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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

We Are Who We Are plays several games of tug-of-war

Illustration for article titled iWe Are Who We Are /iplays several games of tug-of-war
Screenshot: We Are Who We Are
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“Right Here, Right Now III” plunges us into the depths of Fraser and Caitlin’s friendship, which has grown quickly tight, the two outsiders finding comfort and wonder in each other. The young actors have seamless chemistry, and the relationship dynamic between Fraser and Caitlin is one of the strongest parts of the show so far. They’re so close now that everyone thinks they’re dating, and that seems mostly fine with Caitlin, who Sam breaks up with and then wallows about, but less fine with Fraser, who is still grappling with some of his own questions about sexuality. He’s got an obvious crush on Jonathan, and they bond over their shared appreciation for Ocean Vuong, leaving Fraser lovestruck and awkwardly grinning in the library. But in a drunken outburst with Caitlin, he says that just because his mom is a lesbian doesn’t mean he’s gay. It’s safe to say that the mommy issues abound here.

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So yes, we’re also back to Fraser and Sarah’s beyond complicated relationship in this episode. Sarah practically invites tension all the time, needling Fraser at the dinner table by bringing up embarrassing things he did as a kid. Fraser’s discomfort is palpable. He pours and chugs more wine. Maggie even tries to get Sarah to stop, but she presses forward. Now, moms embarrassing teenagers is nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s Fraser’s outsized reaction that sharply turns the dinner scene into something else entirely. By the time Caitlin’s gone, Fraser runs up on Sarah and yanks her hair in his fist. Maggie doesn’t really intervene at first. But then after Fraser lets up, Sarah needles him again—now undeniably on purpose. He charges her, saying he’s going to kill her, and Maggie has to get between them.

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Sarah reacts to all this like it’s typical teen stuff. And maybe part of that is that she’s desensitized to violence as a result of being in the military, but it still feels like there’s something missing from these scenes, something missing from the backstory between these characters that We Are Who We Are is intentionally withholding to build stakes, but the violent scenes would actually work better and have more clear stakes if those gaps were fleshed out right away. I still don’t really know how to make sense of Fraser and Sarah’s relationship. Later, he comes to her bed with a panic attack, and we’re given at least a little bit of backstory: Fraser has had bouts of not being able to breathe since he was a baby. And Sarah has always been there to comfort him. So there’s an obvious codependency at play. Sarah and Fraser also drink a lot. And all of that combines to make an unhealthy relationship. But why is Maggie so ambivalent in all of it? Why does Fraser never face consequences? Why does Sarah intentionally rile him up and then become submissive at his most violent? Familial mess makes for compelling narratives, but We Are Who We Are often feels like it’s just trying to shock rather than really understand and empathize with these characters.

Maggie does seem on some level affected by it all, and that manifests as her getting out of the house having a little day of adventure with Caitlin’s mom Jenny. There’s underlying tension between the two. Both live in the shadow of their spouses. A lot of Maggie’s home life seems to revolve around mediating between Sarah and Fraser. And Jenny is dutiful to her husband, going out of her way to bring a cake to him at the festival that the episode hinges on only for him to dismiss her. Maggie and Jenny see each other in this moment, and that’s a thematic throughline for this series: characters feeling seen and understood. Fraser and Caitlin provide that for each other, Fraser showing Caitlin photos of trans folks and also showing her how to shave her face in one of several beautifully shot scenes in the episode.

The movement in this episode really is lovely, especially at the festival where we weave between the different characters. With Caitlin spending more time with Fraser, the friend group is severed, resulting in a new closeness between Sam and Britney and an eventual fight between Danny and Fraser. Fittingly, a centerpiece of the festival is a big game of tug-of-war. Much of the episode indeed feels like a game of tug-and-war which, according to Richard in a flashback-voiceover, hinges more on balance and command versus actual strength. Caitlin’s friends try to tug her back to their fold, but she resists, finally able to explore herself outside of the context of being the group leader. Caitlin and Richard also tug on each other. Richard thinks he’s punishing Caitlin by making her clean the boat she made a mess of with Fraser, but the more hurtful punishment comes when he refers to her as a “young lady.” Maggie and Jenny tug on each other, several moments seeming like they’re just about to dip into something romantic only to get pulled back. The final scene of them eating cake with their hands is a knockout—messy and intimate.

And then there’s the ongoing tug-of-war between Sarah and Fraser. Fraser might be the more overtly violent one between them, but it’s hard to deny that Sarah isn’t conniving in her attempts to unsettle her son. Her initial remark that has Fraser coming at her saying he’s going to kill her is about how he shouldn’t be jealous that Caitlin likes her more than him. Then Sarah dances with Jonathan at the festival, and as Fraser looks on in frozen horror, she waves and smiles. It seems like Sarah knows exactly what she’s doing to him and even delighting in it. But the question of why still nags at me. It’s so ugly that it goes beyond just a complicated relationship dynamic. Sarah seems like a person completely oblivious to boundaries. Her immediate reaction to the first fight with Fraser is to want to have sex with Maggie. She says something about soldiers always being ready for war, but the line is hardly real character development. The tension of this tug-of-war is there, but the stakes and context are not.

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Stray observations

  • Is Fraser’s alcoholism EVER going to be addressed?
  • The fight at the pizza place and the slow zoom on Richard with the voiceover-flashback does not quite work for me. Sometimes some of the more stylized choices in the show are superfluous.
  • That said, the camerawork throughout most of this episode is outstanding.
  • Caitlin and Fraser do seem like real teens in the ways that they’re so close and still sometimes annoyed by each other.
  • This whole episode might just be a promo for Ocean Vuong’s work, and you know what, that RULES. Go read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
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