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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wonderfalls: “Wound-Up Penguin”

Illustration for article titled Wonderfalls: “Wound-Up Penguin”
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Wound-Up Penguin” (season one, episode four; originally aired 3/26/2004)

The voices, the animals, I was just mad at them! But they aren’t demonic! It just feels like that sometimes when they make me help people.” — Jaye Tyler, “Wound-Up Penguin.”

Few questions are harder to ask than those of faith, because by their very definition they’re questions that can never be answered in a satisfactory way. Faith necessitates that someone believe in something undefinable, you can try to explain it in any number of books, but the final answers come down to your individual beliefs, certainties, or lack thereof. Small wonder that so many people struggle throughout their lives with their conceptions of who and what governs their actions, altering their views on God and karma as they experience (or fail to experience in many cases) events they consider beyond their understanding.

And of course, one thing that can push someone towards an examination of their place in the universe is hearing voices. The concept of faith hasn’t really played a part in Wonderfalls in its early episodes—fittingly for its main character, who was likely an agnostic before the muses entered her life as atheism would be taking too much of a stand. In the first episode Jaye asked her assorted muses if they were God or Satan, but no answer was provided and they’ve proven to be mostly unforthcoming on the topic since then. Much like Ned’s magic touch on Pushing Daisies or the nature of the reaper organization on Dead Like Me, the existence of the muses is treated as an “It just is” circumstance by Wonderfalls, a circumstance aided by Jaye’s deliberate self-detachment. She’s more likely to attribute their presence to her own screwed-up brain or the universe in general than a specific higher power, her question being more a self-centered “Why me?” than a “what” or “how.”

And for the start of “Wound-Up Penguin,” she’s chiefly treating them as an annoyance rather than a miracle. Having been forced to The Barrel after an endless a cappella rendition of “99 Bottles Of Beer” (it’s comforting to know Jaye reacts to the muses the same way I would), she gets some time to bond with Eric, who’s now sleeping in the back of the bar after his wife gave the bellhop a new definition of room service. The relationship between Jaye and Eric has been a slow-burning one so far, with the show opting to avoid a will-they-won’t-they dynamic and instead portraying it as the casual process of two people getting to know each other and finding elements in common—in this case, both marveling at how much one betrayal or “sode” can change their lives. And they find a new potentially life-changing event with the discovery that a woman is living in the bar’s centerpiece barrel, scrambling out the door and sending the barrel teetering to the floor to nearly crush them all in the process.

Jaye’s happy to let her run away—and claim her abandoned coat in the process—but those plans are thwarted once a wind-up toy recovered from the barrel squawks “Bring her back!” Here we receive an amusing twist on the Wonderfalls formula, as Jaye disbelievingly repeats the instructions in front of Eric and winds up serving as his own muse, taking pity on another person in similarly transient circumstances. (The sickly smile on Jaye’s face when he calls her a saint indicates she understands the irony of the situation all too well.) Not only does the twist on the formula emphasize just how different of a show this would be if it had anyone else as a central character—the muses could very easily inspire one to zealotry, a Joan of Arc as opposed to the Jaye of Ehh we have—it gives the episode a team caper feel early on as Eric’s the one driving the action. He chases the mystery woman’s ticket down at a train station, tracks a man hunting her to a local hotel, and takes initiative when he thinks she’s in danger. Unfortunately, the directions of the muses remain mysterious to the non-Jayes among us, and Eric's misinterpretation ends their adventure with his hands around a priest’s neck.


It turns out that the mysterious woman is in fact Sister Katrina, a nun who flew away from her convent after 12 years without providing any explanation. Katrina, played by Carrie Preston (also known as Arlene Fowler from True Blood), reveals to Jaye and Eric over lunch that she abandoned the church due to a crisis of faith, her belief in the all-encompassing presence of God betrayed by—of all things—cheese. Fittingly for a show where the universe appears to speak through knick-knacks, it’s the simple consideration of something mundane that throws belief for a loop, and Preston is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking as she reveals the miracles she once saw in daily life that no longer enlighten her the way they once did: “The cheese was my undoing. This is the miracle of life melted over these chili fries. A bacterial flirtation with enzymes. The co-mingling of friendly microorganisms giving birth to curds and whey.” (Next thing you know she’ll be saying that she wears the cheese, it does not wear her.) It sounds trivial on the surface, but it’s also a sign of how fragile belief can be. When you feel you see God in everything, his absence in one thing can trigger a chain reaction.

When the penguin offers Jaye a rare expansion of its instructions (“Bring her back to him!”) she interprets it as a sign that she needs to bring Katrina back into God’s light. When her brother’s academic religious knowledge fails to sway her—Aaron being more confrontational than helpful with his insights—Jaye makes the plunge and admits that her collection of animal figurines aren’t just decorations, they’re her taskmasters. Jaye’s kept this knowledge to herself for the most part, save confiding in Mahandra and a few half-serious references, assuming justly that people would find her crazy, and Katrina’s belief that hearing these voices might be demonic possession justifies that approach. Except there’s a silver lining to this once Katrina suggests an exorcism, a possibility the shortcut-seeking Jaye eagerly agrees to in the hopes that an effort to coax the dark spirits out of her may well return the holy spirit to Katrina. Given that she can’t even name the holy spirit to Father Scofield—identifying it as “Father, son and… the other one” when prompted—he’s understandably skeptical, and his view on Jaye soon has Katrina turning on her as a cruel opportunist.


The argument between the two in the parking lot—and Jaye’s subsequent act of vandalism smashing a tail light—nicely encapsulates the tension that’s been building for the entire episode and indeed the series. Four episodes in, Wonderfalls is doing an admirable job with Jaye on all counts. Most interestingly about her development is the fact that if she’s not already crazy for hearing the muses, they’re certainly making her that way. Her outburst to Katrina speaks of such exhaustion, frustration, and an apparent disregard for the wax lion being proven right that it manages to move the other woman back to believing there’s something wrong with Jaye, doing so in a manner her muse confession couldn’t get to. (Structurally, the scene also has the fortunate effect of getting the cast outside, a move that helps the show’s world feel like it’s not limited to four or five buildings.)

Jaye’s flight and Katrina’s resolve separating them allows Todd Holland a neat structural advantage as he splits the action three ways into a triptych of takes on belief. Eric ambushes Father Scolari in the bathroom demanding to know why he can’t let people live their lives, and Scolari—observant even with his pants down—points out Eric’s doing a lot of projecting. In a clever twist of environment, the stalls turn into an impromptu confessional, Eric tiredly revealing he’s having his own crisis of faith in the way he left things with Heidi. It’s a nice emotional moment for Tyron Leitso, although it shows they’ve still got a lot of work to do with this character in that he doesn’t have a lot of personality to speak of, defined mostly by his relationship to Jaye and the bar and little else.


Elsewhere, the Tyler family is spreading its religious knowledge to those it wants to help, scenes made all the more amusing by the reactions of those they’re helping. Lee Pace, in his most developed scene to date, takes on a delightful fervor as Aaron speaks of the barbarity of the exorcism rituals, Katrina furiously scribbling everything down and asking him to repeat the parts about burning. And the Tylers respond to Jaye’s making a nun friend with a disturbing calm, indoctrinating her in the family faith. (Darrin’s relentless cheer makes him an ideal spokesperson: “Presbyterian prayers go straight to the source! Right to J.C.”)

Jaye manages to flee her family but finds her brother’s pupil waiting for her in the trailer, as Katrina chloroforms her and straps her to the bed. This is a scene that is, on the surface, as perilous for Jaye’s well-being as her apparent stalker from last week, but unlike “Karma Chameleon” there’s no sense of danger. A large part of this is due to the deliberate application of the show’s whimsical sensibilities to lighten the mood—Katrina’s “oil of salvation” is clearly baby oil for instance, and Jaye’s protestations that she went too far in asking for an exorcism serve to underline the absurdity of her situation. (Her excuse for the muses in particular: “They aren’t demonic! It just feels like that sometimes when they make me help people.”)


The police do manage to intervene before anything can happen, and here’s where the real revelation comes out. The old saying that God works in mysterious ways has been proven true on Wonderfalls many times over—Jaye typically only reaches the muses’ endgame after five or six attempts—but it’s never come as far out of left field as it does here, with two details that felt like throwaway elements of the big picture turning into the center of everything. First, the tail light that Jaye took out in the parking lot turns out to belong to Father Scofield, who is pulled over for it and summarily detained by the police. And the reason for that turns out to be tied to his past with women he alluded to during Eric’s bathroom confessional. One of the women he was with before taking his vows got pregnant and filed a child support claim against him. In that reveal everything that happened with Katrina turns out to be irrelevant, the message of the muses twisted entirely on its head: the “him” was the priest, and the “her” was the daughter he never knew existed.

And unlocking this revelation unlocks a new emotional core for Wonderfalls. The resolutions that came to Thomas, Gretchen, and Bianca in the last three episodes were certainly happy endings and new beginnings for all involved, but they were more resolutions of a personal nature, decisions to move forward with their lives. Father Scofield’s discovery is one that upends every conception of his life in a heartbeat, and Wonderfalls treats that moment with every iota of respect it deserves: An emotional swelling of music, a look of utter marvel on Devine’s face, and camera angles that give the impression that for this instant in time they’re the only three people in this station. Small wonder that it’s a moment that restores Katrina’s faith in toto with tears running down her face, and a moment that even manages to crack Jaye’s jaded exterior for the most honest smile she’s given yet.


The episode ends in a reverse of where it began, as Katrina’s returning to the convent with a clear head while Father Scolari’s leaving the order to reconnect with his family. And the unintentional arbitrator of this chain of events even gets a little something for herself, as while Eric hasn’t resolved his complicated feelings about the way his marriage broke up, he reveals he’s not in any hurry to head back to New Jersey and cut things short with Jaye just yet. It’s a fitting close to a hopeful episode, one that doesn’t provide the answer to questions of God but does provide one proof of something that’s worth believing in: Things have a odd habit of working out for the best.

Stray observations:

  • Excellent wordplay in this week’s title, nicely referring to both the muse of the week and the apparent topic of its directions.
  • Fullerverse connection: Aidan Devine also appeared on Hannibal this season, joining fellow Wonderfalls veteran Chelan Simmons on “Amuse-Bouche” as the serial killer pharmacist. Not playing the same character this time, unless you choose to believe Father Scofield’s life took an incredibly dark turn after leaving the priesthood.
  • This episode also shows that Jaye continues to collect the muses who give her instructions in a bizarre menagerie, a menagerie that leads to several amusing lines when commented on by visitors: “I like your monkey.” “I stole it from my therapist’s office. Cheese?”
  • I agree with the janitor that if Johnny Cash had been born an Irishman, the music would sound a bit more lilting. (On that note, fantastic scoring decision to add the “Walk The Line” riff on Father Scofield’s first appearance.)
  • Jaye’s main point of reference for the adventures she’s dragged into appears to be whatever film she catches the night before on basic cable. After thinking Bianca was going to pull a Single White Female on her last week, her conclusion about Katrina’s troubles is that Father Scofield “Agnes of Godded her.” (Scofield’s response “Would you shut up” is the most apropos one for the situation.)
  • Best Caroline Dhavernas reaction this week: The scarily intense way she swats down the salt shaker when Aaron points out how silly it would be if it started talking to her.
  • Holland’s Twin Peaks background pops up again, with the red walls of Jaye’s trailer and the accompanying organ music having more than a few shades of Agent Cooper’s dream world.
  • Jaye jumps to a lot of conclusions regarding prostitution: “She’s a prostitute! And he’s her pimp. Her goth pimp.” “What if he’s already beat her to death with a bag of oranges for withholding trick money?” “Maybe she’s just a lazy whore. That happens right? They can’t all have hearts of gold and good work ethics.”

Next week: We enter the unaired episodes with “Crime Dog,” and Jaye enters Canada in an attempt to save her parents’ illegal housekeeper. I’ll have my colleague and A.V. Club’s resident Canadian Myles McNutt on speed dial to verify the accuracy of North American border procedures.