print this page

Angela's World

3.15. Episode Fifteen: "So-Called Angels"


    Original Air Date: December 22, 1994

 

"What is this with Shorty?" -- Patty
"Another toss of the dice, I could be in her shoes, she could be in mine." -- So-Called Angel

 

Synopsis


    While the Chases prepare for Christmas, Rickie finds himself homeless and Brian finds himself alone.
 

Analysis

"So-Called Angels" begins not with the familiar opening credits, but with a beaten, bleeding and crying Rickie, trudging along a dark and snow-covered sidewalk as strangers pass him. He is being watched by a girl we have never seen her before. She turns her attention from Rickie as he walks into an alley, and gazes downward at a patch of clean white snow. The scene fades to white as a guitar plays the single notes of "Silent Night." Gradually, the single notes of the guitar become the solitary keys of a piano. The camera pans downward and we fade into the Chase home, where Angela is playing "Silent Night" on the piano. The brief opening scene conveys several messages which will be important in this episode. First, Rickie is not completely alone, even in his darkest moment. Second, the girl who is a stranger to us has a knowledge of the characters we already know so well, and has some power to manipulate the scene we are about to witness. Finally, the scene introduces a subtle musical motif, the single voice of the guitar repeated on the piano. If we have been attentive enough to pick up on these concepts, then we will have a sense of what we are about to witness. However, while the emotional force of this episode lies with Angela, Rickie and Brian, the moral weight rests on Patty, who struggles first to learn, then do, "the right thing." Her struggle is made vivid by her transformation into one of the most enduring of Christmas icons, (a transformation consciously developed by Winnie Holzman and Bess Armstrong during the writing and filming of the episode), Ebenezer Scrooge. And to better understand what is happening with Patty, a brief discussion of Scrooge is in order.

Scrooge is traditionally stereotyped as a chronically angry miser smiling on the misfortune of others. Contemporary offerings attribute Scrooge's change of heart as a revelation of human suffering and his ability to relieve it. But neither traditional nor contemporary versions accurately portray Scrooge as Charles Dickens created him. Dickens' Scrooge changes his ways to avoid the bad things that may happen to him, as shown by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Only later, with the passage of years, as Dickens tells us, does Scrooge becomes the great keeper of Christmas.

Dickens' Scrooge was modeled after a particular type of historical figure, the hard-nosed, hard-headed capitalist whose like emerged with the Industrial Revolution. He poured his fortunes back into his business, (well, where do you think Scrooge got the money to lend, and why do you think he held it so dear? It was his own!), and in so doing, built the modern world. True, Scrooge gave neither grace periods on his notes nor money to charities. He demanded that Bob Cratchit work the hours for which he was paid and burn no more coal than necessary to keep the ink from freezing. But Scrooge did not act from anger or malice and Cratchit was well paid at 15 "bob" (shillings) a week. Scrooge acted as he believed made the world a better place. Scrooge knew about the poor, but he believed, as did most people of his time, that people were poor due to a failing in their moral character. He did not give grace periods or donate to charity because he believed it exacerbated the moral failing, and he believed the men who asked it from him followed a flawed moral philosophy. Scrooge's famous query, "are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" was not malicious; it reaffirmed his belief that such institutions properly and adequately cared for the poor and homeless in the world he had helped to build. If such an understanding seems barely comprehensible in the 20th century, the best explanation is that people in the 19th century thought differently. In any event, Scrooge did not speak or act from moral outrage; he firmly believed the institutions he invoked would ultimately solve the "problem" of the poor and indigent. Scrooge believed as he did because he was one of the makers of the world and the social order he lived in. It took compelling evidence to change Scrooge's ways; Scrooge always believed he was doing the right thing.

Moving from the age of Dickens to the age of Holzman, Patty and Graham have created a stable, two-parent household. They send their children to good schools. Patty runs the business her father built, and Graham is a budding restaurateur. They are active in the PTA and the Girl Scouts. They pay their taxes, and we may assume they vote. Clearly, the Chase home is a part of Middle America, and in all things, Patty and Graham try to do what is right, based on what they believe is right in the world of which they are part. However, what they believe is about to be challenged. The first challenge comes from Angela, when she asks why the family doesn't go to church, and whether Patty and Graham believe in God, the questions make Patty and Graham uncomfortable. Religion and the church have not been part of the family's life, but Patty especially feels some duty to provide their daughters with the spiritual life of the church. She also desires it quite apart from any duty.

The fact that the Chases do not go to church is both revealing and portentous. The spiritual foundation of the Chase family has come from the world Patty and Graham have helped to build. However, we have already seen Rickie's plight; as Patty must pause and deal with her discomfort at Angela's question, we know she is about to confront a problem which will require her to seek strength from more than the mundane institutions. Later, Patty will invoke Divine intercession. The second challenge to Patty and Graham arises barely noticed. At school, a brooding, depressed Brian reneges on a promise to help Sharon with the Teen Helpline on Christmas Eve. The reason for Brian's depression is revealed in the next scene: He has opted to stay home alone while his parents take a cruise. Patty is mildly distressed that the Krakows would leave Brian alone on Christmas, but Graham is not troubled.

    "The Krakows are Jewish, aren't they? Didn't Hanukkah already happen?"

As Patty and Graham leave to "purchase a few lumps of coal," the subject of church reappears:

    "So what do you want for Christmas, Shorty?" Graham asks.

It is the first use ever of any kind of pet name between the couple.

    "I want you to come with us to church on Christmas Eve. Would you just think about it?"
     
    "Church isn't for me."

But Patty persists:

    "Look, I know that church hasn't been part of our lives, and it certainly hasn't been part of the girls', but the thing is, I want it to be."
     
    "Then you should go."

It is both fitting and natural that Patty speak first of her wishes to Graham because he is the family's spiritual provider. However, Graham's response should not be construed as merely a personal distaste for the Church. Admittedly, Graham is not likely to submit to the conformity an organized religious life, but he is not merely telling Patty that he chooses to remain aloof. Rather, he is telling Patty that if she desires what the Church can offer, then she should follow that desire. The dialogue is Patty's first invocation of the Divine, and it her first considered response to the challenge that Angela presented concerning church and belief in God. The exchange between Patty and Graham on the porch should be considered a prayer and an answer. The third challenge arises when Rickie appears at the back door. Being Graham's daughter, Angela feeds him. When Patty and Graham return from shopping, they immediately notice Rickie's face and sense trouble. However, Patty refuses Angela's request to let Rickie stay the night:

    "Honey, it's not our place... Honey, having him stay here is not the answer."
     
    "Then what is the answer?" Angela asks.

But before Patty can reply, we hear the back door slam shut. Thus, just as Scrooge is visited with three spirits which challenged his understanding of the world, so too have Patty and Graham been presented with three challenges to their way of thinking, although, as we have discussed, and shall see, the challenge truly belongs to Patty. We next see Rickie in front of a market, where he encounters Jordan Catalano; again, Rickie is not alone in his hour of need, and Jordan's presence hints at something more profound. Jordan offers Rickie a ride; it is his way of extending himself to others. Jordan takes Rickie to an abandoned warehouse on Tennessee Avenue. The scene between Rickie and Jordan exists principally to advance the plot, but like all such scenes in MSCL, it advances the plot through character revelation. Here, when Rickie cannot give Jordan a destination, Jordan immediately understands that Rickie is without a place to go:

    "Look, you need a place to crash, I know a place."
 
    "Thanks."
 
    "My old man used to knock me around too."

Has Jordan spent his share of nights in the warehouse on Tennessee Avenue? This is the first and only clue to Jordan's home life.

    "He did?"
 
    "Hasn't done it in a couple years, though. Too scared. 'Cause the last time he did, I threw a chair at him."
 
    "Well, I'm gonna light a candle for you on Christmas Eve."
 
    "Oh yeah? Think that changes anything?"
 
    "Uh-huh."

If we have not yet realized that Rickie is the strongest moral force in MSCL, we must realize it now: Even in his most desperate hour, he remains true to the principles that guide him. Jordan drives into an alley, on their way to take Rickie to the warehouse on Tennessee Avenue. It is an imperfect solution, and we are told this visually: A sign at the opening to the alley shows that Jordan is going the wrong way. However, as the camera pans, we see the girl who had observed Rickie at the beginning of the episode. Again she looks down, and again we enter the Chase home from above.

The import of the girl is explained in the scene that follows in a deftly subtle way, through the television that plays in the background. Like most television families, the Chases spend very little time watching television. In most episodes, the television has been little more than a prop, sitting dark in the corner (as does the computer). In "So-Called Angels," the television runs almost constantly and becomes conspicuous in a number of scenes. This is no accident, and the sudden presence of the television should alert the viewer that it is more than cute, more than mere background. The television is thrust upon us because it has something to tell us. As we enter the Chase home, we see Patty, deep in thought.

    "Were we wrong? Down there about Rickie?"

Opening the scene on Patty, and having the question posed by Patty, shows that the dilemma truly belongs to Patty. As the conversation progresses, Graham plays a moderating role; Patty must work through the issue. Patty notes that they do not know Rickie's situation. Graham observes that Rickie makes Patty uncomfortable.

    "What if that was Brian Krakow with that bruise on his face?" Graham asks.

Patty cannot accept the comparison.

    "I've known Brian Krakow since he was five years old."
 
    "So have I. But should that make a difference?"
 
    "Well, maybe not. But it does."

Patty realizes she would have been more likely to help Rickie if he was more familiar to them. Thus, she must confront one of their conceptions of the world: People don't get involved with strangers. That the challenges belong to Patty are further confirmed by Graham's subsequent actions. Graham invites Brian into their home without pretense and without qualification. Further, his spiritual foundation is secure. When Patty declares that they must "do the right thing," Graham agrees. "Dinner!" he shouts. We need say no more. As Patty and Graham converse in their bedroom, the television silently runs It's a Wonderful Life. Their faces frame the television, which is so prominent that Jimmy Stewart is practically a third character in the scene. The scene on the television is the scene where, in desperation, George (Bailey) prays for help, and his prayer is answered by Clarence, his guardian angel. (If we're going to compare Patty to Scrooge -- and we are -- it is appropriate that we are helped by scenes from a movie whose images have become so ubiquitous it is likely to become to the 20th Century what "A Christmas Carol" was to the 19th.) Clearly, there is the presence of the Divine, and because we have now twice seen transitions from the girl to the Chase home, entering the scene from above, we may validly infer that the Divine presence is "watching over" Angela and her family. When Angela encounters the girl at school, we get more clues about her nature:

    "It's funny, before, I'd never go to school, and now that I don't go to school, I'm always here...
 
    "It's just this song that I fool around with. I'll probably be working on it forever..."
 
    "You don't have to worry, I've been looking out for [Rickie]."

The girl leaves, and Angela realizes she didn't learn Rickie's whereabouts. Angela follows the girl into the hallway.

    "Wait!" Angela cries. "I forgot to ask you where Rickie was!"

The girl has disappeared, but almost as Angela asks the question, she bumps into Jordan Catalano, the one person who knows where Rickie is. At this point, we must consider Jordan's role in this episode. Jordan appears in just three scenes. In the first, he appears to take Rickie to shelter. In the second, he appears to take Angela to Rickie, an act which sets Rickie's ultimate rescue into action. In both scenes, Jordan expresses his skepticism towards religion. However, in both scenes, he performs charitable acts that arguably serve the will of the Divine presence. In the second scene, his skepticism from the first scene is tempered. In the third and final scene, Jordan sits silently, alone, on Christmas Eve, lighting a candle, the very act he scoffed at earlier. The Divine works in mysterious ways indeed. At the warehouse, the dividing line between kids who have stable home lives and kids who don't is sharply drawn. Angela wants to take Rickie home, but Rickie cannot think of himself as charity:

    "I can't talk about this," he yells at her. "Not with you. You don't belong here."

Angela is crestfallen. She knows no other way to help but to offer what she has. Leaving the warehouse, Angela sees the unnamed homeless girl asleep. Angela trades her new boots for the girl's worn shoes, a sobering counterpoint to her frolicking trade with Rayanne the night they waited for Tino at Let's Bolt.

Angela returns to a warm, decorated home in time to place her namesake on the top of the Christmas tree. Angela questions Brian's presence in the house, and Brian defensively explains that Graham had asked him to help with the tree. The exchange apparently contrasts with Angela's recent attempt at generosity with Rickie, but by now we should recognize that the sniping between Angela and Brian is a ritual they must perform to diffuse the sexual tension. They then settle into the confidential tones that have defined their relationship almost from the beginning. Angela and Brian sit in front of a fire in the fireplace, surrounded by decorations and games, a stark contrast to the fires in the warehouse where Rickie is sleeping. Angela tells Brian about the warehouse and Rickie.

    "You would not believe where he has been sleeping," Angela says as she places a tiny baby Jesus in the manger of a Nativity set.

One might speculate that the combination of words and action create some comparison of Rickie to the baby Jesus. If so, it is only in the context that Jesus ended up in the manger because there was no room at the inn; Mary and Joseph had nowhere to go. More importantly, Angela's business with the baby Jesus signifies, once again, the presence of the Divine. Patty and Graham have overheard Angela tell Brian that Rickie has been beaten up and is afraid to go home. Patty is horrified, but as much as she feels compelled to act, she is concerned that they "do the right thing." Just as our historic Scrooge would have looked to prisons and workhouses, confident in the knowledge that such institutions were "the right thing," so too Patty goes to the police department, confident that referring the matter to the authorities is "the right thing." Graham is not so sure:

    "What are we doing?"
 
    "I don't know--"
 
    "Is this right? Is this the right thing?"
 
    "Well, these are the people who supposedly handle these situations..."

The officer at the desk is a decent amiable man, but he can only offer Patty and Graham "institutional" answers to their questions. As the desk officer continues his "institutional" explanation, Patty sees a bulletin board filled with fliers on missing children. The camera moves across the faces of the children and we hear their faint prayers. Patty can hear them too. The last flier is of the homeless girl whom Angela has befriended. As Patty and Graham leave, the desk officer offers an institutional farewell.

    "Thanks for being good citizens."

However, the officer also offers his own, personal farewell:

    "You got a daughter, you say?"
 
    "Yes."
     
    "You keep her close, okay?"

The juxtaposed farewells demonstrate the limitations of the institutions that Patty and Graham, as well as the society of which they are part, have relied on to deal with certain problems. The institutions can only respond to situations that have already failed. It is for the people like Patty and Graham, rather, to prevent the failures. As the door to the police department closes on Patty and Graham, we cut to a television in the Chase home which is showing "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." It is the scene where the philanthropists have come to solicit donations from Scrooge. We know Scrooge's response, but we do not hear it; it is as though Patty has taken the words from Scrooge's mouth as she crosses in front of the television and walks into the dining room where Angela is setting the table for Christmas Eve dinner.

Patty notices that Angela has set two additional places, and can think only of additional family members. Angela tells Patty that she wants to invite Rickie and the homeless girl to dinner. Patty categorically refuses:

    "Angela, listen to me. You are not going back to that place. This is a serious matter."
 
    "I know that! Why do you speak like this to me, like I'm a child?"
 
    "This girl, whoever she is, has serious problems!"
 
    "You haven't even talked to her! I've talked to her! This girl -- she could be me."
 
    "Oh, don't say that!" Patty yells. "She couldn't be you! How can you say that?"
 
    "Because its true."

The argument so upsets Patty because it so seriously questions Patty's faith that the problems of the world will be solved by those whose "job" it is to solve the problems, with no further action by anyone else. Angela's words also force Patty to acknowledge a threat that she has hitherto been able to deny: Her own children are vulnerable to the forces that have made other children homeless and lost. Patty has been cautious about Rickie, the warehouse, and those outside her own family in part because it was not her "business" to deal with them. But she cannot bear to think that Angela is as vulnerable as any other child. If we remain mindful that Scrooge is on the television rebuffing the solicitors of charity as Patty and Angela fight, the transformation of Patty to Scrooge is complete, and confirmed by the first line of dialogue after the fight:

    "Hi there, Shorty," Graham says to Patty, who is sitting on their bedroom floor wrapping a gift.
 
    "What is this with Shorty?" Patty asks.

No explanation is given.

However, the television has again provided a clue. As Patty walked in the door from the police station, the scene from "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" is prominent, and establishes the completion of the transformation of Patty into Scrooge. In "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," Scrooge is played by Mr. Magoo, who is -- besides nearsighted -- short. When Graham tells Patty that Angela has left the house, Patty acts immediately, without pausing to reflect, or to consult or even tell Graham what she is doing. Patty knows where Angela has gone, and now that she can no longer deny Angela's vulnerability, she realizes that she alone has the duty to prevent any harm from befalling Angela. Patty will perform one more "Scrooge-like" act before she goes into the night to find Angela: She snaps at Brian as he stands in the doorway. Patty has always welcomed Brian, but here she is filled with the fear that she may have lost Angela. Thematically, Brian stands in front of Patty as one of the challenges she must face. If she has been transformed to Scrooge, she cannot embrace Brian again until she has been, like Scrooge, reformed. As Patty rushes out to find Angela, Brian sits down alone, in front of the television, without even Danielle for company. On the television in front of Brian, Scrooge is asking the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come whether he has seen the things that will be, or the things that may be. The connection to Patty and Brian is obvious. Patty has rushed from the house, filled with fear that she may have lost Angela. Brian sits, without friends, without family -- in his own way, a Scrooge -- in his neighbor's living room, agonizingly in love with a girl who doesn't love him. Brian must wonder whether these are the things that will be in his life.

Digression: The symbol of television in MSCL


    As Brian sits to watch television, there is a clear connection between his circumstances and Scrooge's. Indeed, when a TV appears in MSCL, it is prominent in the scene and at is playing on the television has, to a varying degree, a thematic connection to the characters or the scene. But the presence of the TV tells much more; it conveys an important and subtle message about watching television.
 
    The TV is so prevalent and so adaptable that if its only purpose was to convey subtext, a TV could be in virtually every interior scene in MSCL. Indeed, given the pervasiveness of television, we might expect it to always be present. But by going against expectations and showing the ubiquitous TV only rarely, its presence in the scene attracts our attention and increases the import of the information it conveys. Thus, the rarely watched TV becomes a powerful symbol, and we must consider the message it conveys.
     
    The message is a subtle one, and perceivable only by considering, as a whole, the times MSCL characters have watched television: In the Pilot episode, Jordan, then Angela, at Tino's party and Patty in her bedroom; in "Self-Esteem," Angela on Sunday night before her geometry mid-term; in "On the Wagon," Rayanne watching Sesame Street while the blender roars behind her; in "So-Called Angels," Patty and Graham in their bedroom, Danielle watching Mr. Magoo and Brian watching "A Christmas Carol;" in "Resolutions," as the characters recite their resolutions; in "The Weekend," Patty and Graham in their bedroom. In each case, the character with the TV was isolated in some manner. Jordan watches alone then leaves Angela to watch alone; Patty sits alone on her bed while Graham is in the street talking to his incipient lover; Angela worries about the geometry mid-term; Rayanne struggles with her addictions while Amber mixes drinks in the kitchen; Patty and Graham question basic assumptions about the world they live in; Danielle -- "don't ask me, I just live here;" Brian -- "I didn't expect to be this lonely;" Graham is diverted from Patty's handcuff dilemma, then leaves her; each characters making their own resolutions in front of the TV, not talking to one another. Thus, the TV in MSCL is a symbol of isolation. The characters watch, physically alone or isolated from others by their thoughts. The choice of watching television does not isolate one, but it is made in isolation when we cannot reach those whom we love. In short, MSCL is telling us that if you are watching television, you should be asking yourself what is wrong in your life. It is an odd message for a television program to send, and particularly ironic, given the community that has been built around the love for MSCL. End of Digression.

Brian finds a flier for the Teen Helpline in his pocket and calls, using the false name "Steve." His call is taken by Rayanne.

As Brian tells his story, he starts to cry. The scene somberly reprises Brian and Rayanne's Halloween night in the school basement, where Rayanne revealed a secret to Brian. Here, Brian unknowingly reveals his feelings to Rayanne. To comfort Brian, Rayanne tries to engage him in phone sex. It is unknown how far Rayanne would have taken the charade, because Brian calls a halt to it fairly early. "Jade" puts things into perspective for Brian:

    "Look at it this way, Steve. Still feel like crying?"

However, Rayanne's choice of balm reveals more about her. The phone-sex exchange allows us to infer that Rayanne's sexual escapades are her way of dealing with loneliness and the absence of family or real love in her life. In a dark way, the phone-sex scene foreshadows what "will be" and what "may be."

The vicinity of Tennessee Avenue clearly is unfamiliar territory to Patty, figuratively and literally, because she must ask directions. The passerby whom Patty asks refuses to stop and help, giving Patty a dose of her own medicine in her moment of need. But Patty's plea for direction is answered by the homeless girl, whom Patty follows to the door of a church. Just as Scrooge was guided by an element of the Divine in his journey of redemption, so too is Patty. As Patty approaches the church, she calls for Angela. The homeless girl appears; the play on Angela's name is unmistakable.

    "I'm trying to find my daughter," Patty tells the girl.
 
    "I know," the girl says. "Because I'm no different from her."
 
    "You don't understand."
 
    "Sure I do," the girl says. "I had a mom -- clean sheets, all of that. Another toss of the dice, I could be in her shoes, she could be in mine."

Suddenly, Patty begins to understand:

    "There but for the grace of God--"
 
    "Go I."
 
    With prompting, Patty asks, "Why did you leave home?"
 
    "My mother and I had a fight -- the kind of fight where it seems the fight is having you."
 
    "How did you die?" Patty asks, her voice quavering -- she stands before tangible confirmation of her faith and the comfort of knowing that one's prayers are heard.

(Watch the scene carefully, and wonder whether Bess Armstrong has ever been visited by an Angel.) The girl reflects.

    "I froze."

(Why does she pause before answering? Debating whether to tell Patty the truth? Or can she not clearly remember?) Patty then raises her eyes, and the prayer she knows will be heard. ("God, please help me.")

When Patty looks down, she is alone. Just as Scrooge found himself alone on Christmas morning, but understanding what was now expected of him, Patty finds herself alone in the churchyard -- alone but with the full understanding of what she must now do, for both Angela and Rickie. Patty enters the church and finds Rickie -- it should be no surprise, given how she ended up there. Rickie is lighting a candle which we may assume is meant for Jordan Catalano. Rickie sees Patty and approaches her. The camera is then careful to show Patty's hand move towards Rickie's; it is Patty, the reformed "Scrooge," who has made the first move. Angela comes upstairs and embraces first Rickie, then Patty. The reunion is complete when Graham, Brian and Danielle arrive. We briefly see Sharon and Rayanne in a sort of Communion as they eat Christmas cookies together. We see Jordan lighting his candle. To bring us full circle, as the Chase family, with Brian and Rickie, walk through the churchyard heading for home, we hear "Silent Night," but this time not the isolated, solitary guitar string, but a chorus, a community of singers.

In Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's late partner reminds him that mankind is his "business," which Scrooge ultimately realizes. The historic models for Scrooge ultimately realized the economic truth that by providing more people the opportunity for wealth, their own wealth, and the aggregate wealth of the world, increased. Here, Patty has met and overcome her moral challenges. She now understands that "mankind" is her business, such of it as her life touches, and it is not a "business" to be relegated to institutions. She also understands that the love which she has for her own family is a kind of wealth which, when shared with those beyond her family, enriches both her and the world. This is the essential message of MSCL.

 

    Copyright 1997 William E. Blais.
    All Rights Reserved.
 

prev | up Angela's World | next


“Lately, I can't even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"