“Caged Bird” (season one, episode thirteen, unaired)
“I make good life choices—mostly because they’re forced on me—but I make them, and I find myself in unpleasant situations all the time. You know why? Because even if you have a choice it can and will be taken away from you. We’re all fate’s bitch. You might as well go ahead and bend over for destiny now.” — Jaye Tyler, “Caged Bird”
In a documentary feature on the complete series DVD, Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland talk at length about how they knew Wonderfalls was in trouble from the first episode, and how they launched a “save our show” campaign even before the initial ratings came in. Caroline Dhavernas speaks nostalgically about checking the “Save Wonderfalls” website at least once every day for news, and Katie Finneran offers an amusing anecdote about leaving all of her possessions in Toronto in unmarked boxes because she was trying to will a second season into existence through the power of positive thinking. All of it was for naught of course, as Fox pulled the plug on the show after four episodes that enjoyed schedule changes resembling three-card monte, leaving the remainder of the episodes to air out of order on Logo and Sky1 until they secured a DVD release.
The reason why the show failed is exactly the reason that fans fought to save it so hard, why it’s remained a cult favorite for years and why I greeted reviewing a new episode each week with glee: At no point in its run was Wonderfalls like anything else on television. Even now, having seen the entirety of the series, I don’t know how to classify it, as it defies categorization as either a comedy or a drama and flits between the two with confident ease. It cherry-picked aspects of multiple genres and pulled them in as it saw fit, had a cast of relative unknowns that enjoyed an easy chemistry with each other, and wove a romantic comedy/coming-of-age story with a cryptic Joan of Arc narrative while maintaining a marvelous balance between the two. It was unique, the sort of unique that makes it damn hard to come up with a successful marketing campaign, and the sort of unique that would inspire a rabid fan base but one nowhere near numerous enough to support a network drama.
Being veterans of several shows at the time of Wonderfalls, Fuller, Holland and Tim Minear had to know the odds were stacked against the show even as they were making it. And to their credit, they didn’t try to introduce a series of twists or cliffhangers that would dare the network into keeping the show alive, opting instead to bring the story to a place of closure for the devoted few. “Caged Bird,” the final episode of Wonderfalls, is an episode that accomplishes that goal and secures its place on the list of accidental TV finales that worked as series-enders. If any disappointments lie in the episode, it’s only in knowing you won’t get to see any more of the series afterwards.
A large part of the success of “Caged Bird” comes the fact that it addresses the major outstanding issue of the season. “Cocktail Bunny” was a stellar installment in part because it upended Jaye’s world entirely, both in terms of her relationship with Eric and her relationship with the muses. The events of “Totem Mole” offered a sense of closure—or at least acceptance—to her role as conduit for the muses, and “Caged Bird” has the task of resolving her romantic problems. Eric’s leaving for New Jersey that day at the urging of Heidi, stopping by Wonderfalls before departing to purchase a few souvenirs and seek some sort of closure between himself and Jaye. For her part Jaye would love nothing better than to leap into his arms and beg him to leave his wife, but the muses continue their campaign to keep the two of them apart, with a wooden songbird in a cage repeatedly urging her to “Let him go!”
I spent a lot of time last week talking about the personal growth that Jaye underwent over the course of the series, and that’s on full display here as she’s keeping up a strong front in Wonderfalls and yet breaking down in the office, just the latest of Dhavernas’ perfect emotional moments. This breakdown allows the chance for Sharon—in the shop to discuss Darrin and Karen’s 35th wedding anniversary—to step to the front, and we see again the bonds of sisterhood the two rekindled in “Wax Lion.” It’s yet another step in Jaye’s personal growth: She’s resigned herself to listening to the muses and is willing to listen to other people, and now she’s realizing there might be a benefit to listening to her family. Sharon makes it clear there’s still a window to act (“Is he gone?” “He’s going.” “Is. He. Gone?”) and Jaye takes the plunge, ringing Eric at the Barrel and calling him to her trailer for a final rendezvous.
It’s a rendezvous not to be however, as an robbery at a local bank has an armed fugitive running loose in the shopping area—and he’s identified the touristy kitsch of Wonderfalls as an ideal hiding place. Here Wonderfalls gets one last chance to show off how expertly it straddled the line between comedy and drama, as the robber forces the customers out the door and takes Jaye, Sharon, Alec and the security guard from “Totem Mole” hostage until he can find a way out. “Caged Bird” was helmed by Michael Lehmann, who as the director of Heathers knows a thing or two about black comedy, and he expertly strikes the balance of the robber’s increasing instability with more comedic dialogue from both him and his hostages. (A fine early example. Alec: “I can’t die! I’ve never been with a woman!” Robber: “You…” Sharon: “I have been with a woman!”)
But what would any Wonderfalls scenario be without the muses poking their heads in and giving Jaye someone to help? In this instance that someone is the security guard Wade Jones, a wannabe cop who takes his tourist monitoring duties far too seriously and has an encyclopedic knowledge of police procedures to go along with his rubber pellet gun. (Or, as he insists on calling it, a “fully licensed crowd dispersal firearm.”) There’s enough character to him that it’s disappointing this is only the second time we’ve seen him on the show, especially given that Jeffrey R. Smith is credited as a muse voice actor in all but two episodes. Instead, his backstory and aspirations are woven into the muse instructions, with the Barrel Bear, chameleon puppet and songbird all hurling “Give him heart!” and “Let him go!” in Jaye’s direction. The unyielding aspect of their instructions has always played a role in keeping tensions high, and in the most high-stakes situation Jaye’s been in yet, it adds a further layer of tension: Failing to interpret their words correctly could leave her sister or coworkers dead.
Jaye’s efforts to interpret the pronoun vagueness, as it so often does, leads to a series of unfortunate events. At first she fails to grab the robber’s gun following Sharon’s stun gun attack, and then attempts to set in motion a plan to club the robber over the head, a process that plays out in a neat series of split-screen shots and tragicomically ends with Wade’s massive cardiac arrest right as he’s about to strike the decisive blow. It seems certain that one or more of them will be meeting an unfortunate fate, if it wasn’t for the fact that Eric went to Wonderfalls looking for closure and Jaye offered some truly hurtful comments about his fidelity to get him to leave. Once more, we see the difference between Jayes: Maybe the Jaye of “Wax Lion” would have said those things, but not the Jaye Eric’s come to know and love, and he can put two and two together and call police and media attention to Wonderfalls immediately. This also leads to the episode’s best directing flourishes, as the camera pans in and out from the news report to transition from Wonderfalls to the Tyler kitchen to the Barrel, and the disbelieving horror in the latter two settings.
The result of all of this is one of those catastrophic dominos-knocked-down moments that the best Wonderfalls moments managed to achieve. After the chameleon offers Jaye its longest and clearest clue yet by pointing her to a hidden back door, the robber drags her along and seizes a van, heading to apparent safety—at least until Heidi crashes into the van, having left the Barrel in a hurry after seeing Eric on the news. The robber shifts his target to Heidi, and then the last domino falls right on top of him, as the ambulance Sharon called for Wade speeds past and reduces him to a pile of pulverized bones and meat. All except his heart that is, which winds up in Wade in a particularly macabre fulfillment of the muses’ instructions.
It’s a moment of wrung-out emotions here, and so after all that intensity the episode ramps down in a quieter snow-swept scene set to Sarah MacLachlan’s “Dirty Little Secret.” There’s a final moment of closeness as the Tylers embracing their youngest member and she finally letting them in, Mahandra surrendering to her own feelings and passionately kissing Aaron in front of the wide-eyed Tylers, and one last quiet glance from Jaye at the departing Eric. It’s a pure moment of emotion and melancholy, and one where the episode could have ended and made the whole show a truly bittersweet experience.
However, if Wonderfalls has taught us one thing, it’s that despite all its obstacles and hurdles it wants its characters to be happy in the long run, and it gives us one final scene in the gift shop to realize that. As was implied back in “Lying Pig,” the person the muses were helping first and foremost in their meddling was Eric, putting him back together after his disastrous honeymoon making sure he was emotionally secure enough to treat Jaye as more than just a rebound girl. With Heidi’s realization that she’d lost the battle for his heart a long time ago courtesy of his TV appearance, the two settle their divorce and Eric’s free to return, let Jaye know he’s a newly single resident and walk out confidently. And then, in a terrific moment that evokes the show’s romantic comedy arc, stride back in without missing a beat and kiss her in the middle of the gift shop as “Love Will Come Through” starts playing.
Final moments are always dicey things for a finale to land—or lack of final moments in some cases—but the last minute of Wonderfalls is pretty terrific in the force of Jaye’s light-up-the-room smile. It’s a different Jaye we see in that final minute, a mix of giggly girl who got the boy she wanted and a woman feeling introspective about everything that led to this point, someone who for the first time is looking ahead to the next part of her life with a touch of optimism. And in the last lines of the pilot, when the wax lion echoes his first words to Jaye, she tells him to shut up and he responds with a wry acknowledgement, we see a shift in that relationship as well. The muses have been talking to her for months; and after all her growth and adventures, she’s earned the right to talk back.
When the DVD set of Wonderfalls was released back in the dark ages of 2005, my colleague Scott Tobias reviewed the full season and wasn’t swayed by the season as a whole, offering this closing thought: “It’s easy to blame Fox for pulling a potential gem like Wonderfalls, but the future wasn't as bright as it seemed.” And having seen the whole series, I have to disagree soundly with that statement. No one will argue that Wonderfalls was perfect—the consequence of being such a unique and experimental show means there’s going to be some unavoidable bumps—but it was so much a show that found its rhythms as it went along and promised to be even more interesting in future seasons. While it didn’t reach its full potential, “Caged Bird” closes the show equivocally, with all the attendant emotions, quirks and occasional flaws that made the show such an remarkable experience.
- “Caged Bird” also works well as a series finale because it gives every member of the ensemble some fine closing beats. Beyond Sharon’s participation in the hostage situation and Eric’s emotional growth, we get to see genuine affection between Karen and Darrin pre-anniversary party (and the disgust on Aaron’s face as they head into a room right behind him), sarcasm and sensitivity from Mahandra as she stalls Heidi, and the absolutely fantastic kiss between Mahandra and Aaron after the hostage situation. I still wish the show had used its full cast more frequently—Darrin and Karen especially—but none of them feel wasted in their last appearances.
- I’ve talked about the series’ commitment to tonal shifts several times, yet I’ve failed to give full credit to Michael Andrews, who developed the show’s score and was terrific at making sure the score matched the shifts. “Caged Bird” has plenty of that fluidity with Angelo Badalamenti-style rhythms early on, tense notes as the robber grew increasingly frayed and more heartfelt themes when the Jaye/Eric or Aaron/Mahandra relationships moved to the forefront.
- Jewel Staite didn’t get as much to do in her final appearance, though she continued to play Heidi in a manner that kept her from being truly detestable. She offered an apology of sorts to Jaye (“Sorry to be such a bitch about this, but you are unstable”) and in conversing with Mahandra helped the other woman realize what she stood to gain with Aaron.
- The bank robber was played by Glenn Fitzgerald, who would go on to play Reverend Brian Darling in Dirty Sexy Money. (And most interesting to me personally, also played The Lich in The Cape’s two-parter of the same name.)
- For some reason I found Karen simultaneously blowing up a red balloon and worrying that she’d psychologically ruined her children the funniest part of the episode.
- Hey, it’s 2004! Jaye helpfully suggests to the bank robber that while his avenues of escape are limited, there’s always the option of digging a spider hole in the gift shop corner.
- Best Caroline Dhavernas expression this week: That final smile for all the reasons I enumerated above.
- Jaye: “I’d be happy for you if you were happy but I don’t think you’re happy. Are you happy?” Sharon: “You’re sounding a little retarded.” (I wonder if that’s a winking meta comment against the often overly florid dialogue common to Fuller shows.)
- Some more great banter between Mahandra and Aaron as the former freaks out about the relationship and the latter gets a self-esteem boost out of it. “I’ve infiltrated her flock and now I’m about to eat her delicious lamb.” “How could you say no to delicious?”
- Alec gets one last dig in on Jaye when Sharon complains about the sticky tile she’s laying on: “It’s your sister’s job to clean the floors.”
- Mahandra’s idea of small talk: “And there’s legislation against that, because lead paint is like the crack of paint.”
- “Here I was hating her for coming to town. Well I guess she had to come to town to leave.” “And I had to leave before I could come back.”
- “Word of advice?” “Shut up.” “Hm.”
- While Fuller, Holland and Minear engineered Wonderfalls as a stand-alone entity, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have any ideas for future seasons. Ideas discussed in the documentary and commentary tracks included having Jaye be institutionalized after Dr. Ron wrote a book about her experiences, Aaron worshipping Jaye as a spiritual figure, and Sharon becoming pregnant as a result of Beth’s tryst with her ex-husband in “Safety Canary.” I can’t say any of those are enthralling plots, so perhaps it’s best they remained unrealized.
- It’s a sentiment I’ve repeated over and over in these reviews, but there aren’t enough words to say how good Caroline Dhavernas was as the central point of Wonderfalls. A lesser actress could have made Jaye Tyler into an irredeemable bitch or a nervous wreck, and Dhavernas always kept it from those extremes. She conveyed every beat that Jaye was expected to have—the sardonic apathy, the off-kilter near-breakdowns, the unexpected emotional reserves—and did so in a matter that always made you like the character in spite of her obvious flaws. Bryan Fuller promised in the Hannibal walkthrough that we’ll see more of Dhavernas in season two, and after seeing the range she’s capable of here it’s no question that expanding the role of Alana Bloom is a move that can only benefit Hannibal.
- I opted not to give episodic grades while doing these reviews. That said, looking back on the season as a whole, were I to go back and assign grades they’d be as follows: A-, B, B+, A-, B+, B, B-, B, A-, B+, A, B, A-.
- Favorite episode of Wonderfalls: “Cocktail Bunny” without question for its masterful emotional build and genre blending. Other highlights would be “Wax Lion,” “Karma Chameleon,” “Wound-Up Penguin” and “Safety Canary.”
- Least favorite episode of Wonderfalls: None of the episodes were total duds, but for me “Barrel Bear” clicked the least out of the batch. “Lovesick Ass” and “Totem Mole” also had obvious problems that put them a notch below the others.
- And with that, our coverage comes to a close. I want to thank all of you for making my first time through this odd little show as enjoyable as it was. You were a great group of commenters, offering many insightful thoughts about the show every week, and I’m sorry that the limited number of episodes means we have to stop. I hope I encouraged some of you to check out the show for the first time along with me, or encouraged you to revisit for your tenth or twentieth viewing. It’s been a blast. Last one out, lick the light switch.