Lindsay as Death-Bound Subject; Freaks and Geeks part two

by zunguzungu

It’s in episode five, I think (“Tests and Breasts”) that Freaks and Geeks’ particular use of comedy to articulate and navigate the problem of death is most clearly illustrated — in a wonderfully Miltonic idiom — but before we get to that, I want to first look at the death-bound subjectivity of the first episode, the manner in which death is (however ambiguously) the thing that “liberates” Lindsay/Linda Cardellini from her original positioning as a “mathlete” (and, as such, serves as the primary example of the show’s interrogation of whether or not it’s a good thing to be in a group or not). I have a half-written post on Up and Grumpy Old Men (which maybe now I’ll finish) that had originally got me thinking about this: in both movies, the specter of death is what liberates eros from the strictures of an (inevitably feminized) domesticity that chokes it off. But what’s interesting about Freaks and Geeks’ particular variation on this theme, I think, is that it locates death not in old age (which would lead us to fear it less if we don’t think of ourselves as old), but in the fabric and texture of all life, even that of a young teenager like Cardellini.

After all, the spur to Cardellini’s particular mode of development — the point at which her personal narrative diverges from the socially privileged “mathlete” identity she has hitherto inhabited — is the death of her grandmother, an event which is traumatic precisely because Cardellini analogizes between herself and her grandmother, because she does not locate death in extreme old age but, quite correctly, notes that she and her grandmother are similarly two people who will both die and for the same reasons (we all die). Her narrative therefore diverges from the “do good things and you will develop healthily” narrative in the moment she starts wearing her father’s old army jacket as a response to the trauma of the grandmother’s death (which her brother interestingly refers to as “her” grandmother), and while that jacket is a slightly less obvious analogue  of James Franco’s James Dean leather jacket, it’s no less a plotted artifice, a way of representing the trauma she’s experienced as a lived narrative. All of which is simply to say, the narrative of the show — and Cardellini’s picaresque wanderings — are inaugurated by the moment when death becomes real and calls into question the otherwise self-evident truth that life is a process of ceaseless development (“she was good all her life and that‘s what she got,” Cardellini laments).

When death is unthinkable, after all, any manner of unhealthy activity is irrational: a life which could be endless is far too precious a thing to waste by smoking, for example. But as with the oldest grumpy old man in Grumpy Old Men, the calculus is different once you recognize that you cannot stave off death inevitably by doing all the right things: it is at the very least less irrational to squander life if it’s going to be squandered anyway. This is Cardellini’s revelation — making the smoking patio a newly attractive place to hang out — as well as suggesting that her question that “Is it just me, or does the whole world suck?” has an obvious response: if the system sucks, why play by its rules? Her open mouthed, wide-eyed brother can’t understand “why are you throwing your life away” because he still inhabits, unquestioningly, the moral universe of the father, in which all compromised choices lead inevitably to death (“I know a guy who did X; you know where he is now? Dead.”). But the moral universe of Cardellini’s mother is equally suspect: while her father can recognize only negative outcomes (to him, a dance equals sexual degradation leading swiftly to death), her mother’s worldview is the inverse, a starry-eyed idealization of the dance as pure socialization without consequences. Cardellini is therefore able to mock the aporetic space they produce in tandem by combining them into a vision of her parents urging her to go to the dance and get raped: “if that’s what you want me to do…”

I used the phrase “death-bound subjectivity” in my first paragraph, and I’ve only just begun to start thinking about what kind of a subject position that is. I’m taking the term from Abdul JanMohamed’s excellent book on Richard Wright, and mimicking what he does when he positions Wright as engaging in the “death-work” of managing and negotiating the problem of living in the death-bound subjectivity of being black in Jim Crow (since black people were freely lynch-able, they were, in Orlando Patterson’s words, living “under a continually commuted death sentence”). JanMohamed finds in Wright’s employment of death as subject and subject position a project of unbinding and an opening up of new possibilities (a thanatos he contrasts with eros, which binds in increasing complexity), but Wright’s project of unthinking the oppressive identity categories under which he labors (“black boy,” for instance) is not so different from the oppressive limitations of the choices Cardellini suddenly sees herself presented by: when all the various social identities she is presented with are bankrupt, death allows the possibility of unbinding them, of moving (as she does) into the interstices of society. The show is never sure whether this is a good thing or not. But it makes me wonder if the grandmother’s death is simply the same kind of artifice as the jacket she wears to register her response to it: after all, if death is less a trauma determining what can be done than a tactic opening up new possibilities for action (and raising the new problem of what to desire), then maybe death is, for Cardellini as it was for Richard Wright, more a narrative technique than a existential dilemma. And as James Franco’s version of Milton’s Satan illustrates, pretending that the universe has cruelly foreclosed your options is a powerful, powerful tactic, if you are both willing to limit yourself to those options and able to cynically exploit that fact in manipulating others.

The show isn’t yet sure either, of course, and the end of the pilot episode is ambiguous; it was meant to inaugurate a TV show, so it is careful to suggest a variety of possibilities without foreclose any of them by burning any bridges. On the one hand, Cardellini is able to dance with Eli (and partially repair the damage she did earlier) only after she is re-invigorated by her brother’s optimism and takes off her army jacket. But on the other hand, we know that she will put it back on or something like it; one can remove the compensating mechanism, but the underlying problem space has, in being articulated, become the show‘s narrative mode, which will return. And so, the pilot’s final moments show us Kim (the show’s consummate tough girl whose toughness is always a means of illustrating, as a response to their absence, Cardellini’s options) punching the guy who mocks Cardellini and Eli dancing as a way of showing her own investment in that dream of simply transcending the underlying injuries of life. Yet it is exactly this dream that the show is perpetually interested in both revealing as such and in inhabiting: the fiction, perhaps, that one can overcome death by death?