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3.14. Episode Fourteen: "On the Wagon"
Original Air Date: December 8, 1994
"Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?" -- Rayanne
Rayanne's thirty-three days of sobriety are put to the test as she tries to reconnect with Angela by joining Jordan's band.
A.J. Langer called this episode "the nightmare on Sesame Street," and it is a fitting epithet because it employs a time-honored horror movie convention, the false ending. The crisis is over, all the plot lines and conflicts have been resolved and it looks like the heroes have saved both the day and their skins. The monster appears vanquished. We all breathe a sigh of relief and relax. Then out pops the monster.
But Rayanne's "monster" is not some nameless horror or malevolent thing from the crypt. Rather, it is a force within Rayanne herself that leads her, quite against her will, along a self-destructive path. It is a monster born of a father who is not there and a mother who is not a mother. It is a monster that haunts Rayanne's desire to be a secure child and become a self-sufficient adult. It is a monster that Rayanne must face alone, as others in her life are merely onlookers, powerless to help or ignorant of her need for help. "On the Wagon" is truly a latter-day horror story because Rayanne's "monster" is one that many teenagers must face, or to which they are vulnerable. To fully understand Rayanne, it is necessary to understand the forces in her life that are working against her. The episode reveals them carefully in the opening scene. We learn that thirty-three days have passed since Rayanne's overdose, and we are told that this is a "very dangerous time" for her.
Then, aptly enough, the food metaphor is invoked, as Ms. Kryzanowski (played by Winnie Holzman) provides a clinical term to explain why Rayanne eats all the time: Oral fixation. The Freudian term neatly labels the symptom, but the scene conspicuously lacks the sense that any real progress has been made to understand what underlies Rayanne's "oral fixation;" Rayanne's suggestion that her mother was lying about having breast-fed her lampoons serious analysis. And when Ms. Kryzanowski takes the "lolly" that Rayanne offers, we know that the doctor is as sick as the patient.
Digression: Ms. Kryzanowski
Ms. Kryzanowski's flakiness should not be viewed in any way as a reflection on Winnie Holzman. To the contrary, Winnie has ably and consistently portrayed Ms. Kryzanowski as a well-meaning but only marginally effective counselor. Our first glimpse of Ms. Kryzanowksi comes in a futile effort to take a radio away from Jordan Catalano. We later see her trying to take charge of the English class that Miss Mayhew and others have abandoned. Not only does Ms. Kryzanowski not know the situation with the teacher, her response is a cliche, a sentence-diagraming exercise. Finally, we see Ms. Kryzanowski trying to find a place for Rickie. She identifies Pride House, but acknowledges a six-week wait. In response to Rickie's immediate need for a place to stay, she can only place him in a "facility." Thus, Ms. Kryzanowski's inability to identify the real source of Rayanne's problems, let alone reach them, is but one more instance of Ms. Kryzanowski's ineffectiveness. End of Digression.
We then learn that in the time between Rayanne's overdose and the present, Angela has been generally absent from Rayanne's life (a fact confirmed by the relatively small role Rayanne has played in the episodes between "Other People's Daughters" and "On the Wagon"). Rayanne rejects the suggestion that she might not be able to rely on Angela for moral support, but as we later see, the suggestion is accurate. Thus, the opening scene sets out the danger to Rayanne, and the clear fact that she must face her "monster" alone. The first person to fail Rayanne is Angela. In contrast to earlier episodes where Angela, Rayanne, and Rickie seemed naturally to congregate at Angela's house, here Angela invites Rayanne more from a sense of guilt than from the desire to be with her. Angela does not mean to fail Rayanne, but she is preoccupied with Jordan and does not seem to appreciate Rayanne's problem or her need for Angela. In one sense, Rayanne's attempt to draw Angela's attention from Jordan symbolizes her overall struggle to regain her life from her alcohol dependence. After all, Angela's relationship with Jordan is a "monster" Rayanne created by pushing Angela towards Jordan in earlier episodes. (Maybe this explains why Jordan walks around like a zombie so much of the time.) This symbolism is confirmed visually, as the scene with Rayanne and Ms. Kryzanowski is split -- at the very moment Ms. Kryzanowski tells Rayanne,
"this is kind of a dangerous time--"
...by a shot of Angela and Jordan in the hallway. In any event, Angela cannot meet Rayanne after school, cannot ask Jordan to let Rayanne try to sing for Jordan's band, (whatever its name is), and cannot even show up to hear Rayanne sing with the band. Unfortunately, just as Angela was the "only person" Sharon wanted to deal with when her father had a heart attack, she is now the only person Rayanne truly wants to deal with. Rayanne is also deserted by Amber, although in certain respects, Amber has long since failed Rayanne. The Rayanne who sits on the couch at home somberly watching "Sesame Street" is a different person than the one we have seen before. Here, Rayanne has dropped her "public" face, and we see that she is not the self-possessed sophisticate she pretends to be, but a 15-year-old girl who still needs some of the security of childhood. To obtain that state of security, Rayanne immerses herself in "Sesame Street." She cannot, however, immerse herself deeply enough to shut out a blender of Margarita, the din of which overwhelms the television and Rayanne's attention. We see a further example of Amber's inability to care for Rayanne, as Amber is surprised that Rayanne is hungry. When Rayanne tries to tell Amber about her meeting with her drug counselor, Amber doesn't know what counselor Rayanne is talking about. When Rayanne tries to explain, Amber ignores her.
"My drug counselor, Ms. Kryzanowski. Remember, I told you--"
"Okay, let's see what we got here -- egg rolls, mini-quiche, and, oh! Pierogis!"
"I'm sick of appetizers. I want a real meal, with all four food groups. And just for once can it not be such an amazing surprise that I want to eat dinner like every other American on the planet?"
Rayanne's complaint indicates that this is not the first time her hunger has caught Amber by surprise.
Knowing what we know of the food metaphor, this colloquy speaks volumes about Rayanne's home life. The Margarita belongs to Amber, and while on one level Amber's drinking in front of Rayanne indicates an insensitivity to Rayanne's drinking problem, on a deeper level, the blender drowning out "Sesame Street" signifies Amber's inability to provide what Rayanne needs most: A stable, secure home. That concept is reinforced by Amber's inability to predict one of Rayanne's most basic needs. And when prompted, Amber responds by offering frozen appetizers -- things that require no knowledge of cooking, little preparation, and in the end provide only part of a meal.
We get another telling piece of the relationship between Amber and Rayanne when Rayanne starts to tell what is bothering her. (Angela invited her over and never showed.) Amber assumes that the fault lies with Rayanne. Rayanne's plaintive tone of voice as she talks about Angela makes clear that what she really needs is some maternal sympathy:
"I didn't do anything. She's just with Jordan Catalano all the time."
Instead, she gets some half-baked (see, I can use the food metaphor thing, too) advice:
"Well then, you be with him too. You hang out with her while she's with Jordan. You know Jordan's friends. I mean, become part of it, Rayney. That's not hard, everyone loves you. Aah! Look what I forgot we had, leftover Chinese."
Amber then talks Rayanne out of being hungry by feeding her a shrimp from a leftover carton of Chinese take-out.
Later, as Rayanne stands in front of the mirror getting ready for her performance with Jordan's band, Amber excitedly joins in. Amber is so excited, in fact, that she fails to read in Rayanne's face, tone of voice, and mannerisms that she is terribly apprehensive. As Amber and Rayanne hug at the end of the scene, we have the strong impression that Rayanne could use more mothering than moral support. However, Amber is too immersed in the idea of Rayanne singing (and recalling her own glorious past when she served a BLT to Bob Dylan) to notice Rayanne. Even after Patty tells Amber she believes that Rayanne has been drinking, Amber is most upset by the insinuation that she is not the mother she ought to be.
"I'm a good mother. A damned good mother. So you can get right off your high horse."
We know better. Finally, towards the end of the episode we get one last glimpse of the relationship between Amber and Rayanne through the food metaphor, when Amber tells Patty that after Rayanne failed with the band:
"We took the phone off the hook and ate raw chocolate chip cookie dough."
Although raw chocolate chip cookie dough has a certain status as comfort food, we must not forget that, again, it is prepared food that requires no knowledge of cooking, and in this context, no preparation. We must not forget that the program's other provider of comfort food has offered up warmed-up homemade spaghetti and lemon-hazelnut torte. We must not, however, mistake Amber's failure to provide for Rayanne for a lack of love. Clearly, she loves Rayanne. The problem lies in Amber's character, which, as we saw in "Other People's Daughters," is essentially that of a child, unable to function as an adult responsible for meeting the needs of others (specifically, Rayanne). This is perhaps Rayanne's greatest problem: She is being raised by a playmate and not a mother.
Rickie and Patty also figure significantly in Rayanne's "nightmare," and are juxtaposed in much the same way that they were in "Other People's Daughters." In that episode, as Rickie and Patty sat in the hospital waiting room, Rickie asked Patty, "Have you ever wanted to protect someone so much it like, hurt?" Here, Rickie again wants to support and protect Rayanne, but, as in "Other People's Daughters," he again becomes a tearful bystander. Rickie wants desperately to protect Rayanne, but cannot because Rayanne's dependence on alcohol is driven from within and not from without. Rickie cannot protect Rayanne from herself. Moreover, Rickie lacks the maturity to be the kind of protector he would like to be. Patty, on the other hand, possesses not only the maturity and the practical sense to be concerned about Rayanne, but the resolve to help. In a scene which neatly juxtaposes the expression on Amber's face with the sound of a teapot coming to a boil, Patty explains herself:
"I know that this is completely inappropriate, okay. I... I know it's not my place to tell you how to raise your daughter, but I'm involved, whether you like it or not, and you can hate me, but I can't just stand by and watch this girl destroy herself."
However, Patty's intervention has come after the crisis, and all she can do is offer Rayanne a ride to school.
The one person who does not fail Rayanne is Graham, and it should come as no surprise that the scene involves food. Angela has invited Rayanne over after school, but Angela is nowhere to be found. We first learn of this development in the Chase kitchen, where Graham is teaching Rayanne to separate egg whites. We again see the concept of teaching cooking as symbolic of imparting to the child the values represented by food. This is the second scene where Graham and Rayanne cook together, the first being where he teaches her to flip fritters in "Father Figures." In the literal scheme of things, it is hardly significant for Rayanne to know how to separate egg whites. However, this symbolic act of instruction demonstrates an important point about the two characters. First, Graham steadfastly provides the spiritual comfort and support embodied in the Chase home to whoever needs it. As Graham naturally involves Rayanne in cooking, Rayanne readily participates. Rayanne clearly needs the kind of attention provided by Graham's tutelage. What is symbolized by Graham and Rayanne cooking together is reinforced in the domestic scene Rayanne witnesses with Patty, Graham, and Danielle over the pan of chocolate sauce. Graham's cooking lesson has given Rayanne a "taste" of the kind of attention that is Danielle's birthright, and she knows how it must feel to receive the kind of attention Patty and Graham give to Danielle. But almost as quickly, the smile fades. She knows that what is Danielle's may never be hers. Rayanne must go home to a blender full of Margaritas.
The food metaphor is at its most versatile in this episode. It demonstrates the vacuousness of "analyzing" Rayanne, the inadequacy in her home life and the power of the simple act of spending time with a child. We should take this metaphor one step further, and note that its mere existence is part of what makes MSCL special. No other television program has invested so much in metaphor, or even attempted, on a consistent basis, to develop character through symbolism. Few programs attempt such depth at all. Ironically, no episode of MSCL so much as mentions our national feast day; on Thanksgiving, MSCL was pre-empted. We have discussed at length how Rayanne's support group gradually erodes, leaving her alone to face her "monster." However, once it is established that she will fail to find the support she seeks (first from Angela, then from her own mother), and that those who seek to help her cannot (first Rickie, then Patty), the remainder of the episode builds to the crisis. Rayanne first acts on Amber's misguided advice to be with Angela while Angela is with Jordan. She barges in on Angela and Jordan while they are sitting in Jordan's car, in one of the rare moments when Jordan is carrying the weight of a conversation. However, once Rayanne gets in the car, she becomes the focus of attention. This is reinforced visually, as the scene is shot from the front of the car. Thus, we see Rayanne both between Angela and Jordan, and also in the middle of things. Later, Rayanne forces her way into Jordan's band. The concept of Rayanne being the focus of attention has already been developed. As Rayanne told Brian,
"being the stuff people notice is like, my hobby. It's what I live for."
Here, the episode is about Rayanne, and Rayanne is totally focused on herself. Even as she reconciles with Angela, Rayanne's focus is on herself:
"I can't stand these looks anymore!"
"You and Rickie, looking at me like I'm gonna lose control, like, any minute I'm gonna go on some jag or something. I just can't stand what you're thinking about me."
"What? What am I thinking?"
"I'm messed up -- that I'm too messed up for you to be my friend anymore."
As we shall see, working through that concept will be significant to the development of Rayanne's character.
But when Rayanne gets her chance to be, literally, center stage, the band has not had an adequate rehearsal, and Angela is absent. Thus, Rayanne is not prepared for the experience, technically or emotionally. From Rayanne's perspective, we see people walk away, and because it is from Rayanne's perspective, we understand that she is interpreting their actions as rejection. She panics and runs off stage.
This episode develops other relationships in the periphery. We see another exchange between Sharon and Rayanne in the girls' bathroom. With each exchange, the two become more comfortable with one another, and although they will deny being friends to the very end, it is clear that they are becoming friends. As extensions of Angela (as all the characters are at some level), the growing friendship between Sharon and Rayanne echoes the growing balance in Angela's character.
We also see further exchanges between Brian and Rickie, whose relationship began tacitly in "Guns and Gossip." Here, Rickie confides to Brian his concern for Rayanne, and it is possible that it is this confidence (as much as the possibility of seeing and being with Angela) that motivates Brian to go to watch Jordan's band audition at Club Vertigo. Because Brian is there, he, with Rickie, witnesses Rayanne's blowup backstage. Brian and Rayanne witnessing each other's vulnerable moments has been a leitmotif in the relationship between the two, such as the times when Rayanne admitted her fear of darkness to Brian, runs off-stage in front of him, and, of course, the famous phone-sex scene in "So-Called Angels." Perhaps it is Jordan who experiences the most interesting character development in the episode. Here, Jordan opens up to Angela and discusses his feelings with her. We see that Jordan is a dedicated musician, and able to take charge of situations, both at rehearsals and on the live stage. We also hear that he is a passably good vocalist (even if he doesn't strum the guitar very much). But this is hardly surprising, since the episode features Jordan in his life outside of school, his musical life. In his musical life, Jordan is articulate, emotive, serious, and dedicated to success. Jordan's detractors would be well-advised to recall this episode. We may ask why Angela does not support Rayanne more, as the things Angela could have done to help Rayanne through the crisis of the episode were not terribly onerous. Angela herself provides the answer:
"Rayanne, I'm still your friend! Nothing's changed."
Then, in a voiceover:
"But that wasn't completely true, either, and we both like, knew it."
Angela is correct. She has grown past her need for Rayanne to whisper "Go!" in her ear, and now Rayanne must grow if she and Angela are to remain friends.
In any event, we know that Rayanne does not turn to drugs or alcohol after her failure at Club Vertigo. Instead, she seeks refuge and comfort at home with her mother. We see a tearful reunion between Angela, Rayanne, and Rickie, and we have the sense that all will be well. Rayanne has beaten her monster and she has reunited with her closest friends. However, as Angela, Rayanne, and Rickie stand in line to see Giant (according to the posters in the background -- a "giant" is a kind of monster, too--), Rayanne starts up an impromptu torch-singer rendition of the "Sesame Street" song. As other movie-goers applaud, Rayanne takes a beer bottle from someone and drinks. The smiles fade from Rickie and Angela. The monster has returned.
Copyright 1997 William E. Blais.
All Rights Reserved.