Wednesday 5 September 2012

Popular – Buckle up ladies, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Popular: 2x09 Are You There God, It's Me, Ann-Margret

Man, this episode. This took a while for me to write because I’d completely forgotten about it – not the thing that happens at the end of the episode, I remembered that quite clearly, but Harrison’s encounter with god, the way he struggles with trying to comprehend what is happening to him and what the reasons could be. I’m not sure if it’s harder for someone who believes in god because it’s more difficult to understand why a kind and loving god would allow kids to die of cancer, or for someone who doesn’t believe in god and doesn’t have anything to appeal to in an absurd and random universe. Then there’s the narrative question of what the show is actually doing by allowing god to appear, by giving Harrison no reason to doubt the existence of god because she’s right there in front of him, yet elusive because she answers questions with more questions. Is it important if Harrison is hallucinating (he’s not, since it’s a shared hallucination with Brooke), or if the show is making a statement about the universe it is set in? I struggled with the same thing in My So-Called Life. It didn’t really seem as striking in the Christmas episode, because that was playful (serious, but still very much in keeping with the general tone of Popular).
God: The second that you came into this hospital you buried all your hope and all your faith. You thought I was trying to punish you.
Harrison: Are you?
God: I’ve gotta run. I’ve got folks to visit and… I’m only here on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Maybe the more important question is what it accomplishes in the show. It changes Harrison. There will never be an answer for why he’s the one who has to deal with this and for why Clarence won’t ever make it out of the hospital, but it does provide a sense of closure, both in reminding Harrison of the effect Clarence had on him, the way he found meaning in his life by affecting those of others (and I think that’s ultimately something Harrison always doubts or isn’t quite conscious of, the effect he has on the other people in his life, positive or negative), and in the final scene, when the three of them are skating in the tunnel. Harrison celebrates life. Brooke gathers her courage. Maybe that’s not the point the episode really makes and this is just my interpretation, but I like the idea that one way of dealing with the loss of someone you loved isn’t necessarily understanding the loss but figuring out how to preserve their memory in a meaningful way. 
The two main storylines of this episode have something in common. They connect characters that either had nothing much in common before or were openly hostile to each other. Brooke and Harrison weren’t really friends before this, but now they share an experience that none of their friends will ever understand. The beautiful thing about the episode is how much they cling to each other, and how much it actually helps both of them that they aren’t alone in this. Nicole and Carmen are more complicated, and I’ll get to them in a bit. 
First, a little excursion into the third storyline that wasn’t really the comic relief this time (I wonder how conscious the choice was to make the tone of the episode more serious – it’s kind of sad that they didn’t find a way to incorporate Mary Cherry though). The theatre class is producing Peter Shaffer’s Equus (which I haven’t seen, but I would love to hear how it ties in with the religious themes of Harrison’s storyline in the episode – from the description, the play’s version of religious belief is very different from Clarence’s), and Josh auditions for the main part. He gets the role, and so does Lily, even though she didn’t even want to be part of it. They start freaking out when they realize that they will have to appear naked in front of each other. When things get out of hand, Sam, who also happens to play the psychiatrist in the play, intervenes, and makes it clear to them that their fears are unnecessary. 
Sam: You’re nothing but hair, skin, bones, packaging… packaging for your souls. And you guys are among the fortunate few. You’ve already seen into each other’s soul. That’s the moment you really got naked, and that’s what you fell in love with. Everything else is fleeting, means nothing.
I like this moment a lot, because it provides such a stark contrast to most of the relationships in the previous season, and showcases how much these characters have grown in such a short time. All the superficial struggles with popularity, the question of what you have to do and who you have to date to remain popular, seem forgotten. It also fits in with both of the other storylines – Brooke and Harrison, through their shared experience, are sort of looking into each other’s soul as well, or at least are gaining a more intimate insight into each other than they’d otherwise have if they’d remained in their respective social circles, and even Carmen and Nicole have that, to a certain extent, because even though Nicole insists throughout the episode to make a clear distinction between her personas, she also admits that Carmen now has a privileged perspective on her life that neither Brooke nor Mary Cherry have. In the end, Josh and Lily get naked, but the others do their very own less literal stripping down as well (everyone, except Sam).
Carmen finds the courage to go to a meeting for relatives of alcoholics, and just as she is about to tell the full story of how a certain someone used the knowledge of her mother’s drinking problem to torture her, Nicole Julian comes in and it’s clear that she’s been with the group for a while. She doesn’t even miss a stride, and that’s brilliant characterization, because it plays into the idea that Nicole is faking her problems because she wants to date Brad; but when we finally realize that none of it was fake, that Nicole’s mother is an alcoholic, it serves to show how consciously Nicole compartmentalizes and builds her public persona, how severely she manages her feelings. At first, when Carmen believes Nicole, it brings out all the kindness that Carmen has – she borrows her money that she will never get back – and of course Nicole uses this weakness, this is who she is, she figures out how people work. I’ve never been a fan of the “bullies who target gay people are secretly gay themselves” trope, and generalizing the motivations behind bullying is pointless, but I think in this case it’s pretty clear that Nicole is at her fiercest when she detects weaknesses that she fears in herself. It fits that the turning point arrives when Carmen starts to fight back. She demands the money back that Nicole borrowed and when Nicole laughs in her face, she takes her clothes as collateral and does the very thing that Nicole has done before: she tells her she should be afraid of her, “considering how much I know about your family”. Nicole again barely misses a beat before she leaves the Novak only in her bra (and she is just as terrifying and loses none of her power, because it really does come down to projecting confidence), but this in combination with a very public display of Carmen standing up against her mother also gains Carmen Nicole’s respect. 
Carmen: You are not gonna hit me ever again. You have to own your problem because I cannot take it on, so either you go to a group of next time I’m not coming home.
Sam and Lily don’t witness the exchange, Carmen’s mum coming to school drunk, blaming her daughter for going to a meeting and making her drinking into a public matter (which is ironic, considering that all of this takes place in a public hallway) – but Nicole does, and she understands. I think in the end when Carmen realizes that Nicole lied when she told her that she only came to the meetings for Brad, she understands too. This doesn’t really fit in with a simplified idea of high school as a place segregated clearly by social status, that a bully like Nicole Julian would learn something from Carmen Ferrara, and that Carmen Ferrara, in turn, would gain strength to employing some of the tools that Nicole has wielded against her? Sometimes a shared experience brings comfort, and sometimes it brings something way more complicated that isn’t quite so easy to comprehend.

Random notes: 

Harrison says that all he knows from religion he learned from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is perfect because Harrison is the most peanut-y character the show has, I think. He is Charlie Brown, right? 

I usually just mention one specific actor when something stands out to me but in this episode, it was really everybody who delivered a stunning performance. 

Sometimes I’m actually sad that I quit watching Glee because some aspects of the storylines seem to hint at what Popular might have been had it been allowed to continue. If someone wants to draw comparisons between the characters in the comments, I would not mind at all. 
Lily: Who will I be playing?
Harrison: A psychotic teenager.
Lily: Seriously, and I have to audition?
I like them a lot. Makes me sad that Officer Josh is such a gross character over in Rosewood. 
Nicole: One of the reasons why I joined this group was the guarantee of anonymity and if you know me from outside the group then I think you are supposed to forget it. […] What happens in this basement does not translate to here. That’s why it’s called anonymous.
Nicole says IT’S BLOOD UNDER THE BRIDGE, which is like, the most perfect Nicole thing ever. The whole episode is playing on the viewers’ ability to consider Nicole’s truthfulness and authenticity, and I kind of really, really love how they give her this background without taking away any of her brutality and fierceness. She owns every single moment. 

“You like to bury things in strange places.”

There’s this moment in Harrison’s second conversation with god when he shifts from asking about himself, about why HE got sick, to Clarence, that really gets me. 
God: Harrison, you’re alive. At this tiny moment in this vast span of eternity, you had the incomparable privilege to exits. Don’t waste it.
Harrison: This is not about me. I’m asking about a friend.
Dammit Jerry, screwing up all of Carmen’s Brad fantasies.

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