to it (“I think it's so great that you're throwing a party. I definitely think it will help you work through it.”) 

But of course – and it’s telling that this mostly happens in the background and is overshadowed by Angela’s issues with Patty and Patty’s issues with her own mother, the episode is about Rayanne. Rayanne, who has just found a stash of money in her father’s birthday card to her (a father who abandoned his family) and is unable to deal with it – she tries to get rid of the money, and, in the course of the episode, spins more and more out of control. She decides to throw a party (mostly in order to finally get rid of the money). This manoeuvres Angela into the eternal good-girl conundrum: not having been a difficult child before, she feels obliged to attend her grandparents’ anniversary party, but having recently found a soulmaty friend, she feels more obliged to attend Rayanne’s. 
Beyond the surface, the entire conflict is also about being forced into a role neither of them wants to play. Patty has always hated to be forced into the role of the responsible parent (just that it used to be Graham, not somebody else’s mum, who put her in that place), Angela watches her mother going through the motion for an audience, hiding her true feelings (“Sometimes I think that if my mom weren't so good at pretending to be happy, she'd be better at actually being happy.”), and feels genuinely sorry for her (but also angry and frustrated, she is, after all, still a teenager). 
Patty: What about family? What about doing what's right?
Angela: Doing what's right? We're having a party for someone who isn't here. I'm missing Rayanne's party because...
Vivian: Who's Rayanne?
Angela: My best friend.
Vivian: You're missing your best friend's party?
Patty: Rayanne is not your best friend!
Angela: Mom, she is so my best friend. I'm sorry you hate her.
Patty: Oh, well I apologize deeply that our house can not measure up to the joy of being at Amber's where your friend Rickie can guzzle beer and that that Amber woman reads your tea leaves.
Angela: Oh, just stop it! Rickie doesn't even drink.
Angela: Just stop being so hypocritical! You hated her on sight just admit it.
Patty: All right, I admit it. I don't like her. I don't think that she's the right friend for you.
The end of the episode gives a very good reason for why Patty is so opposed to Angela and Rayanne being friends; without context, her opposition does seem pity (the way Angela perceives it). 
The episode is structured perfectly; while Angela tries to navigate through the party at her house, to deal with her mother and her grandmother, Rickie desperately tries to keep an eye on Rayanne (now both drunk and on E) at her own party. Angela arrives just in time to witness the meltdown: Amber comes home, and suddenly turns from the cool “the grass is always green on the other side – just have a party – I’m fine with everything” mum into the person who leaves her overdosed and clearly upset daughter back in the apartment to clean up so she can go on a date. Angela realizes that she has only seen one side of the coin: Patty might sometimes be over-controlling and not as lenient with parties and boys and alcohol, but Patty is there when she needs her. When Rickie and she realize that Rayanne is in severe danger, Angela calls her mother, and Patty doesn’t even hesitate before heading out to help, and she knows exactly how to deal with the situation (she calls an ambulance, asks what and how much Rayanne took, makes sure to give the remaining drugs to the medics, and takes her daughter to the hospital so she can be with her friend). 
My favourite moment is the little realization both Rickie and Patty have about each other when Angela is gone for a minute: Rickie realizes that Patty is the reliable parent figure that is completely missing from his own and Rayanne’s life, and Patty realizes that Rickie is a great friend trying to deal with a situation that is too much for one person. 
Rickie: Has there ever been someone, like, did you ever try to protect someone so much that it, like, hurt?
Patty: That wasn't your beer the other day, was it?
Finally, Patty and Angela are alone in the car in front of the house that contains the party neither of them really want to go to, and Angela realizes that there is a reason why her mother knew exactly what to do: she lost a good friend to a drug overdose in college. This is why Rayanne scares her. 
Patty: What do I do? Do I just not let you see her anymore? I mean would that even work?
Angela: No. Mom, I can't... she's my friend. Please just trust me.
Patty: Actually I do.
This is such a beautiful moment. Patty admits that her daughter is responsible and reliable. Angela realizes that her mother is more than just the person that is currently making her life more difficult. 
Angela goes inside, Patty stays in the car to cry. 

Random notes: 

Rayanne’s slow escalation is executed so beautifully in previous episodes – I remember watching the show for the first time and not really registering how often she just randomly takes a sip from a bottle, and how often she is borderline drunk – but once I saw Other People’s Mothers, it all fell into place. This is probably also a good time to mention how great an actress A.J. Langer is. 

Danielle, being all brilliant again when disclaiming, frustrated, “My life is totally edited!!” when Patty sends her out of the room to have a serious talk with Angela. 

Rayanne tries to sell her theory that refrigerators and what’s in them tells you everything about a family (Angela’s has labelled stuff): “Do you think it's possible to please that woman? Do you think she'd actually give anyone a break? I mean, have you seen her vegetable bin? I rest my case.”

When Rayanne decides to throw an epic party:

Rickie: Like Tino's party?
Rayanne: Only endless! Like infinity. Where so much is going on at every second that there's no possibility for your mind to wander and you become this prisoner of like happiness.

GRAHAM GETS EMOTIONAL OVER FOOD, DEAL WITH IT! (Also, yes, clearly Patty does have a superpower which allows her to detect an open fridge from an unholy distance)


Contributing the soundtrack to Rayanne’s 1994 equivalent of accidentally sending out a facebook party invite to everybody is the classic(ly named) band Toad the Wet Sprocket. The song was good, but there can’t possibly be another band with a more early 1990s name. 

In an awesomely subltle and symbolic move, Angela makes pretty happy colourful streamers for Rayanne’s party, and incredibly boring and dull ones for her grandparents’.

Angela: You know, the karma in this house is like ridiculous.
Patty: Really?
Angela: Yeah. It's really low... or dark... whatever it is that happens to karma. 

Danielle is slowly becoming the ultimate scene stealer of this show: 

Danielle: I hate this outfit. I wish I was dead.
Vivian: No, you don't.
Danielle: How do you know whether I wish I was dead or not? Are you me? Am I allowed to have a feeling in this house or is that just Angela?

This one should actually go into a new category named “for later use”, because I’ve been in situations where it would have been handy: “There's people in the bathroom... I don't think they're from Pennsylvania.”

Jordan Catalano did not attend the party of the century. He was probably hanging out with Tino or something. Brian is naturally not invited. Sharon’s hair looked weird, so I guess she decided to stay at home too. 

There is a Tarot-centred monologue at the end of the episode that I sort of… didn’t like? The scene in the car would have been a perfect way to wrap up. Ultimately, the point is probably that Angela isn’t a reliable narrator voice, and her voice-overs are sometimes just as pathos-laden as teenagers just are, but I really think the episode would have been better off without the “We move from terror and loss to unexpected good fortune. And out of darkness, hope is born”. Maybe I’d felt differently if I’d seen the episode eight or nine years ago.

So… Chris’ season one episode of Skins, in which his mum abandons him and he mostly keeps himself from realizing it by spending all his money on this one endless party… was maybe inspired by this? (I am of course assuming that every single writer of a show about teenagers watched MSCL first, as they should)

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