“Reality Check” marks the end of a storyline, at least on the surface. Jenna spends much of the episode battling her crush on Collin, which Tamara and everyone around her tells her is just a harmless fantasy like how Tamara is into Niall from One Direction, or how Lacey and Kevin each have their own celebrity crushes they’re allowed to fantasize about. Jenna’s sense of guilt is equaled by her lust, however, as Collin offers all of the romance she realizes she never got from Matty and enough romantic clichés to sink her relationship with Matty if she allows it to. By the end of the episode, though, Jenna works up the courage to tell Collin to stop tempting her, Collin makes out with his girlfriend thus forcing Jenna to realize the temptation has been entirely on her end, and then Matty reads a story Jenna wrote—which he thinks is a fantasy version of their first time but is actually about Collin—and is inspired to give Jenna the romance he now realizes she wanted back in that supply closet.
I offer this basic plot summary because if we take the episode at its word, Jenna’s fling with Collin is over, her romantic fire with Matty is back, and she’s overcome this brief moment of weakness. However, “Reality Check” rings false to me, insofar as I don’t necessarily buy the “happy ending.” This season has been so far inside Jenna’s head that it’s skewed our perception of how stable things really are at Palos Hills High, and so I read the events of this episode as a way of introducing some concerns that could rise to the surface as the half-season concludes next week.
The biggest revelation in the episode, to my mind, is the fact that Matty never read Jenna’s blog. It’s a small thing in the episode itself, a way for Jenna to look even more narcissistic when she’s offended he didn’t read her private thoughts that were suddenly made public. However, it struck me as a huge red flag, further emphasizing the degree to which Matty has placed his trust in Jenna. There’s an innocence to Matty, as he sees Jenna in a romantic way he’s never really been able to express; it’s reflected in the way he reacts to Jenna’s story—seeing his own flaws as opposed to her infictiondelity—and in how he responded to her question about what she sees in him back in “That Girl Strikes Again.” Matty loves Jenna earnestly and honestly, which is why he hasn’t gone back to read the blog: That’s the past, and he doesn’t need to know about that to be with her.
Jenna may not have cheated on Matty here or anywhere else. She also might love Matty dearly. But over the course of the season she has been shown incapable of offering the same level of commitment. While Matty feels he has to prove himself to her, shouldn’t she also have to prove something to him? The show began in its first season with Jenna fully in control of her feelings and Matty struggling with how to express himself; now, however, we find ourselves in the exact opposite situation, except that Matty’s still concerned he isn’t being romantic enough while Jenna is so caught up in her fantasies she doesn’t realize she has done almost nothing to prove how she in turn feels toward Matty. The one-way street that is their relationship has suddenly changed directions, and that is not going to end well for either party, something the episode elides as it reaches its “Jenna doesn’t need to fake it anymore because Matty lit some candles” conclusion.
As this parallel emerged over the course of the episode, and as I write about it now, I like what this does as a commentary on the show’s past and as a statement on where these characters are in their lives and in their relationship to one another. What I don’t like, I can now say definitively, is Collin. There was a point in “Reality Check” where my mind was frantically scanning past episodes in the hopes he had never talked to anyone but Jenna and he could be revealed as a figment of her imagination, or a ghost, or something that would justify how every single word that comes out of his mouth is so bloody on-the-nose. Who is Collin but a spout of psychosexual violence, brought forth whenever Jenna’s hormones need to be discombobulated? Why does he need to exit his desk to pull an eyelash off her face in the middle of a class? In what universe is that normal social or physical behavior? When Collin is whisking Jenna away with his poetic verse on the meaning of romance, the cameras swirling around Jenna’s mental ecstasy, it was the nadir of a character I actively despise not because he is an impediment to a relationship, but rather because he functions as absolutely nothing else.
This was also an episode where Mr. Hart’s creative writing class started to drag for me. As much as I think the writing assignments are useful tools for structuring episodes, Hart’s insistence that Jenna engage in some Erotic Friend Fiction—TM Tina Belcher—really did strike me as inherently creepy, and it has reached the point where using a creative writing class to work through a relationship—at least encouraged by a teacher—strikes me as pushing the bounds of credulity. I would have much rather heard Sadie’s story about shopping retail, or Kyle’s story about alien abductions, because those at least sound like they could be fun, or different. Rather than use the creative writing class as a space where multiple storylines could converge in a single assignment, it’s instead being used as a way to frame Jenna’s self-discoveries, which further isolates her—and the audience—from the other characters (some of whom, like Kyle, we’ve barely seen since early in the season).
“Reality Check” ended up something of a mixed bag taken on these accounts, but moving outside of Jenna things get more interesting. Ming finally gets her big showdown with Becca, and it’s a nice note for both Jessica Lu and Jessika Van. It’s just a note that would have been more successful if it had had more time to develop over the season. As much as a little of Becca goes a long way, the character’s scheming probably too broad to sustain itself as a runner in every single episode, Ming’s absence from so many episodes kept this from feeling like a climax in the way the episode intended. The one-liners were good (“Goodbye Kitty!”), the slap was fun, and Becca’s various lieutenants finally turning their backs on their leader after Ming defends herself was a fitting conclusion to this chapter of their feud. The problem was that with so much focus elsewhere in both the episode and the season, the meaning of this conclusion felt more perfunctory than I would have thought after the “Henry the Beard” storyline was introduced earlier this year.
Expectations were high for Awkward. coming into this half-season, and as we reach the penultimate episode in “Reality Check” it feels like…well, it feels like a reality check. While the ideas of the season have matured in interesting ways, that maturity has been embraced by characters who aren’t Jenna, creating a productive but also destructive disconnect between the audience and the series’ protagonist. That balance of productivity and destruction has been widely variable, not helped by characters like Collin proving so one-dimensional nor supporting characters being rendered non-dimensional (whether it’s Ming’s scattered appearances, Lissa’s disappearing act, or Sadie’s drive-by love interest). While the broad themes work well enough that—heading into the midseason finale—I can see the work this season has done for Jenna and Matty and the central conflicts of the series, I’m also now certain that it kept the show from operating at full strength as it worked through these issues.
- As much as Sadie’s story sounds super interesting, was anyone else disappointed she didn’t delve into either of the rather meaningful self-identity crises the show has introduced for the character? I’m still waiting for the show to pay off what they introduced way back in “Queen Bee-atches.”
- Niall? Really, Tamara?
- I don’t know if it was just the nature of the beast, given the episode’s plot, but the voiceover felt more overbearing than usual here.
- I may be tiring of Mr. Hart’s “lessons” proving so baldly functional, but I continue to like Anthony Michael Hall’s approach to the role: The nicknames (Anger Management for Sadie, American Psycho for Kyle) were particularly nice.
- “It’s been a while since we’ve had a good bitch brawl”—of the brief appearances by Valerie this season, I liked this one a lot.
- I enjoyed the physicality of Jenna and Sadie’s speed-walking toward Matty—a nice performance by Molly Tarlov in particular.
- So given that Matty still doesn’t realize the story was about Collin, and Sadie knows it was about Collin, is there any way that doesn’t blow up? That’s part of why the “happy” ending felt so off to me.
- Just to clarify since I know I’ve seen a few people tweeting about it: Although MTV sent out next week’s finale recently, I did not see it before seeing tonight’s episode, so any speculation I write above is actual speculation. Somewhat related, I also didn’t see a preview for next week.