Episode 203: The Psychology of Letting Go
203 – The Psychology of Letting Go
The Psychology of Letting Go ostensibly continues the show's discussion of faith left off in Comparative Religion, where the group discovered how messy the varied religions and "philosophies" of a make-shift family can become. Annie resignedly concluded, "Everyone's belief's are weird, let's not talk about it." But this is not so much a Special Episode about Religion as it is a character-driven look at the personal toll of holding too hard to beliefs. For the first time since 112 (this was produced ahead of 202), our study groupers' deeply held convictions and assumptions about themselves and indeed existence itself are challenged, be it Pierce's faith in his Laser Lotus "cult", Jeff's worship of himself as an immortal god, or Troy facing the concept of death for the first time. As a whole, the episode plays as a mosaic of parallel stories and serves a reminder that life marches on as we let irrational obsessions and grudges consume us.
Geez. Who died?
Mama Hawthorne did, after crawling out to the garage like a cat. Pierce is expected to cope with his loss according to ritualistic norms prescribed by societyeven Britta agrees. In fact, Pierce's cult does help him cope; it's just that his friends can't stomach the involvement of lasers and lava lamps. One of the great achievements of this story is its pitch-perfect balance of the absurdity of the stories with the gravity of the emotions evoked in the characters.
Pierce awaits the Buddha's Hawaiian Punch
Pierce is a dear character to me because he's the most desperate and doomed to unfulfillment. It's all the more sad considering it is arguably the prime of his life after being the sheltered, cowering son of Col. Eugenics and a seven-times-failed family man for most of it. At this stage in his life, he's not a tragic hero, like Jeff, Abed and Troy; he has no hero's journey to undertake. No, the "pathetically, stupidly, inconveniently obvious truth" about Pierce is that death is calling and that prospect informs a lot of his behavior on the show. At Annie's Danza de los Muertos party Starburns' pills sparked a panic about his age and he told Jeff he wanted to die. He envisioned an actual dance of the dead in his name – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…. If Pierce isn't explicitly fretting about death, it comes through in his constant, desperate attempts to be relevant and respected by people he cares about before he finally sinks down that drain of eternity.
Since they met, Pierce has seen shades of himself in Jeff and thought of him as a son, much to the chagrin of Jeff, who fears he may indeed turn out like Pierce (see 2001 sequence in 301 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v… and he certainly isn't going to open his arms to anything resembling a father figure, at least not yet. They both share a deep resentment for their fathers and both are very close to their mothers. To that end, Pierce often imparts lessons learned from his failings to Jeff, as he does in 104, 111, and 118. A part of me wishes the episode would have been more daring in working their similarities into this story by having them therapize each other–maybe something like Jeff-Abed in CFS. Even more than was the case in 107, Jeff was the "only one that can help" with Pierce's latest crisis but he opted for outright antagonism. Pretty cruel even for Jeff.
On the other hand, Pierce's peculiar reaction to his mother's death is genuinely heartbreaking and revealing on its own. Reading his expressions and hearing him earnestly defend his religion conveyed all that was needed about what he was doing. He may genuinely believe the tenents of Reformed Neo-Buddhism, but you have to believe some part of him knows it's all crazytownbananapants. In the immediate aftermath, all he had to hold onto was pretending his mother would be recondensed one day and get right back to making Troy and him sandwiches in their mansion (it's adorable that he lived with his mother). Admirably, he never once lashed back at Jeff and all of his turmoil is internalized and channeled into outer calm. For a story that is essentially slagging off Scientology, that's a remarkably hopeful and generous outlook for a show to have about the healing power of faith.
Pierce's peace will be short-lived, though, because this episode officially kicks off what I call the Dark Pierce Saga of season 2. In the next episode he gets space madness and hallucinates Col. Sanders as his father. He grows more irascible and hostile by the episode in his cries for attention, and along the way he develops an addiction to painkillers that lands him in rehab. Getting old must suck.
Jeff wants his donuts back
In Beginner Pottery, Jeff confessed to having a hard time when he wants to be good at something and he sucks. He always believed he was special–his mother dotingly reminded him as much. And on at least two other occasions he has referred to himself as a god. Throughout his life, his skill in negotiating his way out of any corner gave him a false sense of security that, combined with his outrageous narcissism, makes it easy to see how a blood test reporting slightly high cholesterol would set off the mother of existential crises for him. Naturally, his instinct is to tear someone else down to soothe his ego.
The cynical view of this is of another story of Jeff Winger the jerk looking out for himself, then being humbled and eventually doing the right thing. But much like what brought Jeff back to Greendale in 202 being the result of a prolonged internal push and pull about what he really wanted, his path to doing the right thing here is based on a sincere empathy for Pierce. That is, this episode is arguing that discovering that he's going to die no matter what was just as crushing for Jeff as losing a beloved mother was for Pierce. This season kicks off Jeff's great humbling. For once, Jeff is losing something valuable in the process, not sex or cool pool attire.
Troy wants to eat a ghost
I've never seen Troy's part in this episode discussed to any extent. His story may look like it just gives Troy something to do, but he lived in the same house and his reaction comes in stark contrast to that of Pierce. Seeing a dead body for the first time leaves a lasting impression on him and I see it as a vital bit of development about Troy as an individual. Seasons 1 and 2 catch Troy at a turbulent period in his life marked by major lifestyle changes and a simultaneous arrested development, the consequences of which lay the plumbing for his reluctant maturation and individuation in season 3.
In this episode and in the cartoon wall tag from 202, which I mentally place in this episode, we see that Troy continues to be incapable of separating the natural world and its boundaries from the reaches of his imagination. This means it will not take long for him to start talking to a goat like it's a person, to start referring to a human (Rich) wearing a banana suit as "the banana", or to blame a ghost for stealing a pen; without question, he would eat himself if he woke up as a donut, and as we see here, he comes dangerously close to joining a cult based solely on the possibility of eating a ghost. Power of Imagination Troy is attracted to anything that transcends earthly limits and his brain is wired to believe these things exist on the same physical plane for him to freely traverse and explore.
These characteristics are played for jokes, sometimes cheaply relegating him to the Supporting Dumb Guy, but in the aggregate they arise from real anxieties he carries around. This episode forces Troy to confront the reality and finality of death, a fact of life Troy had always bypassed in pursuit of that rampant imagination. That is, he loves the idea of ghosts but never thought about how they became ghosts. So when he saw Mama Hawthorne had crawled out to the garage to die like a cat (Troy's tendency to anthropomorphize animals is very Karl Pilkington-esque), he wasn't just grieving for a personal loss, but also he was legitimately stunned it could happen at all. Just as Abed did some damage to Troy with the cartoon wall, this ordeal left him permanently scarred, as evident by his unease with Starburns' death: "I'm not as comfortable with death as you guys" and later, "May your dreams be sweet and your nightmares be spooky monster scary and not Grandma died scary."
There is a key exchange early on when Pierce explains that the vaporizing process "frees you from the burden of your earthly body". Troy thinks out loud, "it is a burden". That epiphany crystallizes for him how much he has always felt burdened and cursed by his physical talent. He never loved football and indeed resents it because it's all about order and authority–anti-imagination. Plus, just as he was wearing his letter jacket in the pilot "for them", he was only playing football to fulfill the aspirations of his family members who pushed him into it.
So this episode sees Troy introduced to death as he starts to unconsciously arbitrate some of the competing psychological forces at play in his mind. In Jungian psychology, individuation is the gradual integration and unification of the self through the resolution of successive layers of psychological conflict. For Troy, this incorporation of his psyche begins a process of self-actualization that starts in Mixology Certification and fully takes hold in season 3 with the AC school arc. We'll get to that later.
Mama Hawthorne's CD
"Life is only worth a damn because it’s short. It’s designed to be consumed, used, spent, lived, felt. We’re supposed to fill it with every mistake and miracle we can manage, and then we’re supposed to let go. I can't force you to do that for yourself, Pierce, but you can't force me to stay."
What a lovely scene as the stories of Pierce, Jeff and Troy converge on the way to the morgue. I love watching the acting of the three in the car, especially Troy, who is a joy to watch when he's rapt and left speechless by something, as he is in the Room Temperature Room. Jeff and Troy radiate the simple humanity of people who have been profoundly moved, but Pierce's is unaffected, and why should he be? He has his faith to get him through this ordeal, as silly as his particular faith is, and that's OK.
Annie and Britta change sweaters
A lot has been said of the Chang's pile of nothing that is the Britta-Annie pairing. They have radically opposed worldviews and personalities, and they seem to only share attractiveness in common. So then, as mrafink has noted in his 115 review, the unintended implication is that two attractive females can never share a healthy friendship. I'm afraid this episode doesn't offer us much more shading on that front and the subsequent two seasons have mostly ignored the pairing altogether.
Dan Harmon hated this episode, dismissing this plot in particular as "literally about Annie and Britta changing sweaters and doing impressions of each other." Their fundraising rivalry and sweater changing is meant to address the third side of the triangle left over from 201, but it rehashes the same tensions from 115. The resolution is weak and they're back to square none in subsequent episodes. One new wrinkle I appreciate is that, while Britta is often called on her phony values and dishonesty, Annie is rarely called on her even more manipulative school girl "routine". Many people saw Annie shaking her tits two episodes in a row and felt the show was sexualizing her too much, but for the first time the show clearly lays scorn on Annie's behavior as a character flaw, not something adorable Annie does. It's also just fun to watch Britta and Annie (or Gillian and Alison) get needlessly indignant.
OK Communists, let's take a crack at this relationship one more time. What the hell is it about? Are they just auditioning themselves for Jeff or a Jeff? Releasing pent up gayness? Is it really as simple as two hot skinny bitches competing over attractiveness?
Celery and Mustard
- Tag: Betty White explains Inception to a tribesman, careful not to spoil it for the other guy who hasn't seen the movie. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…. Like I said, for me the cartoon wall tag has a thematic home in this episode, despite Abed mentioning it to Jeff in 202.
- Abed's Z-plot: Honestly, it's not even that important to the episode but it's all everyone wants to talk about: "I saw it right away!", "OMG, I never caught that!", "I saw it, but also…I didn't?" It's a nifty device but I don't read much into it other than a visual punctuation mark. Here are all the scenes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…
- Britta is turned on by the demonstration of the oil spill diorama. Of course she gets off on destruction because she's an anarchist, and apparently she's drawn to broken, unavailable men AND planets. http://www.fishsticktheatre.co… – [123 when Jeff is hurt, 218 with Luka the war victim, 220 with Troy, 315 with Blade]
- Troy Crying Awesomely: When he tells everyone about Pierce's mom dead and Pierce won't accept it.
- Duncan and Chang have a plot of their own in this episode about "letting go" of grudges. Both play very well off each other as always.
- Duncan and Jeff's relationship in a nutshell: Duncan interrupts his chat with Jeff to shoo Chang away with his "force field" and then comes back to dispense sound psychoanalysis. I love that while Duncan may be a drunken, careless lunatic, he is still fairly competent in his actual field of academia. [Pilot with Jeff, 125 with Britta, 211 with Abed, 215 with Jeff]
- Jeff: "If you guys just let me get to the can opener, I can feed you." [Jeff feigns annoyance but he clearly loves being needed.]
- Shirley mentions the notoriously hellish East stairwell and its meth infestation. Why hasn't there been a Breaking Bad homage about that, hmm? [It also has a mold problem, as noted in 217.]
- Nice job by Britta avoiding that tall guy. Is it Tall Kyle? –http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
- Jeff taking people out for ice cream to soothe his guilt returns in 207 when he takes Troy for ice cream because his "white guilt is doing somersaults".
- Abed: "He hasn't cried yet. From what I've been told, that's not normal." [He has not cried on the show yet but he will in 211]
- Nurse Jackie compares life to collapsed movie franchises, referencing Indiana Jones (the fourth one blows) and the Temple of Doom.
- Britta and Annie totally ignore Shirley's (she was awesome in this episode) several reminders about not being invited to be part of the oil spill fundraiser. [In 122, talking to Pierce in the library, Shirley resents the other two girls for not inviting her when they go shopping]
- Fake brand: Shirley eats "Let's" chips. [Pretty much every episode with a cafetaria scene.]
- Jeff eats egg whites in the cafeteria after his diagnosis. In a flashback in 221, Troy and Abed mocked Jeff asking them "does this hard boiled egg make me look fat?"
- Pierce's cult stole 'Energons' from Transformers
- Pierce: Reformed Neo-Buddhism is not a cult. It is a new way of looking at the world, emphasizing empowerment.
Troy: Like a video game?
Pierce: Yes, very much like a video game. You gain levels and at a certain point you actually can eat a ghost.
Troy: What! I wanna eat a ghost!
- Everyone else is on board with Reformed Neo-Buddhism when Pierce informs them the ocean will taste like Hawaiian Punch upon Buddha returns. [The group’s trademark simultalk]
- Music note: Mama Pierce's gangster play-out song "Best of the Best" is written for the show by in-house rapper Jacques Slade aka KU.
- This is the actress who voices Pierce's mom:http://www.imdb.com/name/nm011… She even looks the part. In 107, it was this woman on Pierce's uncooperative cell phone:http://www.imdb.com/name/nm050…, although I swear it sounded like Dan Harmon doing a geriatric Jewish woman.
- Guest: Patton Oswalt plays Nurse Jackie. He previously appeared in 108.
- Cameo: Alan Sepinwall can be scene leering on as Britta and Annie exchange oil. –http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
- Cross-promotion: That oil is Wilde Oil, a reference to Running Wilde, a Russo Bros production. – http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
On the A.V. Club: – http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-549964117 (page 95)