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3.11. Episode Eleven: "The Life of Brian"
Original Air Date: November 11, 1994
"Brian, we're not talking about wallpaper here, are we?" -- Graham
Sharon urges Brian to ask newcomer Delia Fisher to the "World Happiness" dance, but his feelings for Angela complicate the matter. Graham wallpapers the master bedroom while Patty prods him to take a cooking class.
Now would be a good time to read "The Different Voice of MSCL."
Why an episode narrated by Brian, at mid-season? To the extent that the characters who surround Angela represent aspects of her, a narrator other than Angela suggests her growing awareness of the world around her, perhaps the most important theme in "The Life of Brian." But wouldn't other characters provide greater insight to Angela than Brian? Why Brian? The answer lies in the fact that Brian, more so than any other character, defines the world Angela lives in: A world dominated by white, heterosexual professional men. By seeing Brian's perspective, we are shown the "mainstream" framework upon which, and around which, the "different voice" characters must build their lives.
But an irony is revealed visually as the episode begins. The camera pans slowly across Brian's bedroom, stopping at Brian himself, seated at his window, looking through his camera at the world outside, and specifically, Angela. (Throughout the episodes, being on the inside looking out is a leitmotif in camera perspective -- perhaps the most notable is at the beginning of "Halloween," where we see Angela from the inside of the jack-o-lantern.) Brian's pose invokes Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, whom Dreiser leaves at her window, materially successful but spiritually unfulfilled. The similarity is likely intentional, given the craft of Bedford Falls and Brian's circumstances. He sits in a room filled with things he ignores in his longing for Angela. The heir apparent to the mainstream is an "insider" looking out at the world of a "different voice." By definition, the dialogue between the "mainstream" and the "different voice" is not among equals. The "different voice" lacks the clout to obtain its goals directly and must achieve them indirectly, sometimes through intricate steps. The "dance" which those of a "different voice" must employ to achieve their goals is often difficult for those of the "mainstream" to follow. Here, the viewer should remain aware of this symbolic representation as he or she watches Brian's travails. There is, of course, a story line reason for Brian to narrate, which fits closely with the symbolic representation. The episode deals with Brian's obsession with Angela from the other side, and his difficulty in communicating with others. All symbolism aside, and at the risk of being redundant, Brian is an adolescent boy who has trouble talking to girls.
BRIAN AND DELIA -- DOOMED FROM THE START
When Sharon introduces Delia to Brian, he reacts as though Delia is speaking a foreign language. This is both the "mainstream" not comprehending the "different voice" as well as Brian's awkwardness with girls. He does not "get" Delia's interest in him. He does, however, understand Sharon's direct,"she likes you! Ask her to the dance!" The pleasant exchange was in fact a gambit to put Brian and Delia together. "Let's just say it was very clearly implied," Sharon tells him. But Brian does not understand implication. He does not understand the different voice. Back in his own world, his bedroom, and with his aquarium prominent in the background, Brian offers a fishing analogy for his new predicament:
"What's always amazed me, is fisherman. How they wait there forever and when something finally tugs on their line, they like, don't panic."
The analogy is imperfect. In Brian's first meeting with Delia, she took the lead, as she will when Brian comes to her at Big Guy Burger and in the science lab. In his new relationship with Delia, Brian is not the fisherman, but the fish. For confirmation of this, we need look no further than Delia's last name.
But the reason for Brian's panic is clear: He loves Angela. The subsequent scenes with Delia reveal an important truth about Brian. While they are alone at Big Guy Burger, he finds the experience happy and satisfying. In the science lab, it becomes clear that any feelings he has for a girl will be secondary to his unrequited feelings for Angela. Brian's hypothetical conflict becomes real when Delia backs him into taking her to the dance. Brian knows he should ask, and tries to do so, with the precision of an attorney making a final argument to a jury. Delia cuts to the (pardon the expression) chase:
"Brian, are you asking me to the dance?"
Brian concedes the point as Angela appears and asks to talk to him about an "emergency." Angela asks Brian if she can tag along with them to the dance:
"I just need a technical way to get there."
Brian does not see it that way:
"And as she continued to basically babble, it started to sink in that something truly amazing was happening...."
"When you stripped away all the blathering, Angela Chase was asking to go to the dance with me."
What escapes Brian is that Angela is babbling and blathering no less so than he was when he was trying to ask Delia to the dance. Brian also overlooks the fact that Angela was asking only for a "technical" way to get the dance.
Brian backs out of his date with Delia, explaining that he has "another commitment." His conviction is much stronger than when he asked Delia to the dance; he has a visibly easier time getting the words out, despite the hurt he is obviously inflicting on her. Delia tells Brian he should go to the dance with the person he wants to go with.
"So I guess I would--"
"Rather go -- with her."
Before we condemn Brian, consider that he has remained true to himself. He loves Angela and has realized from the beginning that his feelings for Angela would cloud any relationship with Delia. Brian has merely disappointed Delia sooner rather than later. On dance night, Brian arrives to pick up Angela and regales the Chases with a transparent lie concerning Delia's absence. Note that Danielle's eyes never leave Brian. At the dance, Angela spots Delia standing near the punch bowl with Rickie. Delia's blue sweater and Rickie's blue jacket match. Angela asks Brian what he said to her. Brian is silent.
"You don't understand people, Krackow. You're so heartless."
With this statement, Angela gets up and walks away. Angela is only partially right. If Brian does not understand people, it is because they speak in "a different voice." But Brian is not heartless; his heart merely belongs completely to Angela. In any event, there is a particular irony that, as Angela walks away from Brian, she forgets him as soon as she spots Jordan.
"I mean the fact that she called me heartless. That's just really good, that's excellent. How ironic can you get without like, puking?"
In the background, we hear the lyrics "release me," as though it is a prayer by Brian to be released from his attachment to Angela. But with Angela following Jordan, Brian is free to wander. He tries to apologize to Delia, but his is ignored. He tries to enter into the conversation when Sharon and Kyle arrive, but he is ignored.
Brian, by his own doing, now appears to be the outsider. But in a different sense, he is not. He is the "mainstream" voice who, by his own doing, has not listened to the "different voice" and cannot now enjoy what the world of the "different voice" has to offer. Just as Brian sat in his room watching Angela, he is now the "insider," looking out at a world he cannot have.
ANGELA AND JORDAN -- FOR REAL
No episode exploring Brian's feelings for Angela would be complete without exploring Angela's feelings for Jordan Catalano. Angela would like very much to go to the dance with Jordan, but Rayanne tells her that Jordan does not attend school dances "as, like, policy." Thus, when Angela finds Jordan in the parking lot, she attempts a gambit to back Jordan into asking her to the dance which is similar, at least in form, to Delia's treatment of Brian. Relying on Rayanne's statement, Angela scoffs at the "World Happiness" theme and downplays her desire to attend. Jordan's responses and body language show that he knows perfectly well what Angela is trying to do. But the fish aren't biting. He explains his philosophy to Angela:
"[M]y feeling is like, whatever happens, happens."
"I have to say, I really respect that," Angela replies.
Abruptly, Jordan gets into his car. Angela suddenly realizes that she has no right to claim his company and attempts to save face with an impromptu excuse for not getting into the car with him. If Jordan seems callous, it is likely because he has yet to admit to himself his feelings for Angela.
Jordan does, however, appear at the dance (did he come hoping to see Angela?) with his friends. Angela makes eye contact with Jordan, who appears to have neither bathed, shaved nor changed clothes for the event, and she has eyes only for him. (Guys, take note.) However, he stays with his equally scurvy cronies.
Angela goes outside where she finds Rickie and consoles him. As Angela and Rickie embrace, Jordan and his friends walk out. Jordan sees Angela holding Rickie, although the camera shows it only very subtly, as part of a larger shot of Jordan and his friends walking out the door. Jordan pauses. Rickie and Angela know he is waiting for her, but Angela waits for Rickie's approval before leaving his side. Angela approaches Jordan and he takes control of the moment:
"Why are you like this?"
"Like what?" Angela asks, so full of anticipation that she speaks with constricted breath.
"Like how you are."
Without waiting for an a response, Jordan walks away. Angela can only call after him:
"How am I?"
Here we should recognize that Jordan is part of the "mainstream," (although his place in mainstream will be very different from Brian's), and his remarks are at least in part a recognition of the "different voice" and his inability to completely understand it. However, the closeness of the moment, the emotional intensity, the words which feel full of emotion while being almost empty of specific content, mark the beginning of an important phase of their relationship. In the moments between making eye contact inside the dance and seeing Angela consoling a friend outside the dance, Angela has begun to matter to Jordan.
RICKIE BEGINS HIS "ODYSSEY"
As Angela and Rayanne talk about the "World Happiness Dance," Rickie takes his usual role in the background, intermittently offering a comment or observation. Enter Cory Helfrich. As Cory enters, the camera dissects him. First we see a leg, an arm, finally, his face. It is a camera treatment traditionally reserved for women, gliding up the long legs of a glamorous woman before reaching her face. The use of the camera technique on a male reminds us of the "different voice" which is the perspective of Angela's world. We are then prepared for the more important purpose of the camera work, to represent Rickie's reaction to Cory. Rickie is smitten with Cory, and like Brian when confronted with Delia, can't find words to answer Cory's casual, offhand "cool vest" remark. (We should also note that Cory's hand-painted sneakers match Rickie's vest; it is the first of several uses of matching costumes to help us keep things straight as the characters go through their machinations to get to the dance with the right person.) This is the first definite sign of Rickie's sexual preference, and Rayanne notices instantly. Rayanne later confronts Rickie about his feelings for Cory. Rickie admits his feelings, and is both embarrassed and terrified that Rayanne should articulate his desires and try to help him secure a date with Cory because she proposes to make public his most inner, private feelings. More importantly, Rickie's infatuation with Cory presents the first time that Rickie has had to deal with sexual feelings in a concrete way, and he is not ready to fully accept either their existence or the fact that he is drawn to another boy. However, we must not allow the homosexual overtones to become a red herring. Aside from the object of Rickie's affections, Rickie's feelings are those of a normal adolescent boy experiencing his first crush; indeed, that may be the very point. Rayanne's scheme to get Rickie and the Cory to the dance together fails when Rickie realizes that Cory is more interested in Rayanne's absence than in him. To add to Rickie's devastation, Brian tells him to stay away when he seeks the solace of friends. Angela finds him outside.
"So Rayanne never called Cory."
"Would you like me to kill her?"
"It's a really nice offer. But the truth is, it would only solve half the problem."
"What's the other half?"
"The other half's like, you know, the tough half."
"Just... you know... that I belong nowhere, with nobody. That I don't... fit."
Rickie regains himself on the dance floor with Delia, but his happiness is only transitory. Rickie has had his first real look at the person he is, and realizes that the "tough half" of finding where he belongs, and with whom, awaits him.
PATTY AND GRAHAM -- THE POLITICS OF THE BEDROOM
If the wallpaper has significance to Brian, it also symbolizes the changes that are about to begin in Patty and Graham's relationship. (Significantly, the wallpaper is already in the basement waiting to be used; it is something which Patty and Graham have planned for.) Thus, it is fitting that the wallpaper is used to give their bedroom a radical facelift, and that the significant exchanges between Patty and Graham take place in the bedroom as Graham is hanging the wallpaper. From the time Patty fired Graham, he has made no plans, small or large, for the future. Patty has a legitimate right to be concerned. As Patty stands in the very basement she once denied having, she tries to convince herself that having new wallpaper will be "really great." The tone of her voice betrays doubt, less in Graham's ability to hang wallpaper than in his ability or willingness to set goals for the future.
Patty takes the initiative, bringing home registration materials for cooking classes at the local college.
"Well, this is some kind of adult ed workshop. What I talked about was going full time to a culinary institute, which we can't--"
"Which we can't afford, but that we can afford, so why are you closing your mind? Will you at least think about it?"
Patty tries her best to mask a confrontational tone, which is not lost on Graham. Thus, the compromise is struck by Patty offering an affordable alternative to Graham's unaffordable dream, and Graham agreeing to consider the alternative although it is not precisely what he had in mind. However, the next wallpaper scene reveals that if Graham has given the cooking classes any thought at all, it is to disregard them. Patty presses the point, but Brian's presence prevents the "conversation" from becoming a full-scale fight.
"Graham, I just have to say, I thought you planned to do this."
"Well, at this point, the way things are now, it doesn't feel right to make plans. I'd rather let what happens, happen."
As a result of Graham's decision not to act, Patty herself enrolls Graham, which makes him angry:
"I know that -- sometimes its hard for you to--"
This is not a criticism merely about air bubbles or seams, and Patty has delivered it as gently as possible. Graham crumples the registration letter and starts to walk away. Patty follows.
"Graham, look, I -- I just thought -- I mean, I know you like to cook--"
"It's not that I like to cook, it -- it's this thing I can just do. The one thing I can do."
"Well, that's just the point, sweetheart--"
Graham's statements are not his feelings, but a reflection of what he believes Patty's perception to be: Graham should take the cooking classes not because he likes to cook, but because cooking is all he can do. Patty's response confirms his belief. They are interrupted by Brian's arrival to take Angela to the dance, and after the younger pair leave for the dance, sans Delia, Patty and Graham resume their argument in the bedroom.
"Wow! I guess we found another thing you can do!"
"You're welcome," Graham says.
They sit on the bed and have a good laugh over Angela and Brian going to the dance together.
"Did you see the look on her face when he told that other girl wasn't going? They are going to have such a terrible time."
Patty is correct, of course, and she and Graham can laugh about it because they have the adults' perspective. They know that the experience will ultimately do more good than harm. Patty then apologizes and offers to cancel Graham's registration.
"Don't do that," Graham says. "I sort of have to see if Stefan Dieter can still stiffen his egg whites. I mean, since I'm already signed up. I mean, thank you -- for signing me up."
Thus, the tension is relieved in Patty's realization that she was heavy-handed in forcing the issue and in Graham's realization that Patty made the right choice and that he needed for her to make it. Graham's future is not fully resolved, but here Patty and Graham have taken the first step towards resolution -- together.
THE MEANING OF "WORLD HAPPINESS"
"The Life of Brian" begins a broad fundamental change in MSCL. Where the preceding episodes have generally developed the characters and their relationships, subsequent episodes will examine the characters and relationships in the context of the world they live in. Angela will confront the "pressure" to do what is expected when it conflicts with being one's own person; Rayanne will battle her addictions; Rickie will search to find his place in the world; Patty and Graham will redefine their marriage. Accordingly, it is important to have an essential understanding of the world in which the characters live, their place in that world, and the strategies they must employ to be successful.
Angela and her friends are destined to be second-class citizens in their world. They perforce speak with a "different voice" which requires them to learn a "dance" of action and language which enables them to achieve their goals and dreams. "World Happiness," then, is the dance where goals and dreams are met.
Copyright 1997 William E. Blais.
All Rights Reserved.