When “Taking Sides" begins, it has been three weeks since Jenna broke up with Matty. Since then, she’s graduated to a more sophisticated hairstyle, redecorated her room, transitioned from eggnog froyo to tiramisu gelato, and continued a relationship with Collin. It’s a lot of change for just three weeks, but it’s also change that has allowed her to look past her difficult breakup and focus on moving forward. As she tells Tamara and Ming, it was “time to grow up,” and for Jenna this means charting a new path.
The problem is that no one around her is growing in the same direction. Tamara and Ming remain tied to Matty through a friend group, one they hold Jenna responsible for disrupting. Lacey remains on “Team Matty” even after Jenna has picked another side, while Kevin is loathe to lose his high-five partner for Clippers games. Even Valerie, who is willing to sexualize any teenage male who has grown into his man-body, remains focused on Matty as the better specimen. Most importantly, however, Matty hasn’t moved on either: Whereas Jenna used her three weeks to explore a different path, Matty spent the three weeks waiting patiently for the moment when he could earnestly suggest they get back together as though nothing had happened.
“Taking Sides” shows Awkward. in a difficult spot, as the central protagonist commits to a new path that the show’s other characters aren’t naturally inclined to join her on. Jenna does her best to hold a BBBQ—the extra B is for Boyfriend—to introduce Collin to her friends, but what she has trouble accepting is that no one wants to accept Collin. Much as I spent much of the first half of the season rejecting Collin as an empty vessel of a human being, the show’s characters also have no understanding of why Jenna would choose him over Matty. Surrounded by people who think she’s doubling down on a mistake, Jenna doubles down in return, saying a bunch of things to Ming and Tamara that make clear her desire to move in a new direction away from who used to be her only friends.
Awkward. does not seem interested in following her, given that the most successful storyline in “Taking Sides” doesn’t have a lot to do with Jenna. Sadie and Matty spend the afternoon of Jenna’s BBBQ watching movies, with Sadie doing her best to distract her friend from the fact that his other friends are off learning to tolerate the guy who replaced him. On this level, the storyline is technically about Jenna, but it’s really about Sadie and Matty’s friendship as a constant. Sadie’s burgeoning relationship with Austin—the blink-and-you-missed-him love interest introduced in the first half of the season—is something she couldn’t confront without Matty’s encouragement, while Matty’s burgeoning text flirtation with Devon is something he had trouble indulging without Sadie’s encouragement (albeit encouragement that involved lots of yelling and Jenna bashing). Both characters have gone through a rotten time—although Sadie “wins” the battle for suckiest life—but they ultimately have each other, and thus they have a way forward.
These scenes were not only generally charming and enjoyable, but they also established Jenna’s actions as a disruption that the show’s other characters are capable of withstanding. Tamara commits herself to attempting to integrate Collin into their friend group, but she admits as they prepare for the BBBQ—which they don’t end up attending—that she doesn’t want to. Lacey agrees to break up with Matty to support her daughter, but she doesn’t support her daughter in any substantial way, and makes minimal effort to understand her actions. Kevin threatens Collin with tongs. In all cases, the characters make their best effort to follow Jenna on her journey of growth and discovery, and all ultimately emerge thinking that they are better off following their own path and letting Jenna find herself on her own.
Put another way, Awkward. is taking sides. The show has positioned itself against Jenna, not in terms of arguing that the character is a complete bitch for making the decisions she is, but rather in terms of accepting these decisions as disruptive to the series’ world. Rather than Jenna pulling the core of the series into her universe of fancy gelato with her worldly beau, “Taking Sides” maintains a focus on the world Jenna’s choosing to leave behind and how it responds to her departure. While Jenna ends the episode by defriending the people who she desperately wanted on her side at the beginning of the episode, those people have equally accepted the fact that they can move on with their lives without her. Simultaneously, “Taking Sides” explores Awkward.’s ability to tell stories that aren’t centered on Jenna. Matty and Sadie’s afternoon is a symbolic liberation of those characters from having to primarily function as participants in or commentators on Jenna’s affairs (as all supporting characters have been in the two episodes since the show returned).
To be clear, Jenna remains Awkward.’s protagonist, and I have no doubt she will remain a primary subject of conversation and interaction moving forward. However, in even temporarily severing the ties between Jenna and the rest of the series’ teen characters, “Taking Sides” nonetheless gives the show room to let characters express their own agency. In breaking up with Matty, Jenna made the argument that they needed to break up because they had to explore their own feelings without the weight of their relationship hanging over them. Although she is more reluctant to break up with her friends, spending the half-hour trying to salvage the relationships before burning them down when they threaten her growth, it really follows the same logic: Just as she didn’t want Matty to spend those three weeks pining over her, her friends don’t want to spend the next three months dodging the smoldering elephant in the room. Their breakup may remain temporary—look at how Jenna delays before defriending Tamara—but it’s nonetheless important for all sides of this story to reflect on how recent events reshape their relationships, reflection that may work best apart.
Although not as eventful as the premiere and the aftermath that followed, “Taking Sides” benefits from going nuclear. The three-week time jump allows us to join a character change already in progress, and the disarray that concludes the episode successfully felt like the result of choices made by characters as opposed to choices made by producers. In all cases, Jenna and those around her asserted themselves in this episode, leaving a path forward that is just as messy as a breakup but with greater separation to allow some characters—and thus the show as a whole—to grow.
- My one more substantial gripe with the episode was just how cruel Jenna was to Tamara and Ming. I understand that these are likely various things she’s felt about them that she’s overlooked in their friendship, and I already anticipate some discussion about how this is very much something a teenaged girl would do in the heat of the moment, but something about that phone call seemed more conveniently awful than naturally cruel. It was the one point where the episode felt like it was working too hard to reach its conclusion.
- Jenna’s attempt to paint Collin as “the unfortunate victim of some bad press” made me proud to have been in any way a contributor to that bad press. Because Collin remains the worst, even when he’s not doing anything objectionable.
- “If you ever kill me, I’ll only hope you keep our murder baby”—I had never entirely forgotten about Austin, but it was always in the context of “When is Sadie getting a storyline? Oh, and what happened to that awkward kid who flirted with her?” I’m not totally sold on the nuance of the character’s personality quirks (which I’m reading as autism spectrum but could be something else entirely), but I continue to find the dynamic with Sadie enjoyable.
- “I punch the guy one time and you Chris Brown-ify me”—I liked the way we got to see Tamara downplaying her feelings about Collin early in the episode and then revealing that defense mechanism later on.
- “Were they serving Cray Poupon at your barbecue?”—I also liked the way Tamara used “Cray” in place of “Grey” to make a clever pun, as she is wont to do.
- The next time I need to forcibly keep two people apart for some strange reason—this crops up less often when you’re no longer in high school—I’m going to cite a dew allergy.
- What Anne Hathaway movie do we think Sadie and Matty were watching? I’m hoping it was Rachel Getting Married.
- Anyone watching the reality show casting interview webisodes on MTV.com? Thoughts?