Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Awkward.: "I Am Jenna Hamilton"/"Fateful"

Illustration for article titled Awkward.: "I Am Jenna Hamilton"/"Fateful"
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

At the conclusion of “Fateful,” the second half of Awkward.’s first season finale, “resolution” is achieved. The two story arcs that have been dominant forces throughout the season, the letter which started the entire journey and the love triangle that emerged thereafter, are “answered,” insofar as we learn the identity of the person who sent the letter, and Jenna makes a decision when faced with the choice between Matty and Jake.

However, like all first season resolutions, these aren’t resolutions at all. While Jenna might have discovered that her mother appears to have written the letter (provided that this isn’t another red herring in which the person who wrote it just happens to shop at the same stationery store), and Jenna does choose a new relationship with Jake instead of allowing the apologetic Matty to sweep her off her feet all over again, the very point of both of those resolutions is that they are less than final. The fact that it was Jenna’s mother who wrote the letter is going to create an enormous change in their relationship, while the fact that Matty lost out based mostly on missed timing is surely going to create further romantic tension going forward.

This finale, which became a two-parter through the scheduling decision to pair "Fateful" with "I Am Jenna Hamilton," is all about this give and take between resolution and anticipation. If you’re going to build a season around a mystery and if you’re going to create a love triangle that recurs throughout that season, your challenge is finding a way to maintain the audience’s interest until the finale, delivering a moment of resolution that feels as though it pays off that interest and then transitioning smoothly into a different (although often related) point of interest.

Generally speaking, the toughest one to pull off is the middle. It’s easy to create a mystery, and it’s easy to spin that off into another mystery in a second season, but it’s more challenging to make it all feel satisfying when you’re in the midst of that transition period. If you’ll excuse the genre disparity between Awkward. and this example, when Lost finished its first season by opening the hatch, there was no middle transition point: The buildup of the hatch might have resulted in some strong character work, and the opening scene of the second season is one of Lost’s finest moments, but the actual opening of the hatch offered no sense of resolution. It was a pivot and nothing more, a narrative climax that never got to be satisfying on its own terms.

My favorite thing about “Fateful,” which I thought was a very strong finale, was the way that both of the ongoing storylines felt as though they reached a point of conclusion. Now, mind you, I do have my issues with the way the earlier letter red herring was handled, and I do think that the way the letter was used throughout the season became a bit reductive. I also think that, by nature of being the very last scene in the episode, the reveal does inevitably not feel like a complete resolution (especially given that we have a lot of questions). However, I loved the way that final scene was staged, as Jenna’s happenstance discovery is soundtracked by the alarm’s incessant ringing and what was to that point a magical (if complicated) evening is entirely shattered. It isn’t a big confrontation, and it also isn’t a public confrontation: It’s a discovery that shatters her world without shattering the world of the show, a discovery that has a great deal of potential.

Now, the reveal didn’t come as a surprise to me: As I discussed last week, the “Mom” theory has been floating around in my head (and in the comments) for a while now, and it makes a great deal of sense given what we’ve seen to this point. As the earlier scene with Lacey allowing Jenna to wear her Nana’s dress quite beautifully illustrated, all she wants for Jenna is for her not to make the same mistakes she did. Nikki DeLoach has never been stronger than in her retelling of her prom night, struggling to fit her pregnant self into the dress her mother wore as a model, and the scene built up just enough sympathy for Lacey that even those of us calling her a horrible person a week ago could relate to where she was coming from. Her parenting is trapped somewhere between wanting to live vicariously through Jenna and trying to keep Jenna from following in her own footsteps, and the letter would definitely fit within that framework, provided we view it as well-intentioned as opposed to cruel. That earlier scene was the most nuanced Lacey has appeared this season, and combined with the letter reveal, the finale suggests a more well-rounded character, even if she’s got a bit of a cruel streak.


More importantly, though, it builds toward the future. The question now shifts away from who wrote the letter to how it will change their relationship. Does Jenna tell her she knows? Does she tell her friends? Does she let it simmer under the surface? It’s a different kind of tension, one built less around mystery and more around character relationships. It’s complex, it’s interesting, and it offers the promise of more to come in those departments, which is exactly the kind of reveal the show needed. As much as the letter became a convenient narrative device over the course of the season and as much as I wanted to get rid of the thing altogether, its specter hanging over the show is valuable so long as it is adds value and depth rather than simplifying and reducing. While the letter going public in "I Am Jenna Hamilton" was a source of public embarrassment, this is a source of private turmoil, which will work to the show's advantage in a second season.

The show has been similarly effective in regards to the central love triangle, which has managed to embody every cliché while feeling almost painfully realistic. There was a lot of talk about fate in this episode, and about choices, and what Lauren Iungerich has done with this love triangle is create a scenario where either choice could have been satisfying. While Matty’s hesitation in “I Am Jenna Hamilton” is damaging to his character, the show remained largely sympathetic towards Matty and sold his heartbreak over losing Jenna as extremely real. Similarly, while Jake has been defined as the “white knight” in this scenario, willing to recklessly display his dorky dancing in public and never once hesitating to be by Jenna's side (or hold her hand), Jenna herself admits that choosing Jake is a choice of the head rather than the heart (although she lets her hand make the decision in the end). That she does choose Jake is very telling and will certainly inform the future of the show, but the circumstances of it didn’t valorize Jake at Matty’s expense. Matty was just a step behind at every junction, which might have been what fate intended or might have been a horrible mistake he will do anything possible to rectify.


In truth, the reason Jenna picked Jake is less fate and more the fact that it makes for a much more interesting second season. It puts all three characters into new situations we’ve never seen them in before, creates a few secrets (like the fact that Jake still doesn’t know that Matty and Jenna were almost together) to play out next year, and bolsters the cause of Team Jake while solidifying the ranks of Team Matty. Also, as a resolution to the love triangle that has been so prominent throughout the season, I thought “I Am Jenna Hamilton” and “Fateful” were just really quite satisfying: Matty hesitation felt human, Jenna’s disappointment was beautifully captured by Ashley Rickards, and the big decision felt as though it was climactic without really resolving the emotional side of things. It was not the world’s most innovative love triangle, but it proved a rock solid foundation for the finale and an element that I’ll be pleased to see carry over into a second season.

For the rest of the show’s characters, meanwhile, the finale has a somewhat different task. While Sadie and Lissa have been consistent fixtures in the show’s storylines and Sadie had a spotlight episode in “Queen Bee-atches,” they didn’t have clear arc structures that would prove foundational to a finale. Similarly, while Tamara had a major story arc with the letter and her relationship with Ricky Schwartz has been building throughout the season, she and Ming are mostly sidestories in the finale. The goal with them, then, is to give them a role to play and a moment to shine which in some way put their seasons into some sort of context.


While it primarily plays a role for Jenna, the Winter Formal more or less offers these characters an out, along with an excuse for Valerie to be kicking around a bit. For example, Ming’s battle with her strict parents is vaguely resolved with her decision to take a lesbian to the dance so that she would be allowed to go (as going with a boy would be forbidden and going alone would be lame). It’s not a complex conclusion, but it’s clearly referencing what we can identify as a narrative thread. The same goes for Lissa: We might have never gotten a true spotlight episode for her (although last week came close), and the character might have spent most of the season just playing stupid in scenes with Sadie, but that didn’t stop her decision to stand up to Sadie and shut her out of the dance from being extremely satisfying. It picked up on the storyline I wanted for Lissa earlier in the season, the story that the producers didn’t have time to service but did have time to indirectly imply. Here, that implication becomes reality, and Lissa is catapulted to a more interesting position for a second season.

Sadie and Tamara, as two more prominent characters, are admittedly in a more difficult position. In the case of Tamara, the finale plays out her complicated relationship with Ricky Schwartz as a rollercoaster of emotions, always keeping Tamara either obsessing about being with Ricky or obsessing about not being with Ricky, leading to Tamara being with Ricky and making out on the dance floor. I sort of wish she would have gotten something with a bit more resonance, but it’s consistent with the character, and I like her impulsiveness as played out in macro form with her inability to stop herself from making out with Ricky. Her proximity to Jenna makes her quite capable of comfortably weaving her way into the storylines, and there’s value in the fun friend to bounce ideas off of (which comes in handy at a few points in the episode).


With Sadie, though, I think the show came closer than ever before in terms of pulling together all of the little bits and pieces of the character that we’ve gotten to this point. Her decision to steal Jenna’s file comes after discovering she has a boyfriend (speaking to the theory that her anger towards Jenna comes out of seeing a social bottom feeder elevated above her) and after seeing her with Matty (which speaks to the feelings she seemed to have for him earlier in the season), while her subsequent breakdown with Tamara in the bathroom was an important display of emotion. The show didn’t have Sadie act on her feelings of resentment, and "Fateful" actually isolated her in a feud with Valerie so as to avoid overcomplicating Jenna’s situation, but I think there’s a case here for a more complex character that somewhat disappeared following her big showcase episode. I know my colleague Carrie Raisler has noted in the past that she has never been a big fan of Sadie, and I have to admit that I was disappointed to see the threads introduced in “Queen Bee-atches” get dropped (even if I understand that 19 minutes a week makes that challenging). I don’t think she’s quite all there yet, but I saw some evidence here to suggest that Sadie could be a priority in a second season, which is yet one more thing to look forward to.

We’ve known that Awkward. was getting a second season for what feels like a long time now, which has made this conclusion particularly forward-looking. And while we might know where our central tensions will lie and we can sort of guess at how certain characters will respond to their new situations, I think that this is still a show that is perhaps overburdened with potential. When Lissa got her moment of kindness in the girls’ bathroom or when Lacey spoke of her experience as a pregnant teenager going to prom, you realized that there is depth that the show simply didn’t have time to explore this season. Plus, given that the characters are in high school, there are clear generic constructs (like particular classroom settings, particular events, particular character types) that could be mined for material in the future. While we may not be certain exactly where the show goes from here, we do know that it has plenty of places to go, and we got plenty of evidence of that throughout the two-part finale.


What we also got, I would argue, is confidence. There were points this season where I had my doubts (like the Tamara red herring), and there were points where it felt like the show was trapped by the constraints of its running time and the challenges of reconciling broad comedy with dramatic consequences. However, I felt none of this while watching this finale. Admittedly, I also didn’t find myself marveling at the groundbreaking new storytelling devices that the show has discovered (given that school dances are as trope-y a trope as has ever troped), but I don’t think that’s what Awkward. has been trying to accomplish. These episodes featured some strong performances, some intriguing story developments, and some successful cliffhangers to carry into next season, but it was also just simply “satisfying.”

That, I would argue, is the takeway from this season. I’ve been following mentions of the show on Twitter for a few weeks now, and people within MTV’s target demographic seem enormously invested in this show, separating into love triangle factions and lamenting both the short running time of each episode and the fact that it’s coming to an end so soon. However, as someone who is outside of that demographic and who has not divided himself into a faction, I would say that I remain very invested in the series based on its quality throughout this first season. There were some uneven episodes, and there were some risks that didn’t entirely pay off, but when taken as a whole, Awkward. was a surprisingly resonant comedy that stopped being surprising by the time the season came to a close.


And, even if I’m not out making myself a team t-shirt, I’m incredibly eager for the show to return next year.

Episode(s) Grade: A

Season Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • I was quite charmed by that little tag of the cast thanking fans for their support — the finale (in particular the dancing sequences) captured the sense of fun the show’s case brings to the table, and it was nice to see that extend into “reality.”
  • The one scene that outright bugged me in the finale - taken as a whole -  was the sudden blowup between Matty and Jake — it just felt rushed, in that they needed to keep them apart so Jenna asking Jake wouldn’t be something Matty could learn about. That being said, on the whole, Davern and Mirchoff did some really solid work throughout the season and kept both love interests simultaneously viable for longer than most shows would pull off.
  • The bathroom stall scene was fun, but I’ll admit to finding the voice acting a bit overexaggerated — something about disembodied voices makes the emotion seem like too much, I think.
  • Valerie got her moments of impropriety in the episodes, but it was nice that she took a hard stance against Sadie where she previously allowed her to walk all over her. With Jenna now officially “cured” suicide-wise, although I guess the jury is out on that if Valerie learns who wrote the letter, I’ll be interested to see whether Valerie takes on a slightly different role next season.
  • I didn’t talk a lot about “I Am Jenna Hamilton,” as is maybe natural in this sitaution, but I liked the way the episode was structured. On rewatching, I noticed the foreshadowing of the Chinese food box more readily and saw how things might have gone differently (to pick up on the discussion about choices and fate in "Fateful"). Really set things up nicely for the finale.
  • Matty’s brother returns just for some gentle teasing? I’m interested to see if they pick up on that, as I expected more out of that relationship given the hints dropped in the past.
  • Did anyone else have a “THE LETTER IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE” horror movie moment running through your head when Jenna discovered the stationery? Or was that just me?
  • “Run your fingers through my hair and tell me I’m pretty!”
  • “And this is where you wore the cameltoe pants.”
  • “Way to be normal!”
  • “But I always do all the cleaning!”
  • “I told him to take care — there is no recovering from that!”
  • “Okay, maybe not the coffin.”
  • “What’s wrong with hugs?” [This made me laugh more than I’m comfortable with. I have no clue why! You probably didn’t even noticed it, buried so low in the final sound mix. But it was there. And it made me chuckle. And I’m not even a hugger. I’m actually firmly anti-hug.]
  • “You’re both embarrassing Jenna.”
  • “The gift that can keep on giving…like your acne.”
  • “Okay, let’s get down to some business on some…Dick. Dick Walters, take over.”
  • Thanks a lot for being along for the ride, short as it was, folks — it’s unfortunate that we didn’t pick up coverage immediately, but I’ve really enjoyed seeing some intelligent conversation about a show that deserves intelligent conversation, and that’s only possible with your input.