Wednesday, December 18, 2013

We need to talk about that amazing season finale of Awkward

Though they may seem quite different when you first think about them, I often group Awkward and Suburgatory together in my head.  Neither are shows that have ever made it anywhere close to my top 20 list at the end of the year, even though I would recommend them to people.  They both may be listed as comedies, but I often find their comedy too broad and vastly prefer the dramatic/emotional beats they hit.  Both have a number of characters I'd completely cut out of the show, starting with Noah on Suburgatory and Valerie on Awkward.  At the end of the day, they're pleasant watches -- if they weren't, I'd stop tuning in -- but they both are mostly just content with being "pleasant" and nothing more.  Basically, they each do alot of things -- and I mean alot -- that I don't enjoy, but when they decide to take things up a notch (think "The Wishbone" for Suburgatory and the final scene in "Pick Me, Choose Me, Love Me" for Awkward), it makes for some truly transcendent television.

After two 12-episode seasons, MTV decided to up the episode order for season 3, thus making it 20 episodes and split into two halves over the year.  I was a little skeptical at first.  While I often like the way that longer seasons (especially for high school shows) allow for "filler" episodes that give us a better feel for the characters, I generally find the 10-13 episode format better suited for dramatic arcs.  But you couldn't really tell much of a difference once the season started -- Awkward was just the same old Awkward.  Except in a small but crucial way, it wasn't and hadn't been for a long time.  One of the things that initially hooked me into the show in season one was that it was Jenna's journey of recovery from an incident that left her a social outcast.  Over the course of its 12 episodes, Jenna's path intersected with the various corners that existed in her school as she navigated through this difficult time.  What was initially just another feature of the show in season 1 -- the love triangle between her, Matty, and Jake -- became the dominating force in season 2.

By the time season 3 rolled around, the show had moved past the "Will Jenna end up with Matty or Jake?" question, but straight into another romantic entanglement, as Jenna developed feelings for the underwritten, poorly acted Collin.  It makes sense that a teenage girl would be fickle when it comes to boys, and the first half of season 3 was still filled with some delightful moments, but there were times where I wondered whether the obsession with Jenna's tumultuous love life would topple the show.  It wasn't until it returned from its midseason break in October that I realized what Lauren Iungerich and the rest of the writers were trying to do.  All of the foolish decisions Jenna was making were more than deliberate; the show was attempting to turn Jenna into the villain of her own show, and were doing a brilliant job of it.  Her eventual realization that she's hit rock bottom might have felt a little forced, but it brought about a refreshing return to the regular rhythms of the show, following Jenna on her road to redemption.

So after making up with her parents in "The Campaign Fail," her friends in "Old Jenna," and Valerie in "Karmic Relief;" "Who I Want to Be" felt like it was going to be a quiet hour, where things were finally back to normal.  After largely being adrift for most of the season, Sadie was still kind of isolated from the core of the story, but she at least had some funny scenes with her mother.  One of my favorite things about these last few episodes was the introduction of Bailey, because it's rare that a show just introduces a new friend for the protagonist to have outside of their main group of friends.  And even though I feared that the writers might be using her as the thing that tragically ruins the chances of Matty and Jenna reconciling, I found her to be a warm and pleasant person on a show where the characters often don't feel grounded.  Plus, my fears were assuaged in the finale, when it zigged instead of zagging, with Jenna helping Matty and Bailey get together instead of deciding that their coupling was a friendship-ruiner for her and Bailey.  The first three-fourths of the finale were filled with solid moments like these.

But in the last 15 minutes, the episode transformed from a fun farewell to an eventful season to pure, unfiltered amazingness.  It started with that scene between Jenna and her mom, where Jenna is trying to write her "Who I Want to Be" paper and looking at the infamous letter that caused a rift between the two of them back in the show's early days.  Jenna's relationship with her mom has been one of the best things about Awkward for a long time, and it might be the most exciting and nuanced mother-daughter relationship currently on television.  Their scenes together are usually the highlight of any episode, so this scene in the finale brought their entire relationship full circle, and the show finally reached the seemingly impossible heights that it did in that scene between the two of them way back in season 2's "Pick Me, Choose Me, Love Me."  If that was the only excellent scene, it'd be enough, but then there was the moment where Matty and Jenna share a dance while a Jessie Ware song is playing in the background.  It was wonderful and reflective, but most of all, it was content with having these characters exist in the moment, not concerned with aggressively pushing the intense relationship drama that the show had been mired in for the past two seasons.

Yet still, that's not even the end of the glorious joys that "Who I Want to Be" had to offer.  It closes on Mr. Hart reading Jenna's paper, where she sums up three seasons of self-actualization in a few beautiful sentences.  Maybe I'm just a sucker for the "wrapping things up with a letter" technique (my favorite book, Looking For Alaska, does this in devastating fashion), but it felt so cathartic.  For months, Lauren Iungerich had been asking us to be patient, because she was building to something with Jenna's arc this season, and I dismissively thought "Oh, I'm sure the finale will be good, but will it really all be worth it"?  It was totally worth it.  Jenna's realization that she doesn't need a boy to define her life and determine her happiness was something I'd been we'd all been waiting for her to have for ages.  It's up there with Breaking Bad's "I did it for me" moment in terms of pure satisfaction.  The image that the finale leaves us with, of Jenna dancing contentedly by herself, is the one of the most joyous moments of television I've seen since the iconic Girls scene where Hannah and Marnie dance to a Robyn song at the end of a hard day.

"Who I Want to Be" is even more satisfying given how up in the air the show's future is.  It's getting a fourth season, but one without Lauren Iungerich and most of the creative staff.  And despite the fact that I liked her and looked forward to where the show would take her character, Bailey won't be returning in season 4.  So if this finale was Iungerich's championship game, she left everything on the field, because you couldn't have asked for a better episode.  Her reign told a complete 3-season story, and even though I will most likely tune into the next season out of curiosity, it's hard to imagine the new staff ever living up to this send-off.

Sometimes a finale is so good that it makes you want to reassess everything before it.  I found this most recent season of Boardwalk Empire to be frustrating in its lack of direction, but it ended with a finale that was so spectacular that the whole season rose several orders of magnitude in my estimation.  Earlier this year, I also wrote about Mad Men's 6th season, which I found to be good but formless for most of its run, only to have things snap together in the season finale.  Awkward's just another example of this.  My top 20 shows of the year list has no room for anything as frustrating as this third season often was, but "Who I Want to Be" is, without a doubt, one of my favorite episodes of 2013.

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