There are moments when having advance access to something is more dangerous than it is helpful, and there is no doubt that Awkward.'s “No Doubt” is one of those situations.
On the one hand, it gives us extra time to think of terrible puns on episode titles, which is a problem in and of itself. However, more importantly, it creates a scenario where major developments in future episodes have the potential to color our perspective on episodes that air earlier, which in an era of episodic reviews requires us to go back in time and think about how we viewed previous episodes before knowing the information we learned an episode later.
When I learned that “Tamara wrote the letter” was just a red herring, an emotional lie born out of anger and frustration, I was incredibly frustrated. Now, to be clear, I would not say that it is beyond the realm of possibility, especially given that many commenters actually predicted this as soon as Tamara claimed ownership of the letter. My frustration instead comes out of simple disappointment, of the show quickly stepping away from complicated interpersonal relationships in favor of a more rigid hierarchy between Jenna, her love interests, and their supporting players. The speed at which Tamara settles back into her former role, and the way in which bygones become bygones at the drop of a hat, betrays most, if not all, of the potential that the initial split created and left largely untouched.
Now, to be entirely fair, it’s very possible that the context in which I viewed these episodes was part of the problem: I saw episodes nine and 10 back-to-back not long after seeing episode eight, which meant that the Tamara/Jenna relationship was mended just three days after it was broken, as opposed to the two weeks it took for the rest of you.
I also think that the logic of “Tamara as red herring” has a lot to do with the structure of the show and its season, although I posit this less as a justification and more as a point of discussion. I’ve discussed in the past the ways in which the show’s short running time can serve as an advantage, smoothing out the show and helping it remain eminently watchable, but the quick pace doesn’t work as well when trying to emphasize something deep and emotional. We don’t get moments of quiet introspection, because there isn’t time for moments of quiet introspection, and we didn’t get an extended arc with Tamara because dealing with that and the central love triangle heading into a climactic finale might be a case of too much story with not enough time to tell it.
Returning Tamara to the fold is a lot easier given the central story that the writers want to tell in this episode: It gives Jenna a second friend (in addition to Ming) to help vet Matty on whether or not he wrote the letter, and it allows Jenna to focus exclusively on her Matty problem without being distracted with a Tamara problem. It also allows Tamara to be a part of storylines without necessitating scenes of her own, allowing a more natural (and fast-paced) flow of different storylines within the same scene (which comes into play more next week than this week, but the point stands).
However, while I think that this is a logical decision, given the challenge of concluding the season in just a few episodes and given that MTV likely wanted the love triangle front and center leading into a finale, it felt like a step backward. When it happened, my first thought was whether or not we had really learned anything by having Tamara falsely claim to have written the letter, and I’m not convinced we did. Our glimpse of "Tamara sans Jenna" last week was too short to provide significant insight, and the speed of her turnaround here only lessens the overall impact. There isn’t time to show Tamara and Jenna readjusting slowly to friendship, and there isn’t time to allow them to really debrief on their time apart, which means that there isn’t time for the show to justify the red herring beyond sparking audience interest with what proved to be mostly misdirection. Red herrings can work when their impact is felt by the characters and not just the audience, but the speed at which Awkward. operates means that the characters have moved on with their lives while the audience is left (at least in my case) disappointed at the loss of complexity.
It’s unfortunate, because outside of that decision “No Doubt” is actually quite a lot of fun. Now, I did have one central issue with Jenna and Matty’s storyline, in that I never quite bought the episode’s depiction of Matty as someone who would hide Jenna away (in such an exaggerated fashion) or someone who would write the letter. Now, I would certainly argue that the character is insecure in ways that would keep him from going completely public, but everything about his demeanor suggested he was organizing something special, and that it took Jenna that long to figure out he was being lunkishly charming instead of cruel was kind of out of character for me. I guess we can chalk it up to nerves all around, blinding her from the obviousness of Matty’s genuine desire to please her, but it was a bit awkward when we’re so often inside Jenna’s head and yet the episode seemed to want us to believe what she believed despite numerous signals otherwise. I was also a bit disappointed that we had returned to the mystery of the letter, having hoped that last week’s literal destruction of the letter signaled the end of that particular device.
However, “No Doubt” has a lot more going on beyond the letter, and there is some really strong evidence for the strength of the show’s cast here. We can more or less separate the episode into the Matty/Jenna side of things and the Jake/Lissa side of things, and both of them end up working towards the season’s goal of confirming the central love triangle. On the one hand, the show makes the best case yet for Matty as a character, as he is self-effacing, charming, and generally good-natured as he goes on his first real date and faces the “friend test” (and, for that matter, the “parent test”) at Jenna’s. The episode doesn’t paint a picture of Matty as a changed person, and it does all happen behind closed doors, but I think it’s a strong case for why Jenna would fall for him and why that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It’s a side of the character we’ve seen in small moments, but never in a concentrated form, and it’s important to his viability as a love interest. And yes, this paragraph could basically be boiled down to Matty becoming “suitably swoon-worthy” if you're so inclined, but this is just how my brain works.
On the other side of the coin, Jake loses the ol’ ball and chain in a way that frees him up to act on his feelings with Jenna without any kind of remorse or complication. While I thought Lissa’s character ended up being overshadowed by Sadie, denying us the Lissa-centric episode that it felt like we might be getting, I thought it was an important storyline for Jake as a character (which is, arguably, something we have not gotten to this point). While he eventually ends up at Jenna’s doorstep, his feelings for her ultimately proving his breaking point in terms of following Lissa’s demands, the story to that point was about Jake gaining a sense of agency over his life, shedding the “puppy” label that Jenna herself applied to him two weeks ago. He doesn’t break up with Lissa just because he has feelings for Jenna, but rather because she would allow Sadie to coerce her into forcing him to do something so terrible. As noted, I sort of wish they could have found a way to avoid turning Sadie and Lissa into complete mean girls and offered some character development within this story, but it serves an important function in terms of Jake stepping up to the plate (a theme that, without spoiling anything not revealed in the preview, will be important next week).
“No Doubt” has a lot of funny lines, a collection of compelling moments, and some strong performances that anchor the central love triangle (with Mirchoff and Davern each stepping into something closer to lead roles). However, I do think that something was sacrificed to allow this to happen: Tamara’s quick return to her normal self, and the trust that Jenna quite quickly places in her, just doesn’t have time to be properly digested by the episode on the whole. I think it’s perfectly logical that the events in the episode would lead to a reconciliation, as the “slap heard round the school” and Jenna’s impending date with Matty are dying to be deconstructed as only teenage girls can deconstruct them, but any sort of nuanced reconsideration of trust and friendship is lost when the situational hijinks begin.
And I worry that it will be lost as the show moves towards a conclusion driven largely by what has been a well-rendered, but ultimately rote, love triangle.
- I’ve seen the first of next week’s two episodes (which together will close out the season), but I have not seen the finale. A few of the comments above indicate some suggestion of what comes next week, but trust in that it’s nothing you haven’t already derived from the preview (or, frankly, by thinking things through).
- Quite enjoyed the convergence of the two storylines at episode’s end. I’m a sucker for convergence, I’ll admit, but the way in which Jake arrived just as Jenna was considering whether Matty’s advice was something she should be following herself was really effective at naturally moving the love triangle to the forefront.
- Lissa says some perfectly reasonable things in the midst of her discussions with Sadie, which definitely raised some Mean Girls parallels (in a “Queen Bee” spoiling the rest of the hive kind of way).
- I really don’t like the mystery of the letter, but I remain curious to see where the show goes with it. I’m definitely leaning in a particular direction, but I’m interested if anyone is still theorizing after the red herring.
- I wish Sadie would be a bit—okay, a lot—more nuanced on a weekly basis, but Molly Tarlov’s look of absolute joy as Lissa slaps Jenna was delightful.
- “Not you, Rebecca. God.”
- “Honey, that probably has more to do with your twitchy eye than your outburst.”
- “Owning up to being a manwhore is not an easy task.”
- “For the record, hooking up involves my face.”
- “What the hell is a sex touch?!”
- “Maybe he is Anne Franking me.”
- “Riseda? Where the F is Riseda?”
- “I’m not totally following.”
- “How do you get your hair to do that?”
- “My pores are clogged.”