Well, they did it. They went there. In case you’re reading this before watching the episode, I’ll put the spoiler-y part (Vik has late-stage pancreatic cancer and he is refusing treatment, which means Dr. McHotPants is probably going to be leaving the show, and now I haz a sad) in white so as not to ruin it. But I’m sad. And not just about this. There are a lot of things in this episode that depress me in weird ways, in both Noah’s and Helen’s storylines, that I’m still wondering if this was a brilliant episode or not.
I’ll work through it as we talk.
First, the episode opens on the Alison Bailey Search Party, where we see the trio of Cole, Noah, and…Anton?! (Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!) heading down a highway. Anton hilariously spells out the entire narrative thrust of the first two seasons of the show in about 15 seconds of dialogue, which made me love him even more than I already did:
Anton: All right, so, let me get this straight: she was married to you, and then she cheated with you…and then she left you for you…and then she cheated on you…with you…and then she had your baby, but then said it was your baby. Did I get that right?
Noah: Pretty much.
Anton: Damn. White people crazy. That is some real Maury Povich shit right there…
In any case, the Alison mystery is little closer to being solved, as we find out from a phone call Cole receives from a woman named Nina (Solloway? Is Noah’s sister going to be involved in this? But then why would she be calling Cole?) that Alison’s house shows no sign of forced entry and her phone has been traced. The last call was to Ben, the vet with PTSD whom we met last episode. No one knows where she is, but Noah especially seems utterly clueless about Alison’s life.
Fittingly, Part 1 of the episode is from his point of view.
Noah’s position at Compton Academy seems bewildering at best in this episode, right from the very beginning. Similar to how he was set up at the college in Season 3 in spite of his past conviction and prison time, he sits in a room of other people, quietly observing, even though you know that he wants to interject. The reason we know this is because — again, just like Season 3 — the social issue du jour is one that Noah probably can’t stand. In Season 3 it was rape culture; here, it’s the “special snowflake” school of thought of many educators who are trying to figure out how to make life work for the kids in their classes. Janelle (Sanaa Latham) is new to the school and trying to make a mark with a strict no-tolerance policy for bad behaviour, but the staff isn’t on board. It’s October and 8 kids have already been suspended. No one is sure it’s doing any good (but then again, I’m not sure that “talking circles” would help either, at least not as administered by this particular team of pedagogues); at the end of the meeting, as an audience it’s not easy to tell whose side we’re supposed to fall on. Are the white, liberal teachers right to want to coddle these kids and give them chance after chance to get it right? Or is tough justice what is actually needed here? Maybe neither, maybe some combination of both?
The striking thing is that I’m not sure where Noah stands in all this, even after the episode ends. He seems highly critical of the young upstarts who want to see restorative justice given a chance. And yet he doesn’t want to see a rising star like Anton slip through the cracks. When given a chance to speak, he puts his foot in his mouth by commenting on Anton’s promise and desire to help him, without realizing that Anton is Janelle’s son. White Saviour meets Mama Bear in the Principal’s office a little later, where Janelle warns him to stay away from Anton (“Leave him out of your next book,” she seethes), expresses dismay that Noah was given a second chance that a black ex-con would never have gotten, and openly wonders if Noah is even a good teacher at all.
I do believe him when he says that he wants to be there. But why does he want to be there? (Aside from the obvious answer: setting a story in South Central L.A. allows the show to explore racism, classism, sexism, and gun violence all in one easy to film location, of course.) What is Noah getting out of this?
The answer would seem to come in another Dangerous Minds wannabe teachable moment in class, when Noah tries to get his students excited about T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. The kids couldn’t give a crap, and Anton telegraphs exactly why that is: it’s not relatable to them at all. Dead white dudes make up such a huge portion of the accepted English literature canon. There are places that push back against this, but Compton Academy isn’t that place. For a hot second, Noah seems willing to entertain this problem: he asks Anton who they should be reading, and Anton rattles off a list of dignitaries absolutely worth of study — Ta-Nehisi Coates, Octavia Butler, Junot Diaz among them. But Noah isn’t really interested in hearing the answer. As a teacher, this kills me. His students are asking him why this is relevant, and he’s saying “I wasn’t prepared to read Eliot when I got to university, so you should read this now so you’ll be better off than me.” The reality of their situation is so vastly different than his ever was, and the articulate and brilliant young man he himself has identified as unique and worthy of attention is literally spelling this out for him, and he is so blinded by his own privilege that he can’t see it. I’m aware that Noah’s life hasn’t been peaches and cream, but he had things handed to him on a silver platter. Anton’s own mother had him failed for plagiarizing the year before. If there was ever a moment for a teacher to step back and listen, it was here and now, but Noah — blinded by his saviour complex — is deaf to it all.
I suppose it’s to Noah’s credit that he tries to help them feel engaged and almost encourages their eventual walkout in protest. This of course turns ugly as the entire school walks out, which leads to chaos in the halls and a heavy police presence outside. Janelle — remember, she’s six weeks, tops, into her new position at this school — tries her best to call off the police, but who listens to a black woman, right? No, it’s Noah who steps in and convinces the police to stand down. Later, it’s Noah who intervenes on Janelle’s behalf during a TV interview gone wrong (and inadvertently usurps her job title in the process). Noah literally cannot help himself from stepping in and saving everyone, and in the end, on a dark and neon-lit sidewalk outside the bar the staff retreat to after the events of the day, he is repaid in full by a breathless Janelle who melts in his arms as he presses in for a goodnight kiss.
This schtick is getting old fast. And I know this is Noah’s viewpoint. But still — has the guy learned nothing? Does he not see how insane it is that a black woman principal would acquiesce to the disgraced ex-con once-upon-a-time novelist who publicly stomped all over her career and reputation? Is he really that charming and good looking? I cannot wait for the other shoe to drop — and I’m here to say, again, that it would be awesome to see a series of events here from Janelle’s point of view, because as it is, Noah’s self-serving narrative is really doing nothing except make me dislike him even more than I already do.
Helen and Vik pick up after the events that dramatically ended Episode 1 — Vik passed out on the bathroom floor — and man-oh-man do they look worse for wear. Vik, in particular, looks pale and ashen, which at first I attributed to the illness but which I later realized was probably due to the devastating diagnosis that has just come his way. We have to divine this from the clues that are dropped along the way — treatment plans, the need to fight this, Sloan Kettering — but it’s not long before we realize that Vik has cancer and it’s bad. Late stage. Likely terminal. And he doesn’t want to fight it.
Helen doesn’t understand. Where she comes from — which is the most privileged little corner of Brooklyn, apparently — people don’t sit in prayer circles or cleanse their crystals under the full harvest moon out in Joshua Tree National Park; they fucking fight. But in Vik’s horrible desperation, all he wants is for Helen to have his baby.
It’s heartbreaking. This is a man raising someone else’s kids — kids he loves, evidently, from the sweet way he sends Stacey and Trevor off to school — and who works hard every day as the Head of Pediatric Surgery at his hospital, and he’s dying without any children of his own. I almost forgive him the terrible guilty burden he lays at Helen’s feet, asking her to bear a child he will not be around to help her raise, because compared to the rest of the cast here, Vik has been downright saintly. I hope he’s wrong in his diagnosis, or that he does come around to the idea of treating his cancer, because I like him so much; he deserves so much better than Helen.
Ah, Helen. I pitied her for a while. But as the seasons have gone on — and this is a testament to Maura Tierney’s acting here — I’ve begun to understand Helen as little more than a spoiled, entitled brat who never grew up and away from the silver spoon she was born with. She can’t understand Vik’s decision to forgo treatment, something which I admit I couldn’t handle well either but which is ultimately Vik’s decision and not her own and is therefore something she needs to respect. She can’t understand her therapist and his touchy-feely West Coast ways, looking down her nose disdainfully at methodologies she doesn’t understand and thinks are beneath her. She can’t even fake understanding with Sienna, the avocado-and-goat-yoga neighbour who can’t figure out her bins properly and invites Helen to the aforementioned Joshua Tree crystal cleansing ceremony in a few weeks’ time.
“That was bitchy,” Vik tells Helen after she dumps on Sienna, to which Helen replies: “It needed to be done.”
This is Helen’s problem. She feels she knows what everyone needs better than everyone else does. And never is that made more clear than in her blatant disregard of Vik’s one demand: that Helen not tell his parents of his illness at the awards benefit that evening, where he’ll be honoured. Helen can only think of herself though; in begging Priya to talk sense into Vik, Helen kicks over a veritable hornet’s nest. Because there’s another thing Helen can’t understand, and that’s Vik.
The real kicker is that Helen can’t even bring herself to admit to her therapist that Vik doesn’t mean as much to her as she knows he should. When she asks Dr. Kaplan to name the people he couldn’t live without and he turns the question back on her, she doesn’t name Vik.
The rest of the episode shows us who she thought of, though…
Honestly, at this point, Noah and Helen deserve each other and I’m tired of how long the show is taking to get to the point where they just figure that out for themselves. Noah could stop his Compton Crusade and finally have a relationship with his youngest children; Helen could get back the husband over whom she was able to exert control. They could stop stampeding through other people’s lives, breaking china left and right, and settle down together in the shade I’m sure I will continue throwing their way if their storylines continue in this fashion.
I still loved this episode, though. Don’t get me wrong. I used to think that episodes like this — in which we see two totally different sets of events rather than the same one twice — were less interesting, but for the first time I think I actually enjoyed it more. Perhaps it’s the conditioning that comes with 30+ episodes of this format, to the point where we know that this isn’t the truth anymore and so it’s our turn to wheedle out the fact from fiction. But when we get an episode that separates the experiences in this way, there’s something objective about it, because we aren’t getting the other side now. How are we supposed to read Janelle’s impassioned speech to Noah at the bar, or Vik’s to Helen in the car?
Without a counterpoint that swings the pendulum as far in the opposite direction, it’s hard to tell. We’re left even more adrift, to imagine the counterpoint to Noah and Helen’s unreliable narratorship. The show has trained us well. It can then dabble in the traditional methods of storytelling again, catching us off guard only in those moments when we slip and find ourselves accepting the narrative at face value again. Is Janelle really that calm at the bar? Did Vik remain as calm as he did with Helen?
Maybe these are mysteries we will never know the answers to.
- Anton’s “Girl’s got a type!” made me laugh so loud my cat was startled off my lap and scratched me and now I want compensation please. Thank you.
- I’ve taught in a lot of schools. No one has ever snapped their fingers like they’re at a poetry recital during a staff meeting.
- We do, however, go drinking…
- I hope Noah read’s the terrible, no good, very bad novel his coworker dropped on his desk in Episode 1, and which makes a comeback (in name only) in Episode 3. If only because I kinda want Noah to suffer a bit…
- I’m even more convinced now that Joanie and Stacey are blood relatives and that a paternity bombshell is going to blow this season wide open. I’m predicting around Episode 7…
- Trevor thinking he got his gift for biology from Vik is a charming, funny little moment…that repeatedly stabs you right in the heart.
- Is Helen actually going to go through with fertility treatments? I’m curious to see how this plays out.
- …please don’t kill Vik.