print this page
There's Hope for Brian Krakow; or, Getting to the Heart of the Brain by Claudine Ise

In my humble opinion (to borrow a phrase from "Angela-talk,") Brian "Brain" Krakow has become the most compelling character on "My So-Called Life." I love Brain and identify with him completely. As the "MSCL" season progressed, regular viewers could probably detect the gradual efforts to "lighten up" the characters and storylines, with the result that Angela's "so-called life" becomes something that much more resembles an actual life. I guess the network honchos figured that it would be difficult to identify, week after week, with a protagonist whose life totally and utterly sucked, so they began to make it slightly better, degree by degree. I mean, let's face it--no one who's kissing someone who looks like Jordan Catalano on an even semi-regular basis can continue to claim that their entire life is a pathetic joke. And this is all fine by me--Angela's dizzying, hide-and-seek romance with Jordan Catalano is always realistically underplayed, and our perception of Angela's happiness is usually framed by another character's point of view (Rayanne's sense of alienation from Angela, or Graham's amazement at Angela's transformation from sad sack to "out of the stratosphere"), which reminds us that ordinary life continues in the midst of Angela's extraordinary moments of happiness. But as the plots of MSCL shifted to portray the "happier" aspects of Angela's life, I found myself increasingly drawn to the characters who continued to have the kind of "so-called," non-hipster life that defined my high school experience. I don't think anybody likes to admit that Brian Krakow is the character with whom they most identify (Angela, Rayanne and Ricky provide more glamorous and hopeful figures) but it is with Brian that my heart and soul lies. To me, Brian embodies the inner spirit of "My So-Called Life," with Bess Armstrong's sexually jealous, emotionally repressed Patty running a close second. Both Brian and Patty are characters fueled by desires that remain unfulfilled and, tragically, unspoken. I get the sense that these two will never completely succeed at expressing themselves to other people, which is doubly sad because they are, perhaps, the characters who most long for this kind of real human contact. It is in fact this capacity for communication, the ability to risk expressing oneself, that determines the relative happiness or unhappiness experienced by each character in "MSCL."

Whereas Angela is able to communicate, often poetically, sometimes with an awkward, heartfelt charm that tells you she is speaking from a place deep within herself, Brian is a prisoner of his own hyper extended brain. Jordan Catalano's dyslexic misreading of "Brain" for "Brian" is not just a wordplay on the obvious, it is almost symbolic in a way, because Jordan Catalano, empty cipher that he is, functions as a kind of weird double for Brian Krakow. Jordan lives the antithesis of a Brain-like existence--he's recognized by everyone as being "gorgeous," he's physically at ease with himself and with girls in general, and he's got Angela Chase. Brian has none of these qualities. And yet, the last episode begins to call all of these antithetical character traits into question, basically asking the koan-like question, what is it that makes Brian a Brian, and what is it that makes Jordan a Jordan? In the end, are the two really so different? The season finale or "Cyrano de Bergerac" episode ties all this together, using a love letter as a metaphor for the agonizing process of self-revelation. For me, this is the quintessential "My So-Called Life" episode because it is most clearly about the difficulties in expressing one's own form of truth, of communicating across that vast gulf between self and other--issues that we are firstconfronted with during those awkward, lonely and confusing high school years.

The show's final episode begins with Angela waking from a dream in which she is yelling at Jordan Catalano, trying to tell him how he hurt and betrayed her, while he stands, distant and unmoved, "like someone caught in a storm, who's stopped caring how wet he gets." Jordan, it turns out, is also suffering from an inability to communicate. He's not only afraid to apologize to Angela, he knows he's not capable of using language effectively enough to communicate everything that he feels inside. So he asks Brain for help, and it is Brain's Cyrano-like act of composing a love letter to Angela and signing Jordan's name that sets a chain of events irreversibly in motion. At first reluctant and disgusted at the prospect of helping Jordan explain his "undefendable" actions to Angela, in true Brain-like fashion he is ultimately compelled to tackle the assignment. I'll quote this beautiful, and incredibly sexy, love letter in full here, because it deserves to be preserved for posterity.

Dear Angela,
I know in the past I've caused you pain, and I'm sorry. And I'll always be sorry 'till the day I die. And I hate this pen I'm holding because I should be holding you. I hate this paper under my hand because it isn't you. I even hate this letter because it's not the whole truth. Because the whole truth is so much more than a letter can say.
If you want to hate me, go ahead. If you want to burn this letter, do it. You can burn the whole world down. You could tell me to go to hell, and I'd go. If you wanted me to. And I'd send you a letter from there.
Jordan Catalano

What's also poignant is how the weird double thing between Brain and Jordan works, how Brain is able to exactly express how Jordan is feeling, feelings that Jordan didn't even know he had until he read Brain's words and found that they fit, perfectly. In a way, the love letter does belong to Jordan as much as it does to Brain, because not only does Jordan feel the emotions that Brain describes, he ultimately has the courage to admit those feelings to Angela -- something that he had been unable to do in the past. So whereas Brain has the facility with language to effectively convey emotions, unlike Jordan he ultimately lacks the courage to risk speaking those words, and that's his tragedy. It's like the prison he's created for himself, and now he has to live in it. Jordan breaks free from this "prison house of language" because he's finally willing to admit to Angela (and her mother, for that matter) that he does need her.

What's so cool about Brain is that the writers don't indulge in the typical "homely, brainy character with the heart of gold" bullshit like most t.v. shows about high school. Brain is capable of as much thoughtlessness, superficiality and downright cruelty as the hip crowd that he despises (but longs to be a part of), which is what the "World Happiness Dance" episode is all about. The two characters who act the most selfishly, namely Brain and Angela, are at the episode's end left standing on the sidelines, together yet alone, stewing in their own misery and jealousy. It is Delia and Ricky, the two who have been rejected, who are actually able to make the dance live up to some of its potential, because they were willing to risk extreme humiliation for their emotional honesty. Though neither of them wind up with the object of their affections, they are rewarded with a shared dance that is, at least for a little while, totally exuberant and liberating -- one of those rare moments that make life more than just o.k. and livable, a moment in which "there's no possibility that your mind could wander and you become this prisoner of...happiness!!" (to quote Rayanne).

I love Brain precisely because I understand how sad you feel when you're trapped by a fear of being humiliated or rejected or that your words will be misunderstood--something I think everyone can identify with on some level, some of us more strongly than others. Brain also expresses that typical (at least it was for me) high school feeling of "nothing important or exciting will ever happen to me." I remember when MSCL first came on the air, and was already receiving critical raves for its "realistic and sensitive portrayal of high school angst," I thought, yeah right. I defy anyone to capture how truly sucky and horrifying high school is. You can't create a television show that is basically about the fact that nothing ever happens--the laws of television narrative don't allow it. I was wrong. The Angela - Brian poles keep the manic/depressive aspects of high school life in tension, as they should be. While Angela experiences both the highs and the lows of high school life, Brian takes over as the resident social loser--his life gets suckier the more Angela's seems to take off. He is an almost total outsider, viewing Angela at home through his telescope, peering at Rayanne's legs around the bathroom door, or documenting the social mores of his peers through a video camcorder. He remains almost completely repressed, secretly longing to get a little crazy but never, quite becoming a part of things. He's terrified of cutting loose because his entire identity is wrapped up in his brain and in being academically successful. Whereas Angela is ready to take risks "because at least I'll know I'm alive," Brain can only think of the possible consequences, of everything he stands to lose. Which is typical of kids who are taught that they have to do well in school at all costs. To venture outside of the narrow bounds of the classroom means to risk failure, humiliation, and feeling like you belong nowhere.

What also makes Brain so totally charming to me is his patent inability to use teenage slang correctly. There's so many funny throwaway lines in "MSCL" where you can tell that Brain is struggling to decipher the "cool lingo" of the moment. For instance, when he tells Ricky that "Delia Fisher has it for you," and Ricky gives him this quizzical look and says "has it for me?" Brian, visibly panicking, says, "What? That's, like, an expression people say, right? Right?" If you watch all of the episodes you'll notice that the Brain is always made incredibly confused by the process of everyday casual conversation. Witness his incredulity over the fact that Jordan lives a life in which getting a girl's phone number is as simple as asking for it. Another tiny but significant example occurs at the very end of the season finale, when Angela has just realized that Brian wrote the letter, and Jordan comes up to the two of them and says "hey." Angela says "hey" back. Brain goes "Hi...hey..." translating Brain-thought to hipspeak. Brian's problem is that he's allowed himself, and others, to fetishize his big brain at the expense of two other extremely vital organs--one of which is his heart.

Poor Brain. His attempts to express his true feelings for Angela succeed only too well. That final, tortured scene between Brian and Angela was for me the best in the entire series. Angela accuses Brian and Jordan of playing a gigantic joke on her, and Brian, cornered, mutters "I meant every word," almost as if to himself. The truth is finally out, and despite Brian's efforts, there is no way to take those words back. I could practically hear the background noise receding as I strained to catch each word that was uttered. "I mean, it made you happy, didn't it?" Brian finally asks. "Yeah, it made me happy," Angela admits, her face showing the dawning realization that this, this exact moment, is what her love letter is and all it ever will be. "Well, I mean, that's all that matters anyway," Brian says. "For who?" whispers Angela, with the empathy of one suddenly realizing that her happiness came at the expense of another's pain. " know... the person who wrote the letter," Brian tells Angela, and with this he finally finds the courage to look at her face. And this, too, is Brian's moment, the moment where he finds the strength to just stand there and look into Angela's eyes, in the midst of all of the terror and embarrassment and nakedness he must have been feeling. We'll probably never know what happens the next day; and perhaps this is the way it should be. It kills me that Brian was left standing there, alone under a circle of light, but as the final moment of the series, perhaps we can read it as a symbolic state of enlightenment, lonely though it may feel. Brian has made contact, he has admitted something to Angela so scary and so real that it can never be taken back, a fact which Angela realizes when Brian tells her to forget about the entire conversation and she asks, simply, "how?..."

Words are no more sacred than our ability to remember them, than their power to sear our brains and instantly transfigure the landscape of everything we believed was true. Brian's confession reveals the truth of his desire and immediately changes Angela's entire world. Although it's unlikely that Angela would leave Jordan for Brian, she can't look at Jordan in quite the same way ever again. And, from now on, she will always look at Brian differently. Brian finally used his words for something other than getting a good PSAT score--he used them to reveal a part of himself to someone else, and those words did make a difference. This is all a love letter is, and all it ever can be. It's like the ultimate irony of love letters to never quite reach their destination, because they are never read exactly the way we intend them. Words can never be the whole truth. Our bravery in attempting to use them, despite their failure, is what ultimately matters.

prev | up Breathless | next

“I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother.”

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