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3.12. Episode Twelve: "Self-Esteem"
Original Air Date: November 18, 1994
"She's not just a fantasy. She's got like, flaws. She's real" -- Brian
Angela is troubled by Jordan's insistence that they keep their boiler room make-out sessions secret; Rickie meets Mr. Katimski; Graham meets Hallie Lowenthal.
Without question, "Self-Esteem" is a favorite episode. We get to see Angela and Jordan make out; we get to hear that great Buffalo Tom song -- twice; we get to commiserate with Angela as her heart breaks and we get to cheer as Jordan takes her hand. But as we follow Angela's travails, we must not overlook the deeper crisis in self esteem, that inner assurance that one is a person of value and worth in the world, which nearly every character in this episode faces to some degree.
ANGELA AND JORDAN
Trysts in the boiler room have become part of the relationship between Angela and Jordan and have done wonders for Angela's temperament. Clearly, Angela feels good about herself, but when Rickie declares Angela and Jordan a couple, the savvy Rayanne is less sanguine:
Angela may be as naive as Rickie about the matter.
"We barely talked," she tells us, "so when we did, it came out sounding really meaningful."
But in relationships, what is not said is as significant as what is said. Thus, the snippets of boiler room conversation that "sound" really meaningful but are truly meaningless confirm Rayanne's suspicion that there is less to the relationship than Angela would like to believe.
Digression: Chinese Food.
Why the Chinese food? If Rayanne's and Rickie's lunch is merely business to enliven an otherwise static, "talking heads" scene, they could be eating any conventional school lunch food, such as sandwiches, apples, oranges and so forth. However, Chinese food is unusual and bears mentioning, and thus provides a transition from their discussion of Mr. Katimski to Angela and Jordan.
But what about the broader role of Chinese food in MSCL? Only Patty, Rayanne, Rickie and Hallie eat it. Patty eats it by herself, Rayanne and Rickie share, Hallie offers some to Graham, who refuses. Clearly, Chinese food does not function well as a separate metaphor for relationships or matters sexual, nor does it fit neatly with other fast foods in the larger food metaphor. We must conclude, therefore, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, "sometimes an egg roll is just an egg roll." End of Digression.
Angela suddenly realizes the state of her love affair when Jordan asks her to keep their meetings secret. She tries so hard to comply that she changes her sweater from the boiler room to the top of the stairs, (if you have a better theory, let's hear it), and arrives at the stairwell door in time to hear Jordan deny her to his friend Shane. At almost the same time, Angela begins to realize her trouble with geometry as the mid-term exam nears. Angela enjoys her private relationship with Jordan -- the "kissing--" but the relationship conflicts with the "not kissing" demands of the world outside the boiler room, like geometry. In addition, it is clear that Jordan does not want to publicize the relationship, which Angela can only believe is due to some inadequacy in her.
Angela's predicament becomes the topic of discussion between Rayanne and Sharon. These conversations are beginning to take the same form as those between Angela and Brian, where a ritual sniping is followed by a substantive, person to person discussion. The fact that Rayanne and Sharon are adopting a conversation pattern similar to Angela's and Brian's reveals that although they are publicly adversaries, they are closer to being friends than either is ready to admit. Both express their concern for Angela.
There is also a thematic significance to their discussion. Rayanne and Sharon are MSCL's "bad" girl and "good" girl, and thematically function as those facets of Angela's personality. By agreeing that Angela is in a situation where she could get hurt, we are being told that Angela herself truly understands that her relationship with Jordan is unhealthy as it stands. When Rayanne and Sharon confront Angela about Jordan's treatment of her, she denies the problem. But Rayanne and Sharon pull no punches, spelling out the problem tag-team style:
"Wait, you're comparing me making out with Jordan Catalano to you getting your stomach pumped?"
"You don't see the connection?" Rayanne asks.
"The connection is self-respect!" Sharon says.
"Thank you!" Rayanne says, and she and Sharon slap a high five.
"You deserve so much better," Sharon says to Angela.
But Angela denies the problem still:
"If he doesn't want to be seen with me, then why did he ask me to meet him Friday night? To hear Buffalo Tom?"
This, as we know, is a bare-faced lie. At Pike Street, Angela reaps what she has sown. Confronted with the consequences of her lie to Rayanne and Sharon, she makes excuses for not approaching Jordan as we hear Buffalo Tom's "Late At Night" lyrics:
"I'd do it if I could, I hope you understand."
But Sharon and Rayanne urge her to go to him. Angela does so, and is not well received:
"Uh, you're kind of crowding me."
Jordan's remark crushes Angela, as much so as his failure to appear at the Chase house in "Why Jordan Can't Read."
At school, Angela agrees to meet Jordan in the boiler room, much to her self-loathing. Jordan arrives and without ceremony they begin to kiss. But somewhere, amid the ominous ticking of the "60 Minutes" clock, an anxiety-induced harangue by Brian and the near certainty of failing the geometry mid-term, Angela has resolved not to let the relationship continue under Jordan's terms.
"Why are you like this?" she exclaims, turning Jordan's own words against him.
However, just as Jordan's use of the expression indicates a degree of caring, so does Angela's use of the expression.
"Like what?" Jordan asks.
"Like how you are!"
Jordan cannot seem to comprehend the reasons for Angela's anger, but he responds in kind:
Angela starts to leave, then stops.
"Admit it first."
"That all of this happened. That you have emotions. That you can't like, treat me one way in front of your friends and the next minute leave me some note. And by the way, I spell my name with one 'L.'"
Angela has stated her case clearly enough, but her last remark is a cheap shot, as Jordan's reading problem was revealed to her in confidence. The cheap shot, however, is a significant indicator of Angela's sense of self-worth. She now understands that the relationship she has with Jordan is not the idyllic one of the boiler room, but the realistic one where Jordan does not know how to spell her name correctly; in other words, where Jordan has not grasped even an elementary notion of who Angela is. Angela is no longer willing to continue the relationship on those terms. If the relationship is to continue, Jordan must come to Angela. She leaves the boiler room and Jordan with her dignity, morally in the right. Once again, Angela feels good about herself. But self esteem can be a two way street. When Jordan suddenly asks Angela to keep their boiler rooms trysts secret, it is natural to adopt Angela's point of view -- MSCL is about her "so-called" life. But from an objective viewpoint, it should be clear that Jordan has his own dilemma. After all, he must enjoy the boiler room trysts as much as Angela, but he avoids telling Shane who he is with and refuses to acknowledge Angela in the hallway. And, if Jordan appears too callous, we must keep in mind that he gets no indication that Angela is not content to maintain the relationship in secret -- until Pike Street, where Shane spots Angela, Rayanne and Sharon first:
"There's Rayanne Graf and that weird girl she always hangs out with."
Shane's statement provides some insight as to why Jordan might be reluctant to publicize his relationship with Angela. He probably fears, and rightly so, that Angela would not be completely accepted by his friends -- Jordan's friends may be telling him he deserves better. Thus, Jordan's relationship with Angela is as much a matter of self esteem to him as it is to her. Like Angela, Jordan must reconcile the fact that the relationship which privately makes him feel good must be carried on in a public world.
So when Angela comes to Jordan in the public arena of Pike Street, he pushes her away. It is not clear whether he realizes at that moment how much he has hurt Angela, but he probably doesn't, as he later can offer Angela no reason for writing her the note asking her to meet him in the boiler room.
Rayanne and Sharon have witnessed Jordan's rebuff, and as Sharon goes after Angela, Rayanne goes after Jordan:
"You know you like her. Would it kill you to admit it? Maybe treat her halfway decent? Because you know, she deserves it, and she's not going to wait around forever."
Shane then offers his read on the issue:
"Man, they're like, weird."
With Shane to his right, and Angela and Rayanne having walked away to his left, Jordan is caught in the middle, as we again hear the lyrics:
"I'd do it if I could, I hope you know I would."
The connection between lyrics and plot are particularly compelling, as Jordan expresses himself most easily through music. Thus, those lyrics at that moment tell us what Jordan is thinking. It is not until after the argument with Angela, however, that Jordan finally articulates his feelings. In English class and wide awake, it is likely that Angela's cheap shot still rings in Jordan's ears as Mr. Katimski reads Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. Mr. Katimski's questions are answered, characteristically, by Brian:
"What kind of girl is Shakespeare describing? Is she the most beautiful girl?" Mr. Katimski asks the class.
"No," Brian responds.
"Is she a goddess? Physically perfect? The kind of girl who stops traffic when she walks down the street?"
"So he's not in love with her?"
"Yeah. He is," Jordan enjoins, scarcely believing he is speaking up in class.
But Jordan's statement, we know, is not merely about the hypothetical speaker in the Sonnet. He is recognizing his own feelings for Angela.
"And why is that? Why is he in love with her? What is it? What is it about her?"
Jordan opens his mouth, but it is Brian who speaks:
"She's not just a fantasy. She's got like, flaws. She's real."
This, then, is the essence of MSCL, the realization that Angela Chase, and girls like her, are not mere abstractions, but real people who inhabit the earth and have a place in it. People who have feelings and whose presence can give us joy. The concept of Brian speaking for Jordan foreshadows an important future development, and it is doubly ominous that it is as clear that Brian is thinking of Angela as when Jordan spoke. Having spoken, it is now incumbent upon Jordan to act. In the school hallway, with Angela, Rayanne, Rickie, Brian and even Shane looking on, Jordan walks down the hallway towards Angela; he has resolved to continue the relationship on Angela's terms.
"Can we -- go somewhere?" Jordan asks, in full view and within earshot of Angela's friends.
"Sure," she replies.
As they walk down the hallway in full view, he takes Angela's hand and she smiles.
RICKIE AND MR. KATIMSKI
While Angela struggles with Jordan and geometry, Rickie struggles with Richard Katimski, the new English teacher who calls on "Enrique Vasquez," generating hoots and catcalls. As Rickie stands to recite, he responds with his best "foreigner" shtick:
"Si, mi nome e Enrique, and I want to leeve een Amereeka."
The shtick does not go unnoticed by Mr. Katimski. Rickie evidently considers his full name uncool, at least partly because of its ethnicity, and therefore feels the need to separate himself from the name by mocking it. On a deeper level, the use of "Enrique" tears down Rickie's carefully-constructed facade and reveals his true self, a boy who is struggling to accept a sexuality that the rest of the world considers "abnormal." It is therefore quite meaningful when we later learn that Mr. Katimski, the person most insistent upon cracking open that facade, may also be gay. We can only speculate as to whether Mr. Katimski "senses" Rickie's sexual orientation. However, Mr. Katimski does understand that Rickie is trying to find himself and reconcile the things that give him inner satisfaction with the possibility that those things might not be publicly accepted. It is a search that Mr. Katimski himself has undertaken, as we see by his reaction to Rickie's "Katimski" impression. Rather than taking offense, Mr. Katimski concentrates on Rickie's dramatic potential and tries to persuade him to join the drama club. Thus, we see that Mr. Katimski is a kindred spirit of sorts, and it becomes appropriate for him to call Rickie "Enrique," as a constant reminder of who Rickie really is, and reassurance that "Enrique" is a person of worth:
"Boy... imagine having a name like Enrique and not using it. Gee whiz."
In the afternoon, Rickie and Brian share their woes, Rickie complaining about Mr. Katimski and Brian complaining about Angela just expecting him to help her with geometry. Finally, Rickie asks if Brian he is not going to help Angela.
"Well, I might stop by, just for a study break," Brian replies.
Of course, the louder Brian complains, the more we know he will try to help Angela. But his statement also reflects Rickie's attitude about drama club. Finally, Mr. Katimski reaches Rickie:
"What is holding you back here? That I'm not cool enough? Don't let the fact that your English teacher is a dork prevent you from fulfilling your potential.... Nobody should... hate who they are."
As Mr. Katimski walks away, Rickie considers what Mr. Katimski has said, and to assess the impact his words and the depth of the relationship which has just begun, it is necessary only to compare what he has just said to what Patty told Angela in "The Zit:"
"All I want for you is to enjoy what you really are."
Finally, Rickie puts his name on the drama club sign-up sheet: "Enrique Vasquez."
GRAHAM AND HALLIE LOWENTHAL AND, OH YEAH, PATTY
Early in the episode, Graham bones up for the cooking class, concerned that he may not know enough to keep up. The issue is one of self-esteem for Graham. From certain facts that have been revealed throughout the episodes, we may presume that Graham was never a scholastic star and that his cooking knowledge is self-taught. His ability to cook has been virtually a defining trait, but only once seen outside the Chase home, (the lemon-hazelnut torte in "Strangers in the House"), and he must now see whether his know-how will cut the mustard with a professional chef. The subplot is executed in a sequence of scenes where Graham's abilities are affirmed in the cooking class by the "loud obnoxious redhead" Hallie Lowenthal, and doubtfully scrutinized at home by Patty.
But if Patty's questioning of Graham seems particularly bitchy, consider its cause. On the evening of Graham's first cooking class, Chuck stops by. As is his wont every time he comes to the Chase house, he finds some flaw in the building. This time, it is a creaking floorboard, and his attention to it announces the parent-child dynamics between Chuck and Patty which were explored in "Father Figures." As the floorboard creaks under Chuck's weight, Patty becomes a child who must, above all, find approval from the parent. Patty defends Graham's cooking class to Chuck; Graham's attendance was, after all, engineered by her and her defense is now a justification of her own actions to her father. Chuck scoffs and directs Patty to "stop wasting time" with sauce classes and hire a head hunter.
"This is between me and Graham, okay? You don't know all the particulars."
"I'm your father, that's the particular. And you deserve better."
This is the first use of the "you deserve better" phrase, which will be echoed by Sharon, Rayanne and Hallie. Each time, the phrase will be used in a supporting tone. However, Chuck's use of the phrase implicitly criticizes Graham. In parental tones he directs Patty to take a more traditional path. As if to drive home his edict, the floorboard creaks again as Chuck walks out. Accordingly, Patty's doubts about Graham become a reprise of issues introduced in "Father Figures." Chuck's criticism, while well-meaning, fills Patty with self-doubt: Has she overestimated Graham's abilities and pushed him into a situation he cannot handle? Her third degree of Graham, then, is actually a search for some evidence to justify the actions she seemed so sure of in "The Life of Brian."
After Graham tells Patty about classes where the instructor, Stefan Dieter, is a no-show and/or drunk, Patty concludes that she has committed Graham to a terrible experience:
"I'm sorry, I've learned my lesson. Quit the wretched class, I promise I'll never suggest taking another class again as long as either of us live."
To the contrary:
"They want me to teach the class."
It is a statement which announces the public acceptance of Graham's non-public identity. It also announces the success of Patty's venture. She may now look her father in the eye. The cooking class is a triumph for Patty and Graham.
Two subplots support the theme of self esteem, Ms. Lerner's abortive flirtation with Mr. Katimski and Abyssinia's geometry grades. The brief exchanges with the teachers serve three functions. First, they humanize the teachers, which have previously been portrayed as teachers only. This is important to the role that Mr. Katimski will play in Rickie's life. Second, Mr. Katimski's aloofness towards Ms. Lerner provides a subtle hint to his character which will become apparent in a later episode. Finally, Ms. Lerner's flop with Mr. Katimski shows that self-esteem is an ongoing issue in life.
In the second subplot, we meet Abyssinia, who lies about her good grades to spare her boyfriend's feelings. Abyssinia's plight is similar to Angela's, as both have chosen to continue relationship on terms beneficial to the boyfriend but not to themselves. Later, in the Girls' bathroom, Abyssinia is an answer to Angela's prayers, but in a sense, Angela is an answer to Abyssinia's prayers. Abyssinia debates skipping the midterm, an exam she is bound to do well on, but with Angela genuinely needing help, they get down to studying together. Angela gains a firmer understanding of geometry, which adds to her self-confidence, and Abyssinia gains some pride in her achievement.
Each of the principal characters in this episode meet some crisis in self-esteem which requires some risk to be resolved. Angela resolves her crisis by standing up to Jordan and telling him he can't treat her in one way privately and in a different way publicly. She realizes both that in speaking up, she may lose what she has worked for with Jordan, but that without speaking up, she has no hope of taking the relationship further. Jordan's crisis lies in the need to resolve awakening feelings for Angela with the risk of not being accepted by his peers. Ultimately, he allows his private feelings for Angela be made public. It is a decision based on honesty and an honest regard for Angela.
Rickie and Graham face their respective crises with assistance from someone who enters their lives and believes in them. For Rickie, it is another step in his "odyssey." Graham risks his established, private, identity in a public setting and discovers that he far surpasses his own expectations. Graham's experience serves as an apt moral for the episode.
Copyright 1997 William E. Blais.
All Rights Reserved.