Ostensibly, Bunheads extols the virtues of small-town American life. The quirky characters it fosters, the ingrained traditions, the local flavor you can’t find amid the homogeneity of the suburbs or the cacophony of the city—these are all reasons for giving up downtown for Main Street, and one of the advantages of setting a TV series in a humble-yet-colorful hamlet like Mayberry, Pawnee, or Paradise.
But the generally positive portrayal of the small town on television glosses over the fact that the Bomonts of the world might outnumber the Paradises. Michelle makes two allusions to Kevin Bacon and friends dancing away oppression in Footloose—one out loud, one with her “Dance Your Ass Off” T-shirt—an indication that while she’s developing a fondness for the people of her new hometown, the tale of how Ren McCormack taught an entire town to kick of its Sunday shoes remains her primary frame of reference for places like Paradise. And when she runs up against her own Reverend Shaw Moore—in the form of Sean Gunn’s exacting barista, Bash—she aligns herself with an unlikely ally: A big supermarket that wants to pollute a local river and kill every duck nesting between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. And all this for the promise of a less-fussy cup of coffee. But when you’ve spent much of your recent past surrounded by the conveniences of the big city, values and morals are subject to compromise.
It’s not a wholly selfish desire—if the big supermarket doesn’t open, Carl and Boo have no venue for their Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance—but it is one that’s oddly motivated. Big stores like Walmart and the unnamed grocer (though, from the description, it sounds like a Whole Foods Market) in “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons” tend to drain the color out of communities like Paradise, which is the main reason such communities works so hard to keep themselves Walmart-free. That might be an alien concept to rootless Michelle, but for her neighbors, it’s a matter of pride and identity. They’ll wait upwards of 20 minutes for Bash’s latest caffeinated masterpiece because he brings international acclaim to their tiny part of the West Coast. (He might not best any baristas from Seattle, but who could?) They’ll go watch the high-school basketball squad suffer humiliating defeat because it’s their team. There’s a sense of ownership in that concept that Michelle has never experienced. Her connections are to people and theatrical works, not to the coffeeshop where, if you’re without reading material, you’re isolated. And so she seeks out a spot where her morning ritual is not a page-turning ordeal.
Michelle flies her crusade under the banner of “progress,” and before the toxic effect of the new supermarket is put into specific terms, the city officials behave like conservative sticks in the mud. Because Paradise has a downside, and that downside involves citizens who want their town to stay just the way it currently is. They are the enemies of progress, the dance-banning residents of Bomont who nonetheless tolerate Fanny’s annual staging of The Nutcracker—because, per tradition, she schedules it months in advance of other companies who stage the ballet outside of the December Tchaikovsky glut. Since it’s tradition, no one questions it (nor do they question her extreme methods of finding a Clara worthy of succeeding Sasha). And when the parties involved are simply doing things one way because that’s the way it’s always been done, they run into complications like Boo freaking out over Ginny’s attraction to Charlie—this despite the fact that she’s fresh from kissing the Astaire to her Rogers, Carl. But because the draconian rules of “the bra code” forbid sharing romantic interests between friends, Ginny’s conflicting emotions toward Charlie are construed as a betrayal. Carl, caught in the middle of all this, rightly bails, leaving Boo stranded in the middle of Bunheads’ most authentically teenaged emotional quandary yet.
There’s good material for all four of the show’s young principals in “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons”—a function of Kelly Bishop’s sudden disappearance in the middle of the episode, as well as the fact that the season finale is next week, and so there’s no time like the present to get a reason to truly care about Mel. It’s a longtime coming for Emma Dumont, who’s shown a gift with scene-supporting quips, but has otherwise taken a backseat to the more immediate concerns of her co-star’s characters. Mel still hasn’t been given anything on the level of Boo’s internal tug of war or Sasha’s stab at reinventing herself, but there’s a legitimate sense of loyalty expressed in her slumber-party scene with Ginny—couched as it is in a “I’m yelling how I feel” moment that’s either a direct addition from Amy Sherman-Palladino or a reminder that credited writer Sheila Lawrence has several Gilmore Girls scripts under belt. It had to be hard to generate material for the four bunheads in addition to Michelle and Fanny, and some members of that quartet were bound to get the short end of the stick. It’s doubtful that Mel will ever be the driving force of an episode like Sasha or Boo (or even Ginny), but it’s nice to see that Dumont and her character can handle the heavier stuff in addition to lobbing insults at floppy-haired siblings. (Additional, unrelated kudos to the weird freeze-up act Bailey Buntain pulls each time Charlie wanders into Ginny’s orbit. “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons” affords its young stars plenty of chances to stretch their dramatic and comedic muscles.)
And yet, despite the fact that she’s subjecting herself to a personal, peppy Siberia, Sasha’s plot is the one that ends up stealing the episode—and providing a neat parallel to what’s happening with Michelle. Sasha’s adventures in the land of the pom-poms emphasize the character’s previously established drive (and the wickedness that accompanies it) while simultaneously coloring the world of Paradise, in terms of the ballerina/cheerleader rivalry alluded to in “Blank Up, It’s Time.” Such world-building could be ill-placed in the penultimate episode of the season, but it helps make the (occasionally under-served) high-school world of the show feel more real.
Additionally, Sasha’s storyline provides a thematic underpinning to Michelle’s clashes with Bash, as the lecture that crushes the cheer team’s spirit relies on similar “small town versus bigger picture” arguments. What’s the point in cheering on the local basketball team if it’s only going to create unrealistic expectations for the world beyond Paradise, she asks. Of course, she’s lowering her own expectations for herself, choosing an extracurricular activity that’s less of a strain on her social calendar, sure, but also a step down in terms of athleticism. At the end of the episode, she and Michelle share a laugh about the puny jumps being executed by the cheerleader squad, a reinforcement of the community at the core of Bunheads that’s every bit as effective as Leslie Knope and her parks-department pals ragging on the local library.
In the moment Michelle and Sasha share on bleachers, “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons” gets at another important aspect of small towns fictional and nonfictional: There’s no reason to feel trapped by their geographic boundaries limits. For Sasha, that means venturing forth once she’s done with high school; for Michelle, it’s a push to embrace what already exists in Paradise, without quelling her natural instinct to shake things up and/or dance her ass off. Stepping into the mentor role she’s only reluctant to take in an official capacity, Michelle gives the prodigal daughter of Paradise Dance Academy an “it gets better (and it could be much worse)” speech that’s a bit of a personal pep talk as well. Cryptically nodding toward past mistakes that will could come to light in next week’s finale, Michelle is selling herself on staying in her new hometown as much as making a case for Sasha to return to ballet. Just by virtue of Fanny’s commitment to the dance studio and its pupils, Paradise has an advantage over Bomont. And a temperamental barista trumps a tyrannical preacher any day of the week.
- Multiple choice: The name of Sean Gunn’s character is: a) A tribute to Gunn’s one-time Gilmore Girls castmate, Skid Row frontman/Dave Rygalski replacement Sebastian Bach, b) An homage to Belle & Sebastian, whose Legal Man EP plays a central role in that series’ “It Should’ve Been Lorelai,” or c) a nod to The Little Mermaid.
- Michelle dons Lori Singer’s T-shirt at the town meeting, but her quest for efficient service of quality coffee is apparently the stuff of Game Of Thrones. However, we won’t know how committed she is to her caffeinated beverages until she walks through fire to receive them.
- Before Kelly Bishop’s schedule requires her character to once again become a voice on a phone, she’s driven to a peculiar mania by Sasha’s departure from the dance studio. This leads to a lot of fun shots of students sneaking through the background of scenes, lest they be subjected to the grueling process of auditioning for the role of Clara in The Nutcracker. Actor-director David Paymer helmed the episode, and he gets a lot of mileage out clever blocking tricks, most notably when one of Michelle’s attempts to contact her choreographer friend—a process that leaves her perpetually twisting in the wind—is juxtaposed with Fanny putting a potential male Clara through his paces. Another visual highlight: The pan down the row of disenfranchised Pirates cheerleaders, ending on Sasha and her wide, vindictive grin.
- Bash is proud of his achievements on the competitive coffee brewing circuit, for good reason: “I beat the Italians and the French. No one beats the Italians and the French. They have roasts named after them.”
- Ginny and Mel propose the theory that Sasha is to Bunheads as Lucy Van Pelt is to Peanuts: “I kind of miss her.” “She’d slug you if she heard you say that.” “Oh, that makes me miss her even more.”
- Stacey Oristano gives a fantastic read to the last part of this exchange with Michelle, which revolves around the way Truly “prepares” the studio whenever Fanny asks her to open it up: “Are you going to light the candles?” “No.” “Well then I guess we know why Fanny called me.”
- Ginny is great at sports-related small talk: “I didn’t know you like basketball.” “Uh huh—it’s got baskets… and balls.”
- The multiple ruses Michelle used to lure residents to her town meeting about the supermarket come to light: “Why are we here?” “Bingo!” “Free puppies!” “Sound Of Music sing-along!”