We all change in high school. Even if not everyone transforms from one thing into another, and even if some people regress rather than evolve, we can still see high school as a space where our identities are fluid. As a result, it’s also a space where there is never a great deal of security in one’s social standing, which can lead people who find their life changing to either retract into their safe space or react out of fear of how this new position has altered your perspective.
Awkward. has been all about change, first in Jenna’s self-transformation in the first season but then slowly extending out to other characters. The challenge for Jenna has been her inability to see that she isn’t the only person who’s changing: She reads Matty’s popularity as confidence, a mistake that led her to look past the fact that his relationship with Jenna was a change for him in the same way it was for her. This season has expanded on this dynamic, with Jenna adjusting to a new place within the social fabric of teenagedom—the “Haves” versus the “Have Nots”—and Matty adjusting to being in a relationship that will require him to take part in things that might otherwise make him uncomfortable.
“Pin Day,” the tradition that lies at the center of “Guilt Trippin’,” is what one would best describe as a trigger event. It doesn’t necessarily introduce anything dramatically new to the season, but it brings this sense of change to the surface. The tradition of guys making pins to mark their girlfriends ahead of Homecoming offers Matty and Jenna to explore how their relationship has changed them, and what else they might be willing to change. For Matty, this means putting his pipe cleaner skills to work and embracing his dance moves to help prove that he cares about Jenna in the way he believes she deserves to be cared about; for Jenna, it’s about projecting her past onto her present and freaking out about what it means to be on the “right” side of a social hierarchy.
This latter message contributes to a continually more complicated characterization of Jenna Hamilton. The episode’s title refers to Jenna’s inability to avoid feeling guilty for the girls who don’t have buttons at all, a noble calling that nonetheless stems from Jenna’s inability to focus on anyone but herself. Jenna is more in her own head than usual this week, her voiceover becoming fittingly overbearing as she spends every waking moment weighing her guilt and hoping that someone will sweep poor dateless Kristy Patton off her feet. She obsesses about it to the point that she begins a crusade against the pin tradition and decides not to go to the dance at all, at least until Lacey forces her to reconsider for reasons both noble (that Jenna shouldn’t hurt someone she loves by denying Matty the chance to go) and shallow (in that she basically sweeps the social hierarchy question under the rug by suggesting that Jenna should be basking in her privilege and lording it over the dateless).
And that’s something that I’ve always struggled with personally with Jenna, although I believe it to be part of the character and not an unintended consequence of her actions. The fact is Jenna is right to point out that the pin tradition marks a clear social divide, one that exclusively targets young women and labels them as dateless, and she’s right to feel that by wearing Matty’s pin she is contributing to this tradition. At the same time, however, that she’s only taking on this social crusade because she wants to avoid a sense of guilt makes it a somewhat hollow gesture. Jenna continues to straddle this fascinating line between selfish and selfless: In this case, she feels selfish for basking in her button while others are languishing, so she tries to be selfless and give up the dance entirely, but then she realizes she’s being selfish by denying Matty the opportunity to go to the dance. It’s a reminder that there are few easy ways to navigate the changes of high school, and it’s also a reaffirmation that Jenna’s worldview often keeps her from staying out of her own head when confronting a situation like this one, which means she almost misses Matty’s grand gesture as she’s discovering Kristy’s really just a drug dealer and not a lonesome loser.
What’s frustrating about Jenna getting caught up in her own change is that she really isn’t seeing how hard Matty is trying. “Guilt Trippin’” is at its best when Jake is trying to teach Matty how to dance, a collection of scenes that allows Mirchoff to show Matty doing what Jenna struggles to do: letting go. Dancing is an easy metaphor for what amounts to potential exposure to social embarrassment, and it ties into something that has helped define Matty and Jake’s characters: the former when he didn’t dance at the end of season two (triggering a story Lacey told Jenna about her father), and the latter when he did dance at the end of season one. It’s also just a broad, funny setpiece for the episode to build itself around, with Brett Davern getting his best material of the season, and Mirchoff proving a particularly effective bad dancer once he has the right song to break it down to.
The two characters end the episode together in the parking lot breaking it down to Tegan and Sara’s “Closer,” but it’s after they’ve each had their big moment. I’ll admit, though, to being somewhat ambivalent toward the way their respective stories are resolved. There’s something fitting about Matty turning into a dance floor stud, his popularity and his reckless abandon bringing everyone out onto the dance floor (including, one presumes, many of the girls who had come to the dance without a date). However, while Jenna certainly appreciates seeing Matty clearly for the first time in the episode, was her concern about social hierarchies without merit simply because her poster child was a drug dealer instead of a depressed teenage girl? As much as I enjoyed Ashley Rickards and Mirchoff boogieing in the parking lot as a fun and charming final image, the lessons here are not as clear cut as that moment would normally suggest.
What I would hope is that Awkward. acknowledges this reality of high school as the season evolves, something it’s tended to do well over the course of its run. The fact is that high school can still have those transcendent moments when it’s just you, your partner, a great song, and some cheesy dance moves in a parking lot. However, between those moments is change, change that will cause you to reflect in ways that might make the next dance session in the parking lot different. “Guilt Trippin’” might make the case that this particular guilt was misplaced, but the idea of guilt is still relevant for these characters, and I’ll be interested to see how their continued growth this season pushes for further reflection.
- Our milk carton ads worked, and Ming returns for a C-story that sadly kind of peters out toward the end. That being said, “I asked a White Bitch for Asian Bitch advice” was a nice punchline in her welcome interactions with Sadie, and Becca’s omniscience—while broad—continues to pay comic dividends.
- The show never commented on it, but did y’all get a look at Jake’s button (pictured above)? Matty’s might have been crafty, but Jake’s was downright elegant, and definitely implied he spent a good hour in a Michael’s. I appreciated how the three girls’ buttons were such great representations of their relationships (with Ming’s “Henry’s Date” getting played as the actual punchline).
- Valerie scenes are normally an excuse for some quick jokes, and we got some of those, but here she was also used as a red herring to support Jenna’s theory regarding Kristy—sorry, Stapler—being dateless when she was in hindsight referring to the drug issue. I’m not sure the episode built that mystery out enough for me to be particularly invested in it, but that was a nice touch.
- Did everyone drink when Jenna said “Girl Code?” Synergy!
- “I’m going to break it down for you—YOU HAVE TO BREAK IT DOWN”—Jake’s been extraneous this season, but letting him settle back into being Matty’s bro was a nice role for the character (“Like you’re ready for the warehouse”), and the dance sequence feels like a Tumblr GIF—hard G for life—fest waiting to happen.
- I swear the last two commercial breaks were longer than the last two acts of the episode—I realize MTV has to eat and all, but the ad balance felt way off tonight.
- People who watched the preview for next week, let’s talk about the preview in the comments.