Episode 125: Pascal’s Triangle Revisited
Abed wants to give things a finale vibe, and this episode certainly has that vibe. Nearly every character of the first season makes an appearance, and many play an important role in the plot. The stakes are greater than before, and all the actions seem magnified as a result. Even the cookies are bigger. It all works because of what Pascal's Triangle Revisited is about: the decisions we make in the heat of the moment and how they reflect upon ourselves and each other.
To a certain extent, writing about a season finale means writing about the entire season, which is especially true for a show as introspective as Community. This episode makes no attempt to be a typical episode, instead serving to conclude the character arcs that have developed over the course from the year. From almost the very beginning, when Chang asks Duncan to help him cheat his way through school in much the same way that Jeff did in the pilot, it is made clear that the most important thing about the episode is the light it sheds on how the characters have changed since then.
First off, it's important to recognize the episode as a whole, which includes all the characters outside the group who are great in this episode. Craig Pelton's increasingly bizarre Dalmatian fetish (which is an oversimplification, I should add) climaxes here with hilarious results after building up gradually throughout the season. As usual, Ian Duncan is amazing; every single line that John Oliver delivers is hilarious. Duncan might be the most purely hilarious character of all, and it's a shame that he's been around less and less often. Moreover, he is instrumental in the plot of this episode. Looking at the episode with an analytical eye, it's impossible not to stand in awe at the writing. Not only does every scene matter, but almost every conversation pays off later down the line. This includes gratuitously inebriated Duncan, whom one would expect to be around simply for comic relief; it is Duncan who tells Slater what Jeff and Britta did, triggering her response and the ensuing escalation (this also explains the scene in which Britta is in Duncan's office, since it must have been then that Britta told him what happened), and it is drunk Duncan who provides the riotously funny and utterly rhythm-free distraction that allows Jeff to escape his predicament. The entire episode is incredibly tightly plotted to the extent that it would be hard to wring much more out of 22 minutes of television. Bear in mind that this show is a comedy; the plotting isn't even the thing that matters, and yet it's so good that it's almost beyond belief.
The premise of the episode is reasonably straightforward. Everyone has passed their classes thanks to Pierce, and now they must find out what they are to do in the next year. For the time being, at least, the older characters have already resigned themselves to their fates at Greendale; while they too have questions and concerns about the future, they are of a less direct nature than the problems that face Troy and Annie, who are the youngest and least sure of themselves. The two have both grown and changed over the course of the year, and at year's end they must decide what that means for them. Given the way Annie's story relates to the most important plot of the episode, it will be addressed a little further down; Troy's plot will have to come first.
All year, Troy's internal conflict has been lurking beneath the surface. On the one hand, he feels compelled to conform to a certain ideal of masculinity; as Jeff tells him in the pilot, he is a prom king, making him the sort of person for whom astronauts go to space to impress. As of the pilot, Troy certainly sees himself in that manner. The problem for Troy is that he is not like Jeff at all; Jeff tries not to care about anything, but Troy cares very much. Obviously Troy cannot replicate Jeff's aloofness, nor should he try. In contrast to Jeff, Abed represents the side of Troy that just likes liking things. Abed is self-assured and perfectly self-realized; he knows that Lucky Charms and television make him happy, and he's fine with that. He has no need to define himself by any outer characteristic; in The Politics of Human Sexuality, it is revealed that Abed is an even better athlete than star football player Troy, and yet he never feels the desire to assert that, even consciously downplaying that for the sake of Troy's more fragile ego. After all, as he asserts in Physical Education, he can change for others because he knows who he is. Meanwhile, Troy's life until coming to Greendale has been one long act for public consumption; we see in Football, Feminism and You the person he used to be, and it becomes clear throughout the year that the real Troy is not quite like that. Troy has to hide the dance classes that he takes; he assumes that Abed would never have to do anything like that, given his tremendous self-confidence. Although Troy has doubts about the sort of person that he is becoming as a result of his association with Abed (doubts that we see in The Art of Discourse and English as a Second Language), he spends a great deal of his time with Abed nonetheless, exploring a different side of his personality.
When Troy has to move out of his dad's house, his leaving the nest is symbolic of his journey in life and his travel into adulthood. Given the course of the character throughout the season, the easiest thing to do would be to have Troy accept that he wants to be like Abed and for the two to move in together, thereby allowing the show to spread to us all the heartwarming message of innumerable after-school specials (and Fat Albert): all Troy needs to do is be himself. That isn't what happens, of course. Troy holds up his part of that deal, asking to live in Abed's dorm, but he is rebuffed, which surprises the viewer just as much as it surprises Troy. The reasoning that Abed provides for his decision is demonstrative of the differences between him and Troy.
Abed is, of course, not the only person to whom Troy looks up. Abed is not a natural leader, and growing and changing are clearly not for him, but for Troy growth and change are vitally important. In these respects, Troy is far more similar to his idol Jeff and even to grumpy old man Pierce than he is to Abed, but he has a fundamental decency that is lacking in Jeff and Pierce and even Abed. To develop as a person while keeping what makes him special, he must not be too subject to Abed's influence, lest he become too much like Abed; if he were to become a clone of Abed, it would be just as bad for him as it would be to become a clone of Jeff. It's an important lesson that Troy learns (and a lesson cleverly done in a hilarious manner thanks to Troy's symbolic 60-inch-diameter cookie), and it's one that he'll need as he becomes a man. The theme of Troy's growth into manhood is one that recurs throughout the first half of the second season, wherein it is one of the most important character arcs, before being largely dropped in the second half. It appears that Abed forgets entirely the lesson of this episode when he and Troy become roommates a year later, but that is neither here nor there.
Pierce doesn't do too much in this episode, but it's worth examining his motivations in his offer to Troy to live with him. Pierce sees the group as the family that he was never able to have; it's a theme examined in several episodes of the first season, particularly the last scenes of The Politics of Human Sexuality and Basic Genealogy. He suspects that the other members of this family don't see him in the same way that he sees them; we see it in his conversation in the very beginning of the episode with Troy about the way they had grown apart, and it's clear from his remark that Troy would have enjoyed "banana penis" if Abed had done it that Pierce is envious of the relationship between Troy and Abed. Certainly the way Troy acts during the episode does nothing to disprove Pierce's suspicions, as Troy doesn't seem to show any appreciation for Pierce's offer, seeing him only as a last resort. It's a surprisingly sad plotline for such a funny and outwardly happy episode, and it informs much of Pierce's behavior over the course of the following year.
Britta's actions, which culminate in her public declaration of love for Jeff at the dance, are a far cry from her behavior in the pilot episode. Without a doubt, she doesn't really mean what she says; hers is a decision made in the heat of the moment, and the consequences of that decision come into full view in the next episode. The key factor to note when considering Britta is that she doesn't do what she does for Jeff; she does it for herself. The story of the first season is in many respects the story of Britta's fall from that supremely self-confident woman of the pilot to the one that even Chang called "the worst". While this fall changed Britta from a boring cipher into one of the best characters of the show, surely it was a sobering journey for her. The fall is manifested in Jeff's interactions with Slater; this man, whom she had once rejected when she had him eating out of the palm of his hand, is now throwing her aside as if she were some high school student's mom. Just like in The Art of Discourse, Britta's latent competitiveness is activated, and her desire to win consumes all else. She does things she wouldn't ordinarily do, starting with competing for Tranny Queen (as Slater notes with surprise) and ending with that declaration of love. It is only when that announcement fails to have the desired effect that the realization comes of what has happened; Britta may not be a particularly guarded person, but (despite what Shirley thinks) she has certainly taken a step too far this time.
Then, of course, we have Jeff and Annie. Thanks to that last scene, they can't be discussed without reference to one another. That scene is one of the very best scenes in the whole show, on par with Troy and Annie in Mixology Certification. The conversation that Jeff and Annie have as they stand outside is a wonderful encapsulation of the meaning of the show, and it forms the underpinning for so much of this episode and this season.
Jeff gives off his mixed signals because he is genuinely conflicted between Slater and Britta. It's easy for us to dismiss Slater because she's not a particularly well-developed character and because she disappears entirely after this episode, but she does have her own appeal for Jeff. His perpetual adolescence was broken when he lost his job and his place in life; at Greendale, he must learn to become a responsible adult. Part of that is abandoning his life of one-night stands with Car Wash Redhead and Tube Top REM Concert and Juror Number Six and successfully pursuing a lasting relationship with another responsible adult. That adult is Slater; being with her is a big accomplishment for someone with the myriad emotional problems that Jeff has. He's willing to sit with her and watch Glee, and in that way he's breaking with his past. On the other hand, Britta, whom Jeff holds up as an ideal of self-realization, is an even greater break with the past. Britta is far from responsible; she proudly boasts to Slater that she hasn't done laundry in three weeks. Britta's appeal is that she knows exactly what Jeff is and doesn't reject him for it. Jeff is a huge nerd, and Britta is the worst. Whereas Slater represents what society expects of Jeff as a responsible adult, Britta represents what Greendale is making Jeff. He isn't ready to commit to either, since commitment would mean coming to terms with his life and what he will be in the future. Instead, he flees.
Annie's journey in the first season hardly needs to be stated. Pierce says that nobody wanted her in the group at the start of the year, and there's no reason to think that he's wrong. The Annie of the pilot is humorless and callously judgmental; she's not the sort of person one would want to have around for any reason except to provide the answers. She views herself as better than everyone else, and she thinks that she belongs at a better place than Greendale. While she rapidly becomes as important a member of the group as any, the issues at the beginning still remain in the background, unresolved; she is insecure about herself and about her place in life, and she is fundamentally immature. While that immaturity sometimes poses difficulties in writing, as it is wrongly used as an excuse to make Annie do whatever is necessary for the plot to work (Basic Rocket Science is the most egregious offender in this regard), it is employed perfectly here. For a character to move away and then come back in the same episode might be ridiculous on a different show; it feels perfectly natural here because it is based in who Annie is. Annie is self-aware and she knows that she plans things out too much, but her response is to plan to become more spontaneous. Of course, this sort of planned spontaneity is just spontaneity for her own sake, and it doesn't lead to anything positive, as Annie finds out when she sets out for Delaware. It is only at the end of the episode, when she stops actively trying to live in the moment, that she truly can live in the moment. It is telling that Annie is the first one to initiate the kiss as she leans in ever closer to Jeff; it is only the second time that Jeff truly commits himself.
The relationship between Jeff and Annie is a fascinating one, in large part because of the extent to which the two resemble each other. One suspects that a younger Jeff was very much like Annie; we've never seen that Jeff, of course, but we can use the clues that we have to try and draw some conclusions. We know that Jeff is incredibly self-confident; in flashbacks, we've seen his mom tell him how special he is. Jeff has had to do very little work in life, getting by on his charm and good looks; while Annie tried to work hard at Greendale and get good grades so that she could transfer into a real university, all Jeff had to do was fake his way into law school with his degree from Colombia. When Jeff and Annie have to cram for their debate, it turns out that Jeff is completely unequipped to do the necessary work to succeed, because he never has gotten anywhere in life by doing the necessary work.
Jeff is the way he is because he tries to stay detached from anything beyond the material (including religion, hence his agnosticism). In essence, Jeff is an anti-Buddhist. It seems that his conscious detachment is a result of his parents' divorce when he was young, which robbed him of faith in anything but the divorce attorney's car. Annie's parents are also divorced, but their divorce doesn't seem to have left the same sort of lasting emotional mark upon her. Despite her familial problems and her pill addiction that caused her to lose her scholarship and virginity, she has retained her faith in religion (while she may not be as overtly religious as Shirley, she strongly identifies as Jewish all the same) and, more generally, her faith in the system, which she is sure (at the outset, at least) will provide her with a transfer to a good school and then a graduate degree and then a successful and well-paying career. This faith is manifested in her attitude toward school; she does the extra credit assignments that to Jeff would constitute "failing", because she sees them as the true path to success. We can see the difference between the two clearly in their career choices. Jeff's motivations for practicing law are clear; he wants to exploit the legal system for profit. One the other hand, we never really know why Annie wants to go into healthcare management; one suspects that she has chosen it because it's a respectable occupation and one that makes sense for her, rather than because she has any real passion for health administration. In Mixology Certification, we see that she has doubts about the road that she is taking. Those doubts reflect the doubts that she has in the system; Jeff, on the other hand, has never had to face such doubt because he has never believed.
Despite their differences, Jeff and Annie are very much like one another; with regards to good looks and charm, theirs far exceed those of any of the other members of the group save Troy, who is utterly sincere and thus essentially alien to them. Annie is learning to use her good looks and charm, whereas Jeff's are beginning to fail him. The two are at different stages of their life, but they are fundamentally akin. Annie is viewed as good and Jeff as bad only because she cares and he does not; Annie is what Jeff could have been if he were less preoccupied with personal gain. Jeff recognizes that and he tries to protect Annie from the doom that he has made for himself; at the same time, his selfish desires counteract those efforts. He is vain, and his ego largely depends on the sense of superiority that she challenges with her perceived virtue. Even as Jeff tries to shelter Annie, he cannot bear to see her elected student body president based on her hard work and her qualifications; that would invalidate his beliefs about the futility of effort and the system, and so he has to take action to validate his worldview. Thus the relationship between Jeff and Annie is informed by its vacillation between cynicism and idealism; in Pascal's Triangle Revisited, the pendulum has swung strongly to the side of the latter. Annie is in her essence a romantic and an idealist, and in this episode she manages to coax the same feelings out of Jeff, if only once.
More than anything else, it is the living in the moment that Annie so desires that finally occurs at the end. To each other, Jeff and Annie represent freedom from the demands and expectations of the outside. They're not supposed to be together, and yet there they are, and nothing in the world could possibly make more sense than that. It's easy to look back at all of it with a jaded eye, given the extent to which Jeff and Annie have been put together and emphasized over the course of the next season and a half, but they were once fresh and new and different and special, and nowhere is that more clear than in that final scene. There's a beautiful sense of unalloyed optimism to the whole scene; these people surely belong, even if they don't quite know how. We can't always know what's going to happen or how, but we all have a purpose. All that is left to do is to make our choices and let them take us where they may, and wonderful things will happen.
Jeff and Annie don't know what will happen to them over the course of the next three years; none of the group does. They have each other, though, and they have this place that is willing to accept them for who they are. The first part of their journey is complete. As they prepare themselves to face the future, they do it with the knowledge that Greendale is where they belong.
– There's no commentary review here because this was getting kind of long and the commentary isn't all that special. Donald Glover is amusing, though. He's a funny guy.
– While the above review comes out to five pages single-spaced in Microsoft Word, Vaughn is never mentioned. I'm not a fan of the way his relationship with Annie was handled; after they get together in Romantic Expressionism, it's never mentioned again until this episode, at which point we're expected to believe that it's so important to Annie that she would move across the country. It doesn't really work, although everything else is good enough that it hardly matters.
– There's some interesting symbolism as Troy arrives at Abed's kegger; he passes by guys playing hip-hop music and dances to the music a bit in recognition of his old self, but then he comes to Abed. Bonus points for the rap being Night Cap, which in addition to being hilarious was first heard in Interpretive Dance, an episode about Troy's doubts and self-perception.
– Annie's choice of words as she describes the Transfer Queen ceremony to Britta ("I'm so jealous, I want to murder you") has always struck me as a bit odd. I wonder if it means anything.
– When the people at the dance align themselves into Team Britta and Team Slater (a joke that is much funnier than it has any right to be), Star-Burns shouts out, "Bring Conan back!" Dino Stamatopoulos wrote for Conan O'Brien between 1993 and 1999.
– I'm of the firm opinion that this episode shouldn't be seen and then immediately followed by the next episode; while I do love that episode, seeing the cliffhanger at the end of this one immediately resolved ruins the effect. I spent the entire summer of 2010 talking about that cliffhanger with my friends; I would hate to see anyone miss it entirely. The difference in tone between the two episodes is a bit jarring, too.
– The day that "Greendale Is Where I Belong" fails to fill me with wistful joy is the day that I cease to have a soul.
Especially discerning readers might find some of this review familiar. A good deal of the stuff near the end is cribbed almost wholesale from comments I made here back in December; if I were to submit it to turnitin.com, the self-plagiarism alarms would be going off. What I wrote back then about Jeff and Annie seemed too appropriate to pass up; I hope you don't mind too much.
The conversation between Jeff and Annie is here reprinted in its entirety, because it's worth it:
"I thought you left."
"I couldn't go."
"I guess as we were driving away, I finally started living in the moment and I realized that, in the moment, Greendale is where I belong. What are you doing out here?"
"Oh, you know, Britta and Slater told me they loved me."
"What did you do?"
"I ran away. I don't know. It's hard. Slater makes me feel like I do when I write my New Year's resolutions. She makes me feel like the guy I want to be. And Britta makes me feel like the guy I am three weeks after New Year's, when I'm back to hitting my snooze button and screening Mom's phone calls, back to who I really am. So do you try to evolve or do you try to know what you are?"
"I don't know. I wish I could live two lives. One of me would go with Vaughn, and one of me could stay here."
"Yeah. One of me be back with Slater, the other could try it with Britta. And then we could all get together for some weird foursome. Um, I guess I gotta go deal with it."
"Um… I'm glad you're staying."
Since mine is the last review, I hope that nobody will mind if I say something about it. Three months ago, I signed up for two reviews without much knowledge of what that would entail. Since then, I've been taken step by step through the first season of Community, my favorite season of TV ever, and it's been wonderful. While the impending return has led to traffic here picking up and a lot of discussions going on all the time, for a while each new review was an important event, and one that I anxiously awaited almost as much as I would a new episode of Community. It's been really interesting to see the different ways in which people have approached their reviews; I've seen the episodes in a new way, and I've learned a lot. I can only hope that my own reviews are good enough to stand with the rest.
Special thanks to LloydBraun for making all of this happen and to seffina for preserving it for posterity. Thanks also to everyone who wrote reviews and everyone who provided insightful comments. All of you folk number among my favorite Internet people, and you've made the darkness of hiatus so much brighter.
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-464952749 (page 178)