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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Awkward.: “Old Jenna”

Illustration for article titled Awkward.: “Old Jenna”
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Awkward. has always told its stories through themes and metaphors, and being a high school comedy these themes and metaphors have never been particularly complicated (even if at times they’ve been more sophisticated than your average teen comedy). However, as the show has explored Jenna’s very public descent into darkness, it has been playing on the same themes and the same metaphors for a while now. The show became an exploration of how a teenager can lose track of their true self in the midst of chaos, and “Old Jenna” signals the shift to a show about how that teenager can get back on track and regain control of her life.

I know this because that’s what Hunter—a former student of Mr. Hart’s who returns for spring break—tells Jenna when they have a chat about their respective experiences. Hunter tells Jenna the story of her own experience in Mr. Hart’s class, when she was so busy dealing with the drama of high school that she failed the class in question. Jenna, never one to turn down a metaphor, relates to Hunter’s experience. She sees her relationship with Collin as her failure, and hopes to follow Hunter’s example in finding meaning and purpose in failure as she moves on with her life. Such an opportunity manifests at the “St. Matty’s Party” unfolding that evening, to which Jenna invites herself and hopes to rekindle her relationship with Matty.

“Old Jenna” is also a return to old Awkward.—the first time since the midseason hiatus that the show has just told a story about a casual, everyday high school party. Matty isn’t throwing a party for any particular major storyline-related purpose: He’s just taking advantage of a convenient rhyme to throw a party, as he would always do. However, for Jenna, this isn’t a normal party at all, given that this is the first party of her “probation” period instated by Ming and Tamara, and her first chance to talk to Matty one-on-one. It’s also not a normal party for Tamara, who is trying to figure out how to approach Jake following their election-related breakup. It’s also not a normal party for Sadie, who is doing everything in her power to send Austin signals she wants to “get down to business,” but is finding him uncooperative.

There’s an existential “But what is normal?” embedded in this that I’ll resist exploring too deeply, but “Old Jenna” is very much interested in that question. Jake and Tamara eventually make up not because they realize their disagreement was based on a misunderstanding, but rather because they accept that fighting is something they do: Tamara apologizes for letting herself get carried away, Jake accepts her apology, and then they make out. They embrace the chaos of their relationship, something that Jenna has always struggled to do with both Matty and Collin. She turned to Collin as an alternative when her complicated past with Matty became too much for her, and she didn’t allow herself to see the complications in her relationship with Collin because she needed it to be a source of stability as her other relationships became threatened. She goes into Matty’s party thinking she can continue to avoid those complications, but then she learns Hunter deflowered Matty, and then Hunter and Matty are making out, and then she’s turning to alcohol to numb herself to the chaos of it all.

This is the wrong strategy—something Jenna learns as she sobers up the next morning. It’s the part of the episode that worked the least for me, simply because its work was so obvious. Jenna cleans up the mess from the night before, a not-so-subtle stand-in for cleaning up the mess of her life as opposed to sweeping it under the rug. It’s also the same basic lesson the character learned last week, when she realized that she needed to confront and apologize to the people in her life instead of just going on as though nothing had changed between them. That image of Jenna baking muffins for her hungover friends after cleaning the entire house is a meaningful one for this “new and improved Jenna,” who is choosing to accept her mistakes and acknowledge them as opposed to trying to go back to the way things were, but it was too literal to keep from seeming like an overly simple reading of the character and her relationship with her friends.

In this way, “Old Jenna” feels trapped between reiterating the basic thrust of last week’s episode and introducing new conflicts that will pay off as the season comes to a close—conflicts that take on little meaning in this episode. In the case of Jenna’s new friend Bailey, it felt like a case where the character’s purpose will become clearer in subsequent episodes, as it’s difficult to imagine her existing solely as a backup buddy and scene partner for Jenna in this episode. In the case of Hunter, though, the show seems to be seeding something a bit more insidious: I’m struggling to see the Hunter who offers Jenna an extra blanket wearing Matty’s T-shirt as a Hunter who passed out drunk, and thus I would question whether Matty is being completely honest with Jenna in that moment.


Such questions are not discouraged by the conclusion, given that Jenna’s whole path forward involved owning her mistakes and thus owning the chaos they’ve created, and I’m encouraged by signs that Awkward. isn’t going to stop introducing complications and bring Jenna’s story to a blissful happy ending. That being said, however, this felt like a perfunctory stop along that journey, with some on-the-nose thematic work making a point I liked in ways that didn’t feel particularly satisfying.

Stray observations:

  • As with too many Sadie storylines this season, we get the basic beats—story is introduced, conflict is experienced, conflict is resolved—but get minimal resolution and she’s disconnected from the conclusion. That’s a problem the show has never quite figured out: Sadie remains too much of an antagonist to Jenna to be among those partaking in muffins in Matty’s suspiciously empty kitchen, in part because the writers gravitate towards her bitchiness as a generator of both comedy and conflict But this means she’s separated from key moments for the series as a whole.
  • Per our discussion last week, Valerie’s departure does not impact Lacey being introduced as school nurse, another storyline that felt like the show marking its page before it returns to the story later on; one presumes the writers are bringing Lacey into the school for a reason other than having teen boys ogle her while getting their swollen groins checked out.
  • I was happy to see McKaley Miller, who I know as Rose from Hart Of Dixie, pop up as Bailey, although I struggled to reconcile the intertextuality given how differently the two shows imagine teenage problems—I don’t think they have basketball brothers orgy rumors in Bluebell, is what I’m saying.
  • Hunter started as a walking, talking parallel to Jenna’s situation, and then shifted into a convenient block in Jenna’s relationship with Matty the second she talked about deflowering guys when she was a senior (my notes are basically “Oh, it’s Matty, isn’t it?”), so I had trouble accepting her as a human being at any stage in the episode.
  • We don’t get any resolution with Valerie, but the series’ other major recurring plot element is not forgotten with Jenna playing guidance counselor, texting Val in a moment of need, and Val’s attempt at guidance counseling through drive-by abduction.
  • I know Jenna’s done some terrible things lately, but muffins from a mix? This is a new low.
  • “Don’t ask, but since you already have, I’ll tell you: I’m miserable”—I’m pretty sure Tamara lecturing Jenna on not talking about herself is at least a tad ironic, although I enjoyed the meta-commentary on her voiceover breaks embedded in their probation (which was similar to how Scrubs dealt with how J.D.’s fantasies were experienced by his co-workers).