Sunday, 25 December 2011

My So-Called Life - That would be a different story, wouldn't it?

My So-Called Life: 1x15 So-Called Angels. 

I am conflicted about this episode. MSCL has pulled off the random magical realism before, when Angela ventured into the past at Halloween, but the magical aspect of this episode – played by Juliana Hatfield (of non-evil I Kissed A Girl fame) – lives off the idea that Christmas really is the only time that you can pull something like this off (because MSCL isn’t Popular – or Glee, and I take it more seriously as a show because it can’t just use every single trick in the book to make the audience gasp). I am also not sure what purpose it serves, since the central story of the episode is compelling and tragic and horrifying on its own. So-Called Angels is a re-telling of the nativity story, and the person going from door to door, asking to be let in, is a gay boy who is abused at home. Nobody cares enough or realizes the gravity of the situation to offer him shelter, so he ends up in the modern equivalent of a stable (a building not part of the home, with insufficient infrastructure to provide for human inhabitants), an unused warehouse that is occupied by countless other homeless teens. 

The Scrooge of the story – even though this is probably a simplification – is Patty. Patty, from the very beginning so emerged in the politics of Christmas (her entry into the episode is complaining that she received a card from a friend she has already dismissed, and now has to respond to it – “Patty, it's a greeting card, not a dead fish”), trying to get a reluctant Graham to go to Church with her, pondering if it would be appropriate to invite poor Brian Krakow who’s parents have deserted him (“Oh, Brian's a level-headed kid. He probably likes having the place to himself”, reasons Graham, also “didn't Hannukah already happen, or something?”). But when Rickie turns up at their door, beaten up and starved but too proud to really ask for what he needs, she argues that it isn’t there place to have him stay over if his parents are expecting him. There is this horrible thing at the bottom of this that is never explicitly mentioned in the episode but implied because Brian is treated so differently from Rickie by Patty: it’s not just that Brian has always been the kid from the neighbourhood, that Brian has this weird place in their family as a kind of replacement son for Graham – Patty has always been deeply uncomfortable with the fact that Rickie is bisexual. 
Patty: Were we wrong? Down there about Rickie?
Graham: No, we weren't wrong.
Patty: I mean, what do we really know about that boy, you know?
Graham: Virtually nothing.
Patty: We've never met his family, I mean, how on earth are we supposed to know what the situation is?
Graham: I know, honey. Except I think he does make you kind of uncomfortable.
Patty: What do you mean? Because he wears makeup?
Graham: No, I'm just saying… what if that was Brian Krakow with that bruise on his face? That would be a different story, wouldn't it?
Patty: Graham, you can't compare them. I mean I've known Brian Krakow since he was five years old.
Graham: I know. So have I. Now all I'm asking is - should that make a difference?
Patty: Well, maybe not. But it does.
Graham: I know.
I believe that one of the greater lies that is told about Christmas is that there is some kind of general meaning that applies to everyone. Christmas (as a tradition) is different for everybody who celebrates it: it depends on the childhood memories, on the family, on the varying rituals. For some it’s the one time of the year where the family comes together without fighting all the time, for others, it’s the opposite. Some celebrate with their extended family, others only with their parents and siblings. Some hate it, some love it, some are indifferent to it. There is no such thing as the “one” meaning of Christmas, because Christmas is an individual experience (shared between those who celebrate together) – and dominated by so many contradictory ideas (excessive shopping vs. introspection, peace and quiet, spending time with your loved ones vs. being so exhausted and frustrated and stressed that you would rather crawl into a hole and sleep until spring). But I think that there is an idea, or an ideal, about Christmas that is often alluded to but only rarely executed, and that is being generous and giving and remembering those who are less fortunate. As a realist, I sort of grudgingly know deep down that all the charity drives in part serve the purpose of soothing guilt and stuff, but if that’s the only way to make people help, so be it. Patty… Patty admits that her treatment of Rickie is unfair. It shouldn’t make a difference. He’s a kid, he is clearly desperate, he clearly needs help, even if giving that help would mean crossing comfort zones or those bloody lines that we draw about everything – when do you decide that something concerns you, that you can’t just be the passive onlooker? What makes the difference between just feeling this detached concern that generally comes with watching disconcerting news stories about tragic things happening to people, far away, and deciding that something concerns you personally and requires some kind of intervention? So what the episode does is put Patty into the position of emphasizing with Rickie. She goes to the police station and sees the pictures of the homeless teens. She is confronted by the idea that Angela could be that kid, first in theory, then in practice when Angela does disappear. She is guided by that mysterious girl on her journey, that girl who will probably work on her song for eternity, the girl who froze to death. 
The other side of the story is Rickie’s. He doesn’t want to depend on the kindness of strangers, even though he is the kindest person himself. He is reluctant to ask for help from those who are reluctant to offer it.  
Patty and Graham realize how serious the situation is when they overhear a conversation between Angela and Brian – she explains to him that Brian is beaten up at home, that he is now living at a warehouse and – what seems to be the most shocking thing for her to realize – that “they’re like us, […] like you forget that there’s any difference between you”. Even then, Patty’s first thought isn’t that Rickie may be in danger, but that Angela might have been just visiting there. They go to the police station to “do something” – and suddenly, this personal story becomes one about a systemic, political issue: all those pictures of missing kids on the wall, and there is nothing being done. 
Patty: What exactly will happen?
Police: Depends on the circumstances. Is this kid a runaway or a throwaway?
Graham: A throwaway?
Police: See, a runaway leaves home of his own volition. A throwaway, a push out… is pushed out.
Patty: Oh, my God.
Police: Look. First off, every effort is made to restore…
Graham: Patty, we should go.
Police: Thanks for being good citizens. You got a daughter, you said?
Patty: Yes.
Police: You keep her close, okay?
Patty: Okay.
Police: Merry Christmas.
A throwaway. I think ultimately Angela’s argument that this might as well be her is flawed (it is exactly the kind of thing she WOULD say, though) – but the argument leads to a fight, “one of those fights where it seems like the fight is having you” – exactly the thing that the girl claims drove her from home later on. This idea that it only “takes a toss of the dice” for Angela to be in the same situation… I think what bothers me most about this argument and how it is used in the episode is that it takes THIS to make Patty realize she needs to help Rickie, that she needs to think of Rickie’s situation as something that could happen to her own daughter, when she should actually just help him because he is a kid and he is in desperate need of help and in an absolutely horrible situation that nobody should ever be in. She should help Rickie because she CAN help him, without much effort even. And it bothers me... because it's entirely realistic and believable. 
Not that I don’t appreciate the cathartic moment at the end, when they all do end up in church, even though in a very different manner than Patty originally wanted, and Rickie becomes part of their family, at least for a moment

Random notes: 

You can read more about the issue of LGBT youth homelessness here

Danielle: Do we have to keep talking about religion? It's Christmas.

I really liked the whole background story of Graham not really willing to admit that he isn’t religious anymore (and the hints that his Catholic upbringing may have something to do with it). 

In terms of gut-wrenching moments, this was early into the episode: 

Rayanne: Rickie has this like tendency to get beat up, and he doesn't always love talking about it.

This moment… because Rayanne talks about this like she takes it for granted. She knows exactly what is happening to Rickie – he gets beat up by the people that are meant to take care of him, not for defying them but for being himself – and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Later, when Angela is worried about Rickie because he didn’t show up in school, Rayanne tells her that she “can't like be responsible for the whole world.” In a way, all these small things that Rayanne does and says in this episode throw a shadow over her character for the next episodes. She is supposed to care about Rickie – at least – as much as Angela does. They’ve been friends forever. Rickie is more concerned about her than about anyone else in his life. And yet, Rayanne never grasps the gravity of the situation or understands that things have gotten so bad that she can’t just pass it off as something that “just happens” to Rickie (which is a horrible thought anyway, this complacency). 

Completely unrelated to the serious tone of the episode, this continues what I can’t help but call “the great romance” between Sharon Cherski and Rayanne Graff. I would ship the hell out of them if MSCL hadn’t ended 16 years ago. 

Rayanne: I don't know, just - making depressed people talk to someone like you. Couldn't that like push them over the edge?
Sharon: Over the edge. That's like your address, right?

I like this entire subplot: Brian dropping out of the helpline thing with Sharon, subtly displaying all the symptoms of depression that she describes (“like total hopelessness and despair and like, loss of appetite”) without her realizing it, and Rayanne accidentally ending up at the helpline, eventually saving Brian from his Christmas funk with the prank sex-line call (it’s the only way Rayanne knows to help, but it’s effective! – “think of it this way, Steve. You still feel like crying?”). 

Sharon: I mean, how do I get myself into these situations?
Rayanne: Wild guess. Stupidity?
Sharon: No, no, you're right. because I do it over and over again. I am so overextended. I mean, besides the help line, I have this whole holiday basket thing I said I'd make for this nursing home, plus I have like two million presents to wrap, not to mention the fifty thousand social events I said I'd go to, and… I have to say, you're a pretty good listener.
Rayanne: Well, I should be. Spent my whole life listening to my mom rag about her problems, of which she has, like many. Now to top it all off she's got a low-life sex maniac boyfriend like staying with us. You know it's gotten to the point, I just can't handle it. I may just as well go be somewhere else for Christmas. Like they'd notice. 
Sharon: I know where you could be on Christmas.

Patty: You will not believe what Bernice and Bob Krakow did.
Graham: Oh, I know, but just that once, right? To make Brian?

Jordan reveals that he has an abusive father but he stopped beating him after Jordan threw a chair at him. I also like the unlikeliness of Jordan being the one person who helps Rickie and empathizes with him. 

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