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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wonderfalls: “Barrel Bear”

Illustration for article titled Wonderfalls: “Barrel Bear”
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Barrel Bear” (season one, episode seven; unaired)

How do you live with yourself? Wait, you don’t, do you. Because you’re not even you. And if you’re not the person you say you are then you spent 50 years being a nobody. And I’d rather be a nobody that’s a somebody than just a somebody that’s a nobody. Or something. Point is, you suck!” — Jaye Tyler, “Barrel Bear”

When I pitched covering Wonderfalls for the TV Club Classic section, I decided to do so without seeing any of the series beforehand. I did this both because I wanted my first time through the series to be a special occasion for me personally, and because I wanted to bring a newcomer’s perspective to the series. While I think this has worked out well overall—and most of you in the comments have given me every indication you agree—it does mean that there’s a chance I’m going to be wrong when I start speculating about where the show is going. Last week for example, I predicted Wonderfalls was committing more heavily to the idea that Jaye’s unwilling partnership with the muses was making her a better person, and that her relationships with her friends and family were growing more complicated but improving in the long run.

And at least for an episode, my hypotheses aren’t supported, because “Barrel Bear” doesn’t offer any evidence for the former and is ambivalent about the latter. After the show seemed to be growing more serialized in “Crime Dog” and “Muffin Buffalo,” Wonderfalls offers another episode that could have been interchangeable with any of its first few installments—and in terms of narrative and tone it feels like it should have come even earlier in the show’s run. It’s also disappointingly an episode that doesn’t match the emotional highs of previous episodes, despite adding a few clever and macabre twists. Granted, even an average Wonderfalls episode is still a treat to watch for the performances and the aesthetic, but we’ve seen what the show can do at its heights, so a step down in quality is a disappointment—particularly when we know the series is already half over.

The feeling that the episode is a step back starts out in the opening scene, as Jaye is being berated by Eric over her poor customer service, spending most of her time grumbling at the wax lion and pretending to make phone calls to keep from seeming like a crazy person. It ignores the developments of the previous episode wherein Jaye was named employee of the month, and reorients the action back to Jaye and Alec though the show seemed to have largely left that by the wayside. The difference is even more noticeable on a structural level, as Jaye witnesses a coin going into the fountain outside the store and the light reflects off it into her face, triggering one of the muses to suggest she “give it back.” This conceit was introduced in “Wax Lion” and has been ignored since then, and going back to it seven episodes in makes the episode feel like it’s leftover from earlier in production—a feeling not helped by the fact that it reuses the exact same coin-in-fountain footage from the pilot.

Things get into a better gear once we’re introduced to the thrower of the coin, one Millie Marcus, played by the late Rue McClanahan of Maude and The Golden Girls. Millie turns out to be a local celebrity, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live, a reveal that sends Mahandra into serious fangirl mode. Jaye extrapolates that Millie’s long-faded fame is what she needs to restore and she attempts to bring the older woman back into the spotlight, first with a failed picture signing at the store and then by attempting to talk her mother into writing another book about Niagara Falls. The disbelief Jaye’s friends and family feel about her investing at all in another person is a reliable source of content for the show, and once again Caroline Dhavernas sells Jaye’s awkward contortions to say why she cares about this. (“She accomplished a thing!” is the best explanation she has.)


Jaye seems to earn a victory when she gets Darrin and Sharon’s political organization Concerned Ladies of America West to have Millie highlight a fundraiser, though at this point we all knows it can’t be as simple as that. Tim Minear co-wrote this episode with Bryan Fuller, and the interest in duality he showed in “Karma Chameleon” comes out again when it turns out that Millie isn’t the genuine article. Vivian Caldwell (Louise Fletcher, Wonderfalls’ first Oscar-winning guest star) appears claiming that she was the first woman to go over the falls, and Millie took advantage of her disoriented post-plunge state to push her off to the side and get in front of the cameras first. We also get some of Wonderfalls’ visual indulgences as the episode literally goes inside the picture of Millie’s “triumph,” in old-timey film fashion, rewinding history to show us how Millie swapped herself out for Vivian.

This feud means the bulk of the episode is spent watching Blanche Devereaux and Nurse Ratched throw insults at each other—“You’ve got some ovum coming here,” sets the tone of the feud early on, and it only gets nastier from there. It’s made even better by the fact that both McClanahan and Fletcher are clearly having a blast being bitchy, and they’re terrific enough actresses that they keep it from being a Grumpy Old Women scenario. Millie’s clearly the villain here, but there’s also an insecurity to what she’s done that slowly escalates over the episode as Eric’s sarcastic comments keep building. And Vivian’s partnership with Jaye gives the younger woman a glimpse into her future if she stays in Niagara Falls—a future shoved into her head by a near-endless string of pity and insults. It all culminates in a moment where Millie suggests there’s still time to fix things, and she suddenly slumps back in a chair.


Cut to a sparsely attended funeral, and it’s here that the episode manages to pull off the truly satisfying Wonderfalls twist. As the preacher moves into his sermon, Minear and Fuller’s wonderfully dark sense of humor comes into play when it turns out that the funeral is being presented as Viv’s. Jaye and company choose to karmically right the wrong by burying Millie in Viv’s place, and allow Viv to take on Millie’s identity and embark on the world tour sponsored by CLAW. It’s an uncomfortable solution to the problem, but it fits well with the moral ambiguity that pervades the majority of the episode and fits into Jaye’s increasing disregard for the law when it comes to assisting the muses. It even has a sweet moment of closure for the late Millie as her ashes—most of them at least, something that may have been an elbow was spilled on the cash register—goes into a toy barrel that heads over the falls. (And it earns Jaye a fine for littering, an amusing bookend from the start of the episode.)

The guest stars have a fine feud, but when it shifts to the younger members of the group it’s less convincing. While Jaye’s just trying to satisfy the muses and address some of her lingering doubts about being in a rut, Mahandra takes her efforts to clear Viv’s name as a personal affront to Niagara Falls’ history. This is an extrapolation that would make more sense if we’d seen any sign before this that Mahandra had a sense of hometown pride. We know from “Pink Flamingos” she’s prone to getting overly invested in her goals, but even from that perspective conspiring with Millie to hide the evidence of the real barrel and then eagerly latching onto the idea that the other woman take the plunge for real is too sudden. It feels like a character trait introduced solely for this one episode, a bit of hasty exposition at the start with intensity ramped up for comedic purposes.


The eventual resolution of the conflict—where Mahandra admits that she’s less upset about the history than she is about the fact that Jaye isn’t telling her what’s going on—does help place the former’s irrational behavior in context, and also fits with her disbelieving reactions in “Pink Flamingos” and “Muffin Buffalo.” It’s a genuine confession well-delivered by Tracie Thoms, which is why it’s rather disappointing that when Jaye admits the truth about the muses she immediately assumes her friend is still hiding something. The immediate deflation of the emotions is clearly intentional, but I think that adding Mahandra as privy to the secret is an idea that should be explored. Jaye’s quest is a solitary one but it doesn’t have to be, and we’ve seen with Aaron that expanded knowledge of the muses improves the characters.

Funnily enough, the one person who does get a sense of personal growth and evolution out of the entire adventure is Eric, who spent most of it being dragged along in the wake of Hurricane Mahandra. (His confession mid-barrel theft to Jaye is particularly amusing: “Don’t ask me any questions, I’m really not sure what’s happening.”) His uncertainty about abandoning his old life for Niagara Falls continues along with the never-ending series of phone calls from his boss, mother and wife; and his investment in the Millie/Vivian feud is more about how he’s fascinated by the idea that a person can reinvent themselves. This is probably the best Tyron Leitso’s been on the show to date, and is the most encouraging step in his relationship with Jaye as he hurls his phone into the falls and admits he likes her. Most of “Barrel Bear” doesn’t feel like it’s moving the show forward, but that admittance—and the genuine smile Jaye has in response—helps dismiss the idea that it’s a long-term rut.


Stray observations:

  • No sign of Aaron again this week, furthering my suspicions that the episode was shot much earlier in the show’s run when the writers were still retooling the character.
  • The episode going back to a gift shop focus doesn’t gel with where the show’s been going, but does generate a great interaction between Alec and Jaye: “It’s not too late. I can make sure there’s always a place for you here at Wonderfalls.” “Oh God!”
  • Sharon’s sexuality comes up again as she flirts with one of the CLAW attendees, giving Jaye one of the episode’s best lines: “How long have you been using the Republican Party as a lesbian dating service?” Other than “Crime Dog,” the two sisters haven’t interacted much on their own since the pilot, and unlike the coins in the fountain that’s an area I wish they’d explore more.
  • Best Caroline Dhavernas expression: The indignant look on her face when her car gets stuck in the mud, immediately after she’s been arguing to Vivian that her life isn’t in a rut. (And it pairs marvelously with Fletcher’s raised eyebrows.)
  • A bit of family history: Mahandra’s father evidently fished the corpses out of the river from other attempts to go over the falls.
  • I would watch a show called Flannel Granny Justice.
  • Jaye’s been reduced to threatening the wax lion on slow moments at the shop. “Bet you’d talk if I stuck a wick in your butt. Can you say ‘Make me a candle’?”
  • “This is sad. This is sadder than that hooker we saw getting beat up by that other hooker.” “At least a hooker fight would draw a crowd.”

Next week: “Lovesick Ass,” an episode about all of the fans of Wonderfalls who fell in unrequited love with Caroline Dhavernas. Oh wait, it’s really about Jaye getting mixed up with a Russian mail-order bride and a 13-year-old boy. Good thing that’s in the middle of the series, because that sounds like the worst sitcom pilot ever.