Jenna Hamilton has a choice to make. The entire second season of Awkward. has been about choices, about how Jenna negotiates the aftermath of a choice she made at the end of the first season, and so it’s fitting that it’s coming down to the same question albeit in a more tortured form. “Matty or Jake” means something different now than it did back then, with more roads traveled and more scars worn by those involved.
When we left the show two weeks ago, Jenna had been faced with this decision, but anyone paying attention would know that the decision itself would likely be saved for next week’s finale. Accordingly, “Once Upon A Blog” enters into a holding pattern, abandoning the world of reality in favor of a series of fantasies that give Jenna and the show the opportunity to explore a series of “What If?” scenarios. What would have happened if Jenna hadn’t gone into that closet and had DTR’d with Matty immediately? What would have been different if Jenna had embraced a relationship with Jake as soon as he showed an interest in her? And what would have been different if Jenna had never gone to camp at all, and was simply a stranger to the two dudes fighting for her affection?
The choice to engage in this narrative exercise seems to have three central logics. The first is to recap the season—or really the series—so far so that viewers remember what is at stake as we head into the finale: Although these may be a different set of events from the ones we saw, they bear enough similarities to reengage our memories and put things into perspective before next week’s episode. Second, the fantasy structure allows the show to consider the nature of Jenna’s decision-making, which has been a big part of this season and something that creator Lauren Iungerich has often emphasized about the show. Jenna is a character who makes mistakes and whose decisions often result in clearly-defined consequences. The more time we spend on Jenna exploring the nature of her decisions, wondering what she could have done differently, the more that part of the character moves to the forefront of the narrative moving forward.
However, beyond these practical and thematic reasons, “Once Upon A Blog” is also fan service, indulging in the fun of alternate universes and wildly different personalities in the space of Jenna’s imagination. While the werewolf/vampire fantasy is certainly a fun—if rote—play on the Twilight franchise, it’s the episode-ending world in which Jake and Matty choose each other that’s the most interesting. The acknowledgment of slash potential is a fun nod to the various ways viewers could read the love triangle: Just as Jenna acknowledges she could pick no one, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility for Jake and Matty to turn into a couple (although I would certainly be shocked if the show ever took that route). It’s a nice engagement with how some viewers might read the show, counter to the rigidity of the love triangle, and a fun nod to the chatter about their chemistry that’s taken place here and elsewhere.
While I found that moment fun, and certainly enjoyed the alternate versions of characters in the various different timelines, I do think that there’s a delicate balance operating in episodes like this one. While the “fun” aspect is certainly enjoyable, this is still the penultimate episode of the season, and after the emotional ending to the last episode two weeks ago, this felt like it lacked substance. I wanted to learn something more about Jenna than I actually did, which isn’t to say that I learned nothing but rather that more of the episode seems to be spent on fun gags that ultimately float into the ether. The alternate version of Jenna as a mean girl was funny and gave Ashley Rickards a chance to play a different version of the character (and play it well), but does this tell us much about who Jenna is now? If she can so quickly turn into a mean girl in her own fantasy, is that not a sign of her current persona being dangerously close to falling down that path? Jenna’s culpability is something that the show has dealt with on occasion, but this felt like a missed opportunity for more focused self-reflection.
The episode, of course, is all about self-reflection, with the various fantasies functioning as dramatizations of Jenna’s blog. The show’s voiceover has always been a pet peeve of mine, struggling under the weight of exposition and explaining what could more effectively—and efficiently—conveyed through facial expressions, so to see an entire episode turned over to it represents something of a challenge in my eyes. However, it also presents an opportunity, as the episode is so far inside Jenna’s head that it could reveal something more than the surface-level observations about her life that we normally get. Instead, though, I left the episode feeling like we learned little beyond a general belief that all of this happened for a reason, and that Jenna wouldn’t go back and change anything. That’s a solid argument for the basic value of the episode, and I liked the final fantasy when she realizes that going unrecognized is not necessarily better than being infamous, but I hoped to get more out of the episode than it was interested in delivering.
While there were some attempts to weave Jenna’s relationship with Lacey and Tamara into the episode, with the first fantasy particularly interested in how mean girl Jenna treats her best friend and her mother, there was definitely the sense that this came down to Matty and Jake. We’re reaching the end of the season, and the point at which this love triangle will need to be resolved. While we know that decision will have consequences for Jenna, Matty, and Jake, I do think that we also need to see the consequences for the other characters in the series, lest the show’s world shrink to the point where nothing else matters. The season on the whole has done a decent job sketching out the rest of the series around the love triangle, but seeing the post-finale palate cleanser so tied up in the relationship drama of it all did raise a few alarms. This isn’t to say that I’m pessimistic or even skeptical about the finale, but I do think that the show has doubled down on its two central “What If” scenarios regarding the love triangle, which establishes a central mystery without as much room for supporting characters as may be desirable.
I will be glad to eat my words next week, but nothing in “Once Upon A Blog” felt like it really changed the situation for next week's finale. This doesn't make it a bad episode, as I had quite a lot of fun with it, but this late in the season, I think there are some other expectations on the table, expectations the episode didn't quite live up to.
- I saw some folks in “What’s On Tonight?” noted that Iungerich has framed this episode as an homage to Community (and they complained about the lack of a notification, so here it is!). Obviously, the alternate timelines draws comparisons to “Remedial Chaos Theory,” but that episode’s interest in writing alternate presents as opposed to rewriting the past better positioned it to ask questions about relationships between characters and the overall cast dynamic moving forward. The insular nature of these fantasies makes it a more simplistic exercise, albeit one that has similar fun with the bounds of the show’s reality.
- Was I the only one who thought Lacey’s letter in the first fantasy was actually a letter rejecting Jenna’s new attitude?
- This episode kind of picked my grade for me: one of the blog commenters at the beginning was named “Myles B.”
- I liked that mean girl Jenna, fantasy or not, got her own catchphrase: “Sorry; I’m not sorry.” She was kind of a terrible person, but at least she wasn’t blogging, so there wouldn’t be voiceover!
- I’m not surprised that Jenna and Jake had no real sexual chemistry, but I’m wondering if we take that as a sign of Jenna’s fantasies being overcome by pessimism, or an actual sign that they wouldn’t have worked out under any circumstances? The episode doesn’t ask these questions, but that’s what post-air reviews and comment sections are for.
- “Why does everyone always call that guy by his full name?” Because Matty McKibbon is fun to say, Ming. Also nice for the show to throw the Matty/Ming shippers—who surely exist somewhere—a bone.
- I’m still on “Team Jenna” for the time being, but I’m interested in how much people are invested in the outcome after a season of debate over it. I definitely feel like I’m less invested now than I was before, but given that we’re reaching the point where Jenna makes a decision, perhaps that’s how it was intended.