- My So-Called Life (Pi... - #1 »
- Dancing in the Dark - #2 »
- Guns and Gossip - #3 »
- Father Figures - #4 »
- The Zit - #5 »
- The Substitute - #6 »
- Why Jordan Can't Read - #7 »
- Strangers in the Hous... - #8 »
- Halloween - #9 »
- Other People's Daught... - #10 »
- Life of Brian - #11 »
- Self-Esteem - #12 »
- Pressure - #13 »
- On the Wagon - #14 »
- So-Called Angels - #15 »
- Resolutions - #16 »
- Betrayal - #17 »
- Weekend - #18 »
- In Dreams Begin Respo... - #19 »
3.2. Episode Two: "Dancing in the Dark"
Original Air Date: September 1, 1994
"It shows your ears more" -- Graham
"They were more like, introductory kisses" -- Angela
As Angela's crush on Jordan Catalano enters the obsession phase, Rayanne engineers a rendezvous between them -- at Brian Krackow's house. Patty cuts her hair and suggests ballroom dancing. Neither rendezvous nor dance lesson go as anticipated.
The episode begins in science class with a film about stars and astronomy. Angela, seated in the back row, is paying no attention; she is recounting the three times she has been kissed, the memories playing as vignettes as Angela fades in and out of daydream. As Angela returns to reality, we see the reminiscence has aroused her, as the double entendre of the science film narration confirms:
"... Pressure. The inner core of the star now implodes violently, producing an explosion of unparalleled intensity..."
We know what's on Angela's mind, but the setting is more than just filler -- it will give us clues to character, thoughts, and plot. We have been brought to science class to share Angela's memories because for her, matters romantic and sexual thus far have been little more than hypothesis and questions, and she is about to engage in her first experiment in love. Note also that the film narration clearly but distinctly uses the word "pressure," subtly foreshadowing where Angela's thoughts and trials will take her. While Angela's "experiment" teaches her a lesson, so too will this episode teach the viewer about the structure of MSCL.
The Noble Experiment
The natural catalyst for Angela's experiment is Rayanne, who has grown weary of Angela's obsession for Jordan:
"You have got to progress to the next phase of this. I mean think of Rickie and me. How much more can we take?"
Angela is reluctant:
"I just don't want to look like I'm throwing myself at him."
Rayanne, however, has her own theories:
"Excuse me; people throwing themselves at people, is like, the basis of civilization."
We return to science class, where the students prepare to dissect pig hearts. The scene advances the plot through Brian's extra credit experiment and at the same time reinforces the connection between plot and the theme of experimentation in a subtle and humorous way:
"Okay," Ms. Chavatal says, "before we cut our hearts open...."
The scene has added significance, however. This is just the second episode of MSCL, and we are still learning not only about the characters and their relationships, but also about the structure of MSCL. The scene's primary purpose is to advance the plot, but it does so with two important revelations of character. The obvious revelation is Brian's attention to Angela. The less obvious revelation lies in the relationship between Brian and Sharon. "She uses you, and you totally let her," Sharon tells Brian. At this point, Angela and Sharon are estranged, and we can read Sharon's criticism of Brian as a criticism of Angela; Sharon does not believe Angela is deserving of Brian's solicitude. But Sharon appears totally comfortable in speaking to Brian in this manner. Later in the episode, we will learn that Angela spent hours in Brian's house as a child, so logic suggests that if Angela and Sharon were friends, Sharon is probably on very familiar terms with Brian as well. This scene confirms the fact. It also sets the tone for their relationship: Brian and Sharon stand on the "childhood" side of Angela, both trying to fit into Angela's emerging "adulthood." The technique of plot advancement through character revelation will be used throughout MSCL. The characters are not mere passive players reacting to random events. They are human beings whose full character will be revealed only in the course of time, as they act and interact. The events of MSCL occur because of what the characters say and do. By making plot a function of character interaction, both MSCL and its characters surpass most of the rest of television programming.
Sandwiched between the science lab scenes, the other piece of the plot is put into place. As a means of putting Angela and Jordan together, Rayanne asks Jordan to procure a fake I.D. for Angela. When Jordan asks why Angela doesn't ask for the I.D. herself, Rayanne tells a ridiculous lie: Angela is French. Jordan doesn't completely believe Rayanne, but agrees to get the I.D. As with the previous scene, Rayanne and Angela's conversation advances the plot but reveals important aspects to the characters. As sophisticated as Rayanne seems, she cannot finesse a plausible lie when put on the spot. Jordan is neither stupid nor credulous. We will later see how he struggles in school, but whatever problems he has, he is, as Hallie Lowenthal will later observe, not unintelligent.
The two plot elements come together when Brian confronts Angela about her participation in his extra credit science project. Rayanne seizes the opportunity as a means to put Angela and Jordan together in a setting away from parents, teachers, or other potential interference. Just as the science film narration in the opening scene is double entendre, so is the amusing interplay between Rayanne and Brian:
"He wants you to work on his apparatus."
"What would your parents say?"
"My parents are out of town, which is -- which has nothing to do --"
The double entendre further links the theme of experimentation to Angela's sexual and romantic desires.
Together, the opening scenes introduce a tacit relationship triangle with Sharon, Brian, and Rayanne, where Sharon and Rayanne are Brian's respective "conversation" and "sex." This triangular relationship echoes Angela's triangular relationship with Brian and Jordan, where Jordan is "sex" and Brian is "conversation."
With motive, means, and opportunity established in the principal plot, we move to Patty and Graham's dilemma. If everything having to do with love, sex and romance is new to Angela, it has become old to Patty and Graham.
Leaving for work, Patty and Graham debate the need for a kiss when they will be seeing each other in less than an hour-- not enough time to "start anything," Graham notes, citing an obscure (but, sadly, fictitious) Pennsylvania law that a kiss must result in intercourse. Patty thinks they are having a fight; Graham thinks they are saying goodbye. A mouthful of corn flakes notwithstanding, Patty gets her kiss, but her expression suggests something was lacking. Later in the day, Patty explains the problem to Camille Cherski. Patty feels that because she and Graham work together, they are beginning to take one another too much for granted. She wants the relationship to change, to become romantic once more. Patty is also contemplating cutting her hair; as with Angela, Patty's thoughts about her hair reflect the deeper, inner need for change she is feeling. Camille suggests-
"Ballroom dancing?" Graham says incredulously.
Both of Patty's ideas, haircut and dance lessons, are answered with derision, a subtle counterpoint to her sarcastic response to Angela's Crimson Glow:
"We'll always be able to spot you -- in a crowd."
Graham agrees to the dance lessons, however, after comparing his marriage to Neal's troubled relationship with Marla. Graham's acquiescence, besides advancing the plot, reveals what may be the most critical aspect of the relationship between Patty and Graham: They agree on the important issues, and are willing to compromise to make the relationship work. Patty appears at the dancing lesson with a new haircut. Graham is nonplused:
"It, uh, shows your ears more."
It is not the right thing to say, and they are equally out of step on the dance floor. While Patty and Graham struggle on the dance floor, Jordan Catalano arrives at Brian Krackow's house, and Angela is suddenly reluctant to meet him:
"It's an obsession, and if you make it real, it's not the same ... it's not, it's not yours anymore. I dunno, maybe I'd rather have the fantasy ... than even him."
Rayanne dispenses more of her personal philosophy:
"I totally and completely disagree. You want Jordan Catalano in actuality because... there is no because! You just want him! Only you're programmed to never admit it!"
The parallel between the dance lesson and Angela's meeting with Jordan are emphasized by scene shifts where the camera pans through the wall from dance hall to the Krackow residence. At the dance lesson, the instructor recommends that Patty and Graham try dancing with others. Patty doesn't want to dance with others. Graham thinks it might help.
"He won't admit it, but he's dying to dance with other people."
"Hey, this was your idea! I didn't want to dance with anybody!"
From hints in the pilot episode, we know that Patty at least senses that Graham is straying. The discussion about dancing echoes that suspicion, and as we know that they are at the lesson to try to strengthen their relationship, their exchange, veiled in talk about the dance, becomes a complex pun: Patty and Graham are "dancing around" the real issue. The dance instructor tries to help, and as she advises Patty and Graham to proceed with confidence and make the steps their own, we watch Angela walk out Brian's door and approach Jordan Catalano's car, where he is waiting. Thus, the dancing -- "the steps, the rhythm that must be learned" -- becomes a metaphor for the steps the adolescent must take to make a successful connection with the object of her affections.
The Dance of Adolescence
The scene that follows is a seminal moment in MSCL. Angela's voice over expresses the optimism she feels, as her life "just figured out how to get good." Jordan looks at her for a moment, then leans towards her slowly. It is a tease. He leans past her and takes the fake I.D. out of the glove box. Angela looks at it and begins to ask a question. Jordan interrupts her and kisses her clumsily. Angela pushes him away.
"I'm sorry. I -- I was talking."
Angela again tries to ask her question again. Jordan again tries to kiss her, this time more forcefully.
"Quit it!" she yells. "I mean you have to work up to that! I don't open that wide at the dentist!"
"How old are you?" He asks.
"I don't believe this... What is your point?... Fifteen."
"You act younger."
"First of all, you don't know me well enough to say how old I seem, and second -- You talk a lot."
"I've said like eight sentences to you in my entire life."
"This day has been one long... thing that makes no sense." They stop talking.
Angela's voice over tells us how comfortable she feels sitting in silence with him:
"It was the perfect moment for him to kiss me, for him to anything me."
Jordan leans towards Angela again. It is another tease. He lets her out of the car and leaves her standing on the curb.
"I could have killed him," Angela says in voice over.
The scene in Jordan's car has been one long thing that has made no sense to Angela. Angela and Jordan operate in painfully different rhythms, out of synch with each other's thoughts and desires. Later, Brian picks up Angela's fake I.D. from the sidewalk and at that moment, Jordan pulls up in his car.
"That's Angela's," Jordan says.
"Isn't it supposed to prove she's 21?" Brian asks.
"Well, according to this, she was born yesterday."
The brief dialogue shows that Brian, whom Angela had described as "clueless," is fairly perceptive. He is the first person to spot the error on the I.D. (although that could have been the question Angela was about to ask when Jordan first kissed her). The word choice also serves as a commentary on how Angela has been experiencing the world. Before leaving, Jordan asks if Angela is really French. The question may be another double entendre, referring to Angela's abortive kissing style, but more so, it indicates that Jordan and Angela did not communicate so well, and Angela's efforts to connect with Jordan will need more work. Unfortunately, as we will see, Angela will not understand this until much later.
Lousy Dancers Make Good Bedfellows
At home, Patty is disturbed and angry that she and Graham have been together for so long and are only now discovering that they can't dance together. Graham seems more upset by Patty than by the situation. In frustration, Patty inadvertently breaks a Cinderella figurine that her father gave her when she was a child. It is a symbol of Patty's past, now in pieces on the floor. Patty kneels and tries to pick up the pieces. She suddenly realizes that the relationship she took for granted no longer can be. But if Patty feels alone as she kneels, looking at the broken pieces of her past, she is not alone for long. Graham takes Patty in his arms.
"Dance with me," he whispers.
"But we don't know how," Patty sobs.
"We know how," Graham answers (and how).
Angela returns home with her new I.D., disappointed by her meeting with Jordan. Graham finds her in the kitchen, but Angela doesn't want to talk.
"Do you want me to warm up that spaghetti?" Graham asks.
He understands that Angela is troubled, and in an unobtrusive way, he is trying to help. Graham's offer also puts into operation the metaphor of food as the source of love and support. Throughout MSCL, the food metaphor will function through Graham. As MSCL unfolds, Patty and Graham will consistently provide love and support for the kids, though in starkly different ways. The offering of food, and the guidance of spirit, is Graham's way.
"I have to say, when my father warms something up, it tastes better than when anyone else does,"Angela says in voice over.
Angela and Graham sit together at the dining room table, and it is clear that he understands the darker purpose of Angela's visit to Brian. He offers advice about relationships:
"It s okay to like somebody, but I mean, boys your age can sometimes --"
"Dad, I know...can sometimes what?
"Can sometimes not know how to be what you want them to be. My point is that, it's really hard to figure out how to be a man. Practically every man I know is still working on it."
MSCL fans on the Internet have debated whether Graham is truly a good father, but exchange with Angela clinches it. Graham's statement shows a deeper understanding than anyone else has for the essential problem complicating Angela's relationships with both Jordan and Brian, and he explains it to Angela more clearly than anyone else ever will. At this point, Patty enters.
"So that's what we're doing, we're eating."
In this way Patty announces herself, but it is also a reference to the eating metaphor which shows that she understands the import of the exchange at the table between Graham and Angela. Angela reacts to her mother's haircut with surprise.
"Really shows my ears more, huh?"
Graham sends Patty and Angela upstairs to bed, promising to clean up the dishes. But Graham has an ulterior motive.
Angela has forgotten her I.D. in the kitchen, and as she tiptoes downstairs to get it, she overhears Graham cutting off his incipient relationship with the unnamed woman. Significantly, although we see Graham from Angela's perspective, there is no voice over by Angela; Angela cannot comment on things beyond her ken. Graham sees Angela but does not try to explain. He leaves her alone in the kitchen to contemplate the I.D. that shows she was born yesterday. One final note: At the point where plot and subplot await execution, as Angela prepares for her rendezvous and Patty and Graham wait for their dancing lesson to begin, we are again taken to the high school science lab long enough for Ms. Chavatal to remind us that an experiment is successful if it yields meaningful results. The scene is out of sequence, but it points to the thematic context of plot and subplot: Angela's rendezvous for a fake I.D. and Patty's dance lessons are experiments.
Angela wants to move beyond the hypothetical and develop a relationship with Jordan. The unknown element of such a step makes her hesitate, but the impulsive Rayanne provides the catalyst, setting events in motion. Patty feels her most important relationship is becoming stale, and is looking for something new to make the relationship fresh. Neither experiment yields the expected result. Patty and Graham cannot dance with one another, Angela and Jordan have not connected in their adolescent dance. However, both "experiments" have yielded meaningful results. If Patty and Graham cannot dance the formal steps, they are clearly compatible partners who understand and love each other. If Angela and Jordan have not connected, Angela has begun to understand Jordan in a way that will help her reach him -- eventually.
Copyright 1997 William E. Blais.
All Rights Reserved.