What Millie Knows: Freaks and Geeks, part three

by zunguzungu

James Franco’s Daniel is at his most James Dean-like in episode five, “Tests and Breasts”: he wears sunglasses and a black leather jacket over a white t-shirt, is seen driving a bad-ass car, and comes in most explicit conflict with the forces of order. He also is seen smoking, the only time any of the kids are seen doing so (despite the importance of the “smoking patio”), and the scene in which he does so shows us a great deal about how the show works to articulate the link between death and eros.

Episode five isn’t really about him, of course. In fact, as he becomes a real character over the course of the show, he becomes less and less of a James Dean icon and more like the actual character that Dean played in Rebel Without A Cause: a basically good kid whose actions make perfect sense given the shitty situation he finds himself in. In episode five, the action revolves around Lindsay and Sam and Daniel’s registers, instead, as the cipher whose signification they seek to unravel, the black box into which they put the answer to their most pressing problems.

For Sam, it is the question of sex, both the dirty joke which the Geeks overhear and spend the entirety of the episode trying to unravel and the larger problem which it signifies: how are they to develop from being non-sexual beings to being sexually active men? Is this process immanent or can it be caused (taught)? After all, the first line of the episode is Coach Fredericks’ statement that “Puberty usually begins between the ages of eleven and thirteen,” and so much gets locked into that word “usually”: in episode four, it was revealed that Sam has not hit puberty and he spends the episode fighting not to be saddled with the ironic sobriquet “Dr. Love” as a signifier of a corresponding lack of knowledge.

These are two different things, of course: one cannot learn puberty (as the educational idiom of “Dr. Love” and the entire idea of health class implies) but, then, this is exactly the question: is the dirty joke and all it signifies simply something which you simply either know or don’t (immanent, like puberty), or is it a mystery capable of penetration by our own efforts? Thus, Harris can’t tell them what the dirty joke means because “Then you’d know; you have to find out for yourselves.” And his advice to them is just as unsatisfying: “Love is like homework. You have to study if you want to get an A,” he says, but this is exactly what Sam can’t do. You can’t study your way into puberty.

What is an unsolvable mismatch of terms for the Geeks, however, is an ideological difference for Daniel and Kowchevski: while Daniel’s first line in the episode is his challenge that Kowchevski hasn’t taught them enough to warrant another test, Kowchevski’s response is similarly instructive, the argument that Math is progressive, that each week only builds on the previous. Which is to say, while Kowchevski believes that our destinies have already been set and that as surely as a math problem’s solution is contained within its formulation, we can know what a person will do in the future (thereby obviating the need for tests except as confirmation), Daniel prefers to put the burden on Kowchevski to teach them, arguing, implicitly, that they cannot be judged lacking unless he has done sufficient work to warrant it. In other words, again, immanent or learnable?

The conversation between Daniel and Sam, then, occurs as an elaboration of this problem, for both Daniel and Sam are posed with the problem of an apparently immanent lack: Daniel sucks at school while Sam is tragically undeveloped. Thus, when Daniel has gone outside to smoke and Sam has gone outside to consult books on anatomy, Daniel apparently offers a way out, first telling him that learning how the body works only makes you afraid of mortality (a fear his smoking registers the rejection of) and then offering to “set you up.” But Daniel’s answer is not only shown to be insufficient — the stag film is only attractive to Neil, whose constant pose of sophistication requires the pretense of enjoyment[1] — Daniel himself is, in a larger sense, a character who is attractive because he offers the (ultimately shown to be false) possibility of learning your way past ontological facts, both for Sam and for Lindsay.

For Lindsay, it is the problem of predestination and the accompanying question of whether we can be held responsible for our actions. Are “good kids” and “bad kids” always and forever good or bad? Note, for example, the scene in which she tells Millie that she has been cheating with Daniel: Millie rejects her words completely, laughing hysterically at the very prospect of a good kid doing bad things. In her (significantly Christian) worldview, that would be an impossibility. Once upon a time, this was Lindsay’s perspective too, the belief that the world was a Manichaean one divided between the elect and the damned, but as I wrote in my second post, her personal narrative diverges from the socially privileged “mathlete” identity she has hitherto shared with Millie when her grandmother dies, showing her that it is possible to be good all your life and get nothing for it. In such a narrative, then, James Franco’s James Dean suddenly becomes a very attractive devil (Milton’s rather than Dante’s) and saving him becomes Lindsay’s obsession because of what his damnation would otherwise imply: the lack of human agency that predestination would imply.

There are, then, three kinds of predestination in this narrative. First, predestination as tracking: like the earliest protestants, our actions are charted not as determinants of who we are but only as confirmation, such that we can be seen to have been irrevocably assigned to one of three possible tracks, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Daniel’s relegation to third track in junior high stands as signifier of this arbitrary injustice, which Lindsay attempts over the course of the episode to disprove by tutoring him: she believes (against Kim‘s superior knowledge of him), that if given the chance he can succeed and improve himself.

The other two kinds of predestination are the guidance counselor’s Rousseauvian faith in essential human goodness and the bitter Hobbesian misanthropy of Kowchevski the math teacher (which nicely correspond to their political orientations, the idealist hippie and the cynical Vietnam vet). While Rossi is a good fit for his job because he believes we can all choose what we want to be — and the only problem is figuring out which job we want — Kowchevski’s world is one in which choice is irrelevant, in which all children are fallen angels that need to be pounded into unwilling submission (“Daniel’s the kind of student that needs to just disappear”). For Rossi, we are all elect; for Kowchevski, we are all damned (unless gifted with the grace of instruction).

What, then, is the answer? For Sam, of course, we know what he does not, that he will eventually hit puberty, rendering the entire problem a painful phase but not a lasting one. But for Lindsay, the problem is fundamentally different, not only because the stakes are higher — death! — but also because Daniel really does lack the means to improve himself. Kowchevski is the bad guy in this episode — and we share Rossi’s horror with his willingness to write students off and even invent evidence of their damnation when it’s lacking — but the problematic fact remains that Daniel refuses to study, that he really does deserve to fail. Kowchevski, in other words, seems to be right. Daniel really is the Devil (no coincidence that his opening scene in the show occurs with Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil” in the background), and he tempts us and Lindsay with the idea that the system is unjust in exactly this way. And while we might like to believe the inverse of that, Rossi’s faith in each student’s inability to choose what life they want is shown to be fales (as it is in the next episode’s exploration of Segal’s complete inability to be a good drummer, the only thing he wants).

This sucks, right? And it’s not so dissimilar from the premise of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which in attempting to justify the ways of God to men, begins with the same problem, the apparent injustice that people get damned without having chosen to be evil[2]. What are we to make of the fact that things happen, and have consequences, without apparent cause? The death of Lindsay’s grandmother and the failure of puberty to come are examples of what we see performed in the early, apparently throwaway “Why did you do that?” scene: the fact that sometimes things just happen. As Hitchcock said, even throwaway scenes have to have some rationale for existing, and this scene is no exception. Segal spits pop onto Kim’s shirt, she shouts at him and storms off, and he abashedly admits that he sometimes gets funny urges. The scene doesn’t advance the plot — in fact, in the commentary track, the director notes it as having no reason for being in the show — but it is exactly because Segal does it for no apparent reason that the moment serves to suggest the purely arbitrary nature of reality (in fact, he spits pop on Kim while she is telling a story about doing something bad and her brother getting arbitrarily blamed for it).

For Milton’s answer, read Paradise Lost. But I’m a Dantean myself, and so is this show; in the face of the apparent tragic injustice of existence (and nothing is more tragically unjust, by the way, than “the guy with no arms and no legs” in the joke) we prefer comedy. Which is the meaning — albeit one it really only gestures towards — of the bizarrely wonderful ending to the episode: when Daniel tells his pathetic story about being relegated to track three, Lindsay (having heard the story already) suddenly recognizes it as a pose, and her response is hysterical laughter. This is interesting, and reflects on the larger problems of the show I think; after all, is this show a comedy? It’s certainly funny, at points, but that humor is used to resolve what it otherwise shows to be irresolvable problems. We laugh, after all, at high school because there is nothing else to do; it’s an unendurably unjust fascist police state, but the thing about it is this: it will end. High School, in other words, is the thing that Dante didn’t invent but massively, massively expanded from his sources: it is Purgatory (which Milton, by the way, lacked in his cosmology).

But what is laughter? In one sense, it simply sublates the problem without resolving it: we laugh because we are uncomfortable, which shows us that the problem remains. But in another, the sense of comedy that Dante was playing with — a commedia has a happy ending — is present here too: the episode (if not the problems) resolves through laughter, and sometimes laughing at a problem does help us resolve it. I think this is why, for example, we see Sam and the coach laughing as they discuss whatever it was Sam saw in the stag film, and even if he doesn’t actually achieve puberty — his real problem — he does get past the problem of the moment, both bonding with the coach and becoming reconciled to the horror, the horror that the stag film revealed.

In this sense, I want to return to Millie’s moment of laughter. At the time, it’s almost pathological; she is told the truth but she closes her eyes to it and retreats in hysteria. Yet given both the fact that Lindsay’s and Sam’s final responses to the horrible truth are laughter and laughter, and the fact that Millie increasingly becomes the show’s moral center, it’s hard not to take the moment more seriously than it originally seemed, and not only because it allows me to make an obscure Henry James reference. After all, in a show with so many crypto-Christian narrative elements, what is that Millie knows when she knows that the truth is untrue?

[1] Note that Neil later repeats the joke to appreciative older classmates, significantly, without having learned what it means. Pretending to get the joke doesn’t mean you do, though it does allow you to pass.

[2] Daniel’s account of himself, it is worth pointing out, always emphasizes the fact that he never chose to be dumb.