Jenna Hamilton is descending into a black hole. Reflective of the episode’s title, Jenna spends the half-hour digging herself deeper, burning every bridge, and discovering entirely new metaphors for self-destructive behavior. When Matty hears of her near-arrest for smoking weed in Collin’s car, he goes to her to make sure she’s okay, and gets a heaping helping of anger and bitterness for showing even the smallest amount of kindness. When Lacey makes a deal with Kevin to give Jenna another chance to prove worthy of their trust, she sneaks out of the house, has sex with Collin, and returns to another person who learned the hard way what happens when you give “new” Jenna the benefit of the doubt.
What has generally made this storyline work for me is that I’ve never felt much sympathy toward Jenna, and I haven’t felt as though the show has demanded it of me. In “The Bad Seed,” Jenna’s biggest problem is that she has things she wants to talk about and no one to talk to about them. She returns from Collin’s in tears, having talked herself into sleeping with him because she worried not sleeping with him would take away the one thing she has left, but she had betrayed the one person—her mother—still willing to talk to her. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, but it’s also very much the product of her own actions; while the social pressures Jenna applies to her relationship with Collin (which, to his credit, he does his best to avoid by offering her an out when she hesitates) are operating on a level beyond her subjectivity, that she has no one to turn to when she needs help is the direct result of her recent behavior. It’s a cruel lesson, one that Jenna is going to have trouble getting through her thick skull in between hotboxing sessions in Collin’s car, but it’s a lesson the show has committed to.
Since moving past Jenna’s anxiety over the letter and away from Lacey and Kevin’s marital problems, Jenna’s relationship with her parents hasn’t really been central to the series’ narrative. Like most parents on teen shows, they move in and out of the story as necessary, useful for moments of discipline or awkwardness but not necessarily pivotal to each and every story development. What “The Bad Seed” did well was use Lacey’s flighty character as an advantage, allowing her early low-impact parenting—condoning in-house drug use, chiding her daughter for getting caught, playing good cop to Kevin’s bad cop—to become the final straw in Jenna’s turn to the dark side. It was one thing when Kevin—always a bit overprotective—put his foot down regarding Jenna’s behavior, but it was another to see Lacey become a serious parent. It would have been a wakeup call if there was even one person there for Jenna to connect with and gain perspective from, but it appears as though the spiral will only continue.
That could become more and more of a problem, although “The Bad Seed” does some work to spin the spiral off into new directions. Sadie’s own parenting situation offers an obvious parallel: As Jenna wastes her parents’ concern, Sadie finds herself wishing her mother was even remotely concerned about her feelings or well-being. I appreciate the effort to find ways to make Jenna’s descent productive for reasons other than her own struggles of identity, and the show has often resisted emphasizing Sadie’s relationship with her parents even in the wake of their financial troubles. It was therefore effective to see this relationship play out, and whatever lack of sympathy I had for Jenna was matched with the sympathy I had for Sadie when her mother basically jumped at the opportunity to be relieved of the burden of having to be Sadie’s mother.
There were elements around that storyline that were less successful. Because of the limited development for Sadie and her mother to this point, a lot of the storyline depended on the return of Ally, a character I continue to believe works best in small doses. However, the efforts to barrel through from initial living arrangements to emancipation meant a quick transformation from human trainwreck to would-be guardian, a transformation that felt more convenient than natural. This wasn’t helped by the fact that apparently Valerie is capable of emancipating minors in her office, shortening a potentially complicated and lengthy process for the purpose of expediency. This doesn’t mean the storyline doesn’t serve its purpose, nor does it lose all of its meaning, but it ended up feeling overly constructed what with Ally’s entrance and the circumstances of the story’s conclusion. The thematic parallel was useful and productive, but I’m not convinced Ally’s character will ever not feel like a weapon being deployed rather than a character fully functioning within this world.
My other issue with “The Bad Seed” has to do with Collin, although it’s not my typical concern about wanting to punch him in the kidney. Rather, my issue is with how the character continues to largely exist to mirror Jenna’s emotional state and remains without any clear motivations. Why does Collin want to be in this relationship? What makes him want to be with Jenna? There is a moment when they’re in bed that Jenna turns off all of the other things going on in her life and realizes she has no idea if she wants to have sex with Collin, which confirms—as we’ve often discussed—that she is acting largely on impulse. However, the longer Collin exists solely to offer generic, supportive responses to Jenna’s concerns—to the point where he’s more fairy godboyfriend than actual boyfriend—the more impatient I become with her choices.
Obviously, this is in part by design, and so my impatience is not itself a problem as episodes like “The Bad Seed” continue to make Jenna’s spiral productive in ways that it needn’t have been. That being said, the longer Jenna remains in this position the more it becomes possible for other characters to get swallowed by—or into—the swirling vortex of vitriol, and that’s the point at which it becomes unsustainable. We’re still not there yet for me, but the stress is evident in the show around her.
- “I was slumming it with you”—You tell her, Matty. In truth, this is a complicated question: She was arguably slumming with him when he was incapable of expressing his feelings or being seen with her in public, but I’d say the tides have turned such that he was slumming with her? It’s complicated.
- I am hard on Ally at times, I admit, but I did love the cutaway to Ally draining the bottle of champagne as Sadie’s mother announced her plans. The running gag about Ally being a terrible parent also worked, but it all just lacked resonance when said plans were introduced solely to feed the Sadie guardianship angle. I realize this is overthinking a fun, broad side character, but that is my middle name. I shorten it to Oafbsc. It sounds Nordic.
- How are we all finding Jenna’s spiral voiceover? It’s been interesting to see how her inner-dialogue—absent just two weeks ago—is now almost overbearing, albeit in ways that make sense for the character. I just found the rhyming and the turns of phrase—“exhale hypocrisy, inhale the good life,” Jenemies, and so on—to be a tad bit heightened in this episode.
- “You’re not welcome in our walk-and-talk”—this feels like the harshest blow of all, you know?
- Things We Know About Matty’s Rebound Girl: Her name is Devon, she’s turned on by Matty looking out for Jenna, and she plays soccer (where I guess she’s a real rebound girl, amirite? No one? Okay!).